Cracks in the Media Frame Propping Up the Tea Party?
by Project Vote, Mon Oct 11, 2010 at 05:07:25 PM EDT
Three weeks after reviewing (and deciding not to cover) Project Vote’s major new survey documenting how out of step the Tea Party’s anti-government agenda is with mainstream voters, the Washington Post has released their own poll confirming many of our findings.
According to the Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll, large majorities among the public say that Medicare (96 percent), Social Security (95 percent), food stamps (82 percent), federal aid to public schools (91 percent), unemployment benefits (91 percent) and environmental protection (89 percent) are important government programs. For the functions served by these government programs, large majorities also say they want to see more federal government involvement, not less. For example, 64 percent of respondents said they want to see more federal government involvement in reducing poverty; 61 percent want more government involvement in protecting the environment; and 52 percent want more government involvement in ensuring access to health care. And as our own survey found, presented with a choice, more people want government to spend more now to create jobs and improve the economy (50 percent) than do those who want government to avoid increasing the federal deficit (46 percent).
We undertook our survey of attitudes toward government not knowing what we would find. All we were sure of was that, given our long-standing work in minority and low income communities to encourage voter participation, we were skeptical of the idea promoted by the myopic press coverage of the rise of the Tea Party movement that the majority of Americans share the Tea Party’s strong and angry anti-government views.
Our survey findings were startling, even to us (see, What Happened to Hope and Change? A Poll of 2008 Voters). When we released our poll, we hoped for wide interest among the mainstream media because we thought the story about the silent majority who do not appear to agree with the Tea Party was a blockbuster. This story is urgent because it adds significant new information to the important public debate over the role of government, a story that affects us all.
But it has been a difficult story to convince the media to tell. For more than a year now, the media’s fascination with an apparently “angry” public rising up against alleged government tyranny has seemingly taken priority over the first principles of responsible (objective) journalism. The spectacle of older white people dressing up in Revolutionary War garb and railing against “Obamacare,” has held many in the mainstream media hostage to their own prejudices. And the herd mentality of our modern, 24-hour news cycle has only made things worse. By locking in the distorted-but-dominant media frame on the Tea Party as representative of the electorate, the skepticism we expect from good journalism has been locked out. As a result, the mainstream media has not just reported or investigated the news: in beating the drum, it has unwittingly emerged as a vital supporting player, playing in the rise of the Tea Party movement itself.
That said, we are encouraged by the Washington Post’s initiative in digging beneath the surface of apparent voter anger to independently confirm our findings about attitudes toward government. The complexities and contradictions of public opinion that they find should spur on further good journalism. Though our two surveys were designed to be representative of different populations—ours is representative of the 2008 electorate, while theirs is representative of the public at-large—our findings converge in the evidence of a counter-narrative to the Tea Party’s rant. Both surveys reveal significant support for more, not less, government action to address the big problems facing ordinary Americans today.