Media Pounces on Bizarre Study Claiming Only 67,000 in Tea Party

Is the Tea Party movement nothing but a mirage? That’s the impression left by an odd confluence of recent reports.

First, the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation blog reported that the entire Tea Party movement consists of just 67,000 members. PBS NewsHour cross-posted the story on its The Rundown blog the same day. The next day, CNN reported the findings on its Political Ticker blog and Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith co-authored a piece titled “The tea party’s exaggerated importance.”

“Part of the reason (for the media’s coverage) is the timeless truth in media that nothing succeeds like excess,” explained Martin and Smith. “But part of the reason is a convergence of incentives for journalists and activists on left and right alike to exaggerate both the influence and exotic traits of the tea-party movement.”
The findings in the Patchwork Nation post, as author Dante Chinni admitted, are based on uncertain statistical analysis.

“To get an understanding of how big the loosely affiliated movement is and where it’s based, Patchwork Nation has combed through online directories to find people who have registered with tea-party organizations–not a perfect system but one that captures the overwhelming majority of registered members,” conceded Chinni.

Including “registered members” in the report seems a tactic geared toward arriving at the lowest possible number, as polls show many more Americans sympathize with the movement’s goals and identify themselves as supporters of the movement. Even on the low end, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that found 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. That puts the number of Tea Party supporters closer to 40 million than 67,000.

The weirdly tiny number, presented as sound statistical analysis, is the latest in the media’s case against the Tea Party movement. Thursday, Newshour on PBS concluded by directing viewers to check out the Tea Party report on the PBS.org website. CNN’s blog not only reported the findings as scientific fact, but juxtaposed the data against the estimations of the RNC. The implication, of course, is that while this “new report by a nonprofit organization” grounded its findings in rigorous analysis, the RNC is just throwing out figures to inflate the movement’s numbers.

The Politico piece did not cite the Patchwork Nation report, but Martin and Smith were no less dismissive of the Tea Party movement.

Citing the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, Martin and Smith concluded that the mainstream media’s coverage of the Tea Party movement has been “steady.” As the Media Research Center detailed in its comprehensive review of media coverage of the Tea Party, “TV’s Tea Party Travesty,” the major news networks have aired a mere 61 stories over the last 12 months, with only 19 stories airing in all of 2009.

This flurry of disparagement spurred by the Patchwork Nation data reflects an assortment of news outlets shamelessly uninterested in honest reporting on the size, scope, and importance of the Tea Party movement.

--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern for the Media Research Center.