Entry from May 5, 2010

In today’s Washington Post, there’s a perfect example of the way in which, when it comes to our public life, we are all living in the media’s self-contained world. In an article by Amy Gardner and Krissah Thompson headed “Tea party groups battling perceptions of racism,” we learn that,

as several states with active “tea party” groups prepare to hold important primary elections this month, the movement is struggling to overcome accusations of racism that are tinting perceptions of this loose network of conservatives. “We don’t want the worst elements to take this over,” said Brendan Steinhauser, campaign director for FreedomWorks, a national group that helps coordinate tea party activists. “If they do, the tea party loses independents, it loses moderates, it loses people who don”t tolerate this. Being a racist is one of the worst things you can be in this society. No one wants to be labeled this.”

It sounds there as if Brendan Steinhauser is acknowledging that there are, indeed, a substantial number of racists — “the worst elements” — in the movement who are so strong and influential in it that there is some danger they might “take this over.” That, as it happens, is also the view of the mainstream media — that is, when they are not persuaded that these “elements” have already taken over.

Yet the evidence for any racists in the tea-party movement, let alone in numbers large enough to be called an “element” remains extremely sketchy, to say the least. It seems to be based on some highly tendentious polls by Harris Interactive and in the increasingly left-wing and now up-for-sale (by the Post itself) magazine Newsweek, both exposed as bogus by James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal here and here and unsubstantiated reports of racial slurs shouted at tea party rallies back in March which Mr Taranto has also called into question here, here and here, and which Andrew Breitbart has persuasively argued come from agents provocateurs. Yet the existence of the racialist “element” in the tea-party movement is now what we might call settled journalism — hence the reporting by The Washington Post of the movement’s attempts to fight against this element.

Thus, the media on little or no evidence first make it the story that the tea-partiers are racist, then they make the tea-partiers’ denial of the first story into a second story about how they are fighting against that mythical racist “element” reported in the other story. And now they can add yet another poll which is really only a poll of how effective the media have been in putting across their version of the tea-party demonstrators. As the Misses Gardner and Thompson write, “in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, most Americans see the movement as motivated by distrust of government, opposition to the policies of Obama and the Democratic Party, and broad concern about the economy. But nearly three in 10 see racial prejudice as underlying the tea party.” Sixty-one per cent of tea-party opponents are persuaded of its racial motivation, only seven per cent of supporters are.

And what, exactly, does all this have to do with the reality? What can the Post tell us about that? Only “that the issue of race and the tea party is largely about differing perceptions.” In this context, the denial by a black tea party activist of the charge of racism becomes just another “perception,” worth no more than the false one it is made to answer. “As long as people who oppose us can frame the debate that way, then they can get people to stop listening to us,” Nigel Coleman of Danville, Virginia, is quoted as saying. “The charge of racism is one that can be thrown out there, and it really doesn”t have to be proven. But it has such a negative connotations that it can pretty much halt the debate.” Yes, and this article is an example of how the debate has been halted. The whole complex of charge and denial has been manufactured by the media, yet they have to pretend that they are reporting on something outside themselves, something (for lack of a better word) real. I think that people are increasingly unwilling to believe in this reality — which is a shame because it adds to the general loss of touch between our political culture and reality.

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