The Tea Party Movement, and the Hard Work of Journalism.

One of the striking things about David Barstow's excellent 4,500-word story on the tea party movement that appeared in the New York Times last weekend was the perspective it gave on the participants. In the typical tea party story, you get a couple of comments from people at rallies, a quote from Dick Armey, some speculation about how this will all play out in November, and maybe, just maybe, an aside saying that there's some radicalism around the fringes of this movement. But since Barstow took the time -- months of time, actually -- he got a much deeper view of who the participants are and what they believe. The picture that emerged was one where conspiracy theories and panic about impending tyranny aren't just something that is found here and there, but run like blood all through this movement's veins.

Barstow did a Q & A with the Columbia Journalism Review, and it's good reading if you're interested to hear what's involved in doing real in-depth reporting. After spending some time on a "Tea Party Express" bus tour, Barstow realized he was hanging out with the wrong people. "I realized fairly quickly, though, that the Tea Party Express in its own way was a somewhat anomalous creation. It was something that a group of political operatives in California had put together to serve a pretty distinct agenda, which was to try to harness the energy of the movement to flip congressional seats from blue to red." So instead of talking to political operatives and Republican party officials, Barstow decided -- and his editors allowed him -- to spend an extended period in one area (the inland Northwest), to talk to as many people as he could for as long as he could and get as deeply as he could into the story:

At some point along the way I was struck by the number of people who had really been transformed since the recession hit. You could not miss the number of people who were drawn to this movement because of the events of the fall of ’08. That was one theme that became really clear to me—their incredible anger at the economic pain that they were witnessing in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family, and their anger and disappointment at the government’s role in both the events that led to the recession and the response, especially the bailouts.

The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

And at some point I knew I wanted to try to ground my story in a particular place. A limitation of traveling around on the Tea Party Express was that we weren’t in any one place for long enough to get to know the local leaders of this conservative uprising—and by the way, the uprising wasn’t merely about the Tea Party movement. You had the emergence of the 9/12 movement, you had the re-emergence of groups like the John Birch Society, you had the incredible strength of Campaign for Liberty, and you could see all these different groups—which are in many ways more aligned with Patriot movement ideology than they are with any Republican establishment organization—both drawn to the Tea Party movement but also coalescing within it. I wanted to find a framework to tell that particular story.

This is what happens when a journalist gets deeper into a story: It becomes more complex than imagined at first, and telling the story gets much more difficult. It's not hard to write a brief story that says, "Folks are angry out there, a new movement is sweeping the land, Republicans are capitalizing. Back to you, Biff." But if the tea party movement is an important political force -- and it is -- then it deserves the kind of detailed attention Barstow gave it.

-- Paul Waldman

You may also like