On Wednesday, Newsweek's Andrew Romano celebrated news out of Indiana that "establishment" Republican Dan Coats fended off two conservative opponents in the Senate primary.
Romano's obvious delight came through loud and clear starting with the headline, "The Tea Party is Now Irrelevant in Indiana." You see, one loss in a Senate primary was enough to declare the movement DOA - and Romano was anxious for the rest of the media to play along.
The real headline in Indiana was that 52 percent of Republicans went in favor of Tea Party challengers, but two of them in the mix was enough to split the vote, and Coats squeaked by at 39 percent.
A few media sources, including Politico, reported that Coats limped out of the primary "bruised" by anti-incumbency. Romano, however, insisted that 39 percent was a clear victory. Why the stark difference in coverage? According to Romano, some in the media were glorifying Tea Parties to apparently advance some selfish narrative.
Try not to cough from the smell of irony as you watch a Newsweek writer complain about dishonest narratives being perpetrated by the media:
My point here is that, for the national (and often, local) press, analyzing these primaries contest often has more to do with establishing or cementing a media narrative than actually saying something about the races in question. In truth, both sets of headlines are correct. Coats was the establishment candidate-he succeeded his former boss Dan Quayle in the Senate way back in 1989 and was recruited by the NRSC this go-round-and he did, in fact, win. But he didn't win all that convincingly; Stutzman and Hostetler combined for 52 percent of the vote, suggesting that if one Tea Partier had dropped out of the race, the other might have come out on top.
Then again, ascribing too much significance to the supposed narrowness of Coats's 9 point victory is kind of beside the point. First of all, 9 points isn't all that narrow. Secondly, second place is first loser. Conservative purity types have shown fairly well in a number of races so far this cycle, but they haven't won many: in Illinois, the moderate Mark Kirk won the GOP nod; in Texas, all 11 of the incumbent House Republicans facing challengers emerged victorious. Despite the dominant media narrative-Republicans beware! Here comes the Tea Party!-the continued failure of the movement to do much more than split its own vote says more about its disorganization than its potency.
I'll pause for a moment so you can finish rolling on the floor in laughter. Romano actually thinks the mainstream media have taken up the Tea Party banner.
He must not have paid attention just two weeks ago when Politico was on his side and reported on the movement's "exaggerated importance." For a fun stroll down memory lane, observe what Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith had to say on April 22:
In Washington, about 10,000 people showed up on the national Mall last week - a rally worth covering but far fewer than the tens of thousands who marched in support of immigration reform in March.
"If I organized a rally for stronger laws to protect puppies, I would get 100,000 people to Washington," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell cracked on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. "So, I think the media has blown the tea party themselves out of proportion."
ABC News's Rick Klein found that piece so "provocative" he featured it on The Note, and MSNBC likewise promoted it online. That's at least three examples of news outlets that downplayed the movement's popularity while simultaneously complaining that the media exaggerated its popularity.
So when did all of this exaggerating actually happen? Was it in January? Wait, back then the NY Times said "Some Republican Party officials say privately that they are not yet certain whether the Tea Parties will prove to be a real force or simply the loudest voices."
Maybe it was in February. Oops, it was on February 17 that Politico decried "weak" polling data designed to artificially boost the Tea party's influence.
What about March? Not so much. Check out what Newsweek had to say on March 21:
It's hard to describe the gathering as anything other than a prototypical angry mob. The group is overwhelmingly white and skews older. And they're mad, some cruelly so. If you listen to Republicans, you'll hear that the health-reform bill outrages the overwhelming majority of Americans. But if this group of just a few hundred people who are angry at the government is the best the GOP could muster, then that claim looks pretty weak.
That's what Ed Rendell had in mind when he said "the media has blown the tea party themselves out of proportion." That's what Politico had on tap when it accused news outlets of "exaggerating" the movement's popularity.
No word on what coverage would look like if they were trying to downplay.
It wasn't until late April, when Florida Governor Charlie Crist became independent, did the media pause to acknowledge the Tea Party's influence. In a clear case of success, conservative enthusiasm boosted Marco Rubio so far ahead in polling that GOP darling Crist was forced to go third party.
On April 29, a surprised Time magazine covered the development. Writer Tim Padgett was clearly frustrated on behalf of Crist, accusing the Republican establishment of "bowing to the conservative Tea Party movement" at the expense of a well-known politician.
Anyone depending on the mainstream media for news would have been equally surprised by that report. For months the narrative had been a smattering of a few hundred, maybe few dozen, angry fringe activists trying hopelessly to get attention from Congress. When that didn't work and establishment Republicans began losing, the narrative predictably changed, and now we're told that Tea Parties are powerful because the media made them that way.
If Romano wants to criticize someone for hyping a bogus movement that fizzled out, maybe he should write about his own magazine's absurd coverage of Coffee Parties. On the very same day that Politico was writing about exaggerated Tea, Newsweek was gushing over the size of the Coffee Party in an article that didn't even try to sound neutral.
Conservatives in Indiana might have lost one battle in a primary, but by no means does that mean they are irrelevant. A bankrupt magazine clutching to a left-wing slant even as its parent company seeks to sell it off? Take it away, Associated Press:
The 77-year-old magazine, hobbled by sagging ad revenue and circulation, is being put up for sale by The Washington Post Co., which is bowing out of the struggle to keep the genre relevant.
Some things you just can't make up.