Media Coverage of the Tea Party vs. U.S. Social Forum

Source: Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting

When it comes to covering activist gatherings, corporate media have established clear standards: Numbers don’t count nearly as much as politics do.

Last fall, when tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists and their allies marched on Washington in a grassroots rally for equality, media gave it far less coverage than the similarly sized, largely corporate-funded Tea Party protest in Washington just a month earlier ( Extra!, 12/09).

So it came as little surprise that the Tea Party Convention this February would get more coverage than the June U.S. Social Forum, five days of strategizing, organizing and activism inspired by the World Social Forum launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. What was a little shocking, though, was just how stark the difference was.

The Social Forum, in Detroit, drew an estimated 15,000–20,000 progressive activists from around the country, while the Tea Party Convention in Nashville hosted a meager 600 attendees. Two activist gatherings striving for political and social change, one at least 25 times larger than the other—but the smaller one got all the media coverage. Across 10 major national outlets in the two weeks surrounding each event, the Tea Party got 177 mentions to the Social Forum’s three. (Per participant, the Tea Party got 1,500 times as many mentions.)

It was almost a total blackout for the USSF. Aside from local coverage, the only corporate media mentions found in the Nexis database came from Glenn Beck ( Fox News, 6/29/10, 6/30/10)—warning viewers about “socialists and communists coming out of the woodwork to co-opt the youth and spread a dangerous disease”—and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, a guest on John King’s CNN show (6/30/10).

Not one major newspaper outside of Michigan covered the story. Time and Newsweek ignored it. The Associated Press didn’t run a single story on its newswire.

Of course, many alternative journalists did cover the huge event, including prominent reporting from Inter Press Service (e.g., 6/25/10).

By contrast, in the two weeks surrounding the February Tea Party Convention, the right-wing gathering got 12 mentions in the Washington Post, eight in the New York Times, seven in the L.A. Times and four in USA Today. CNN mentioned the convention 71 times, Fox News 27, MSNBC 19, ABC 21, and CBS and NBC four. Politico (2/12/10) reported that CNN sent a crew of 11 to cover it; soon after the convention, the Washington Post assigned a reporter to “make sure the movement’s covered fully in its pages” (Politico, 3/12/10).

In Detroit, the USSF was too big to ignore; the local alt-weekly, the Metro Times (6/23/10), even dedicated a front cover to it. The two daily papers, the Detroit Free Press (e.g., 6/20/10) and Detroit News (e.g., 6/23/10), for the most part offered respectful coverage of an event that brought a boost to the decimated Detroit economy. But Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the News, mocked the gathering (6/20/10): “This ain’t no tea party. The forum is a hootenanny of pinkos, environuts, peaceniks, Luddites, old hippies, Robin Hoods and urban hunters and gatherers. In other words, a microcosm of the Obama administration.”

Finley seemed only to be giving colorful voice to the unspoken thoughts of most corporate journalists. The Social Forum certainly wasn’t the Tea Party; it was a gathering of people whose voices are routinely discounted by the media gatekeepers, no matter how big a hootenanny they can muster. When one side has 600 people (and one Sarah Palin) pushing the fiscal conservatism beloved by corporate media bigwigs, and the other has 20,000 challenging the neoliberal status quo and highlighting the struggles of the working class and people of color, journalists don’t need to be told how to do the math.