04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rosen On NYT Tea Party Piece: 'A Faltering Sense Of Reality'

Jay Rosen has a thoughtful post up at PressThink, which hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves, so away we go!

Rosen's topic is the recent New York Times piece on the Tea Party movement, written by David Barstow (best known for his fine work in 2008, documenting the shadowy network of "message force multipliers" which the Pentagon unleashed on news programs to be its "hidden hand"). There's much to like about Barstow's piece, and Rosen doesn't hold back in praising that which is praiseworthy: the conscientious work, the expense expended, the time taken and the "very high level of commitment" that the newspaper demonstrated in producing the story. Of it, Rosen writes:

So I want to make it absolutely clear that I treasure this kind of journalism and indeed devoured Barstow's report when it came online. (Although I wish it had been twice as long.) And I have no problem with his decision to confine himself to description of the Tea Party movement, rather than evaluating its goodness or badness. The first task is to understand, and that is why we need reporters willing to go out there and witness the phenomenon, interview the participants, pore over the texts and struggle with their account until they feel they have it right.

Ultimately, this is, as Rosen says, a "post about a single line" in the piece, and brother, it is a doozy.

As Barstow said in an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, "If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they're operating in." The key words are spend enough time and begin to recognize.

Now to the part that puzzles me:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters -- from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny... That sounds like the Tea Party movement I have observed, so the truth of the sentence is not in doubt. But what about the truth of the narrative? David Barstow is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story. The New York Times has done a lot of reporting about the Obama Administration, but it has been silent on the collapse of basic freedoms lurking just around the corner.

Naturally, the reason the New York Times has been silent on the matter of impending tyranny is because no such tyranny is in the offing. Objectively, the White House is fighting to enact some rather modest reforms that would unleash no tyranny other than to expand health care coverage and drive down long-term structural costs to the American taxpayer.

Meanwhile, I think it's just extraordinary that Barstow discerns that the Tea Party movement is shot through with a "narrative of impending tyranny," given the fact that he can fully account for the fact that the Tea Partiers were peaceably assembling, freely speaking their minds and running like-minded candidates for public office. If you've read up on tyrannies, you'd probably come away with the impression that one of the features of tyrannies is that you don't get to enjoy these freedoms.

The bottom line then is this: if the Tea Party movement has a "narrative of impending tyranny" running through it, then there is something objectively crazy going on within the Tea Party movement.

Rosen identifies the problem as the press's overarching "quest for innocence," which he defines as "the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus 'prove' in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade." But again, objective truths, they exist! To charge that America is facing "impending tyranny" is the same thing as charging that two plus three equals six. I find it hard to believe that a professional reporter from the New York Times would countenance the latter contention for even one second. But then again, I suppose mathematics is outside the realm of political reporting which, as Rosen points out, appears to be exempt from these considerations and thus unmoored from reality.

You know, like this article is unmoored from reality. Or this one.

And so, if you want to contend that the health care reform package features "death panels," you can, without fear. If you want to contend that the president's aims are to seize the means of production and take over the private sector, you can.

Back in December, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), tired of the malignant motives that had been assigned to health care reform advocates and their easy currency in the press, got fed up and issued the following statement:

"When it turns out that there are no death panels, that there is no bureaucrat between you and your doctor, when the ways that your health care changes seem like a pretty good deal to you and a smart idea -- when the American public sees the discrepancy between what really is and what they were told by the Republicans, there will be a reckoning. There will come a day of judgment about who was telling the truth."

I hope Senator Whitehouse is right, but I have my doubts.

The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism [Jay Rosen/PressThink]

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