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David Corn, Professional Journalist, Intuits the News

12:45 PM, Apr 16, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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There were many travesties in yesterday's coverage of the nation's tea parties. There was a CNN reporter's brave attack on a father and his two-year old. There was the implication by NBC's Chuck Todd that the parties were orchestrated by the RNC, and the JournoList-approved talking point that that they were somehow "corporate," when a forensic look at the organizing reveals it started with a Seattle mom who had never done a political event until this February.

There was the irony of a bunch of retirees, young families, and veterans being lectured about coarsening the debate by their allegedly sophisticated, liberal intellectual betters who were simultaneously making hackneyed oral sex jokes every time they could manage. All of it betrayed a misunderstanding of the people involved in these events and a willful avoidance of the professional effort necessary to correct that misunderstanding. David Corn admits as much in his short write-up for CQ:

I purposefully did not pay much attention to the so-called tea parties of protest held yesterday by right-wingers upset by President Barack Obama. This was an event ginned up by a few conservative commentators and given undue coverage by an overly excited Fox News. Why bother with it?

If he had bothered to pay attention to something he's writing about, he might have found that more than 800 protests held simultaneously across America in cities big and small, from Siler City to San Francisco-on a bad weather day and with great turn-out, conducted by the half of the country that's notoriously bad at protesting-were more than ginned up events.

But here comes the keen reporting, done as he was leaving the White House press briefing (oooh, ahhhh) and glimpsed several signs held by protesters who were at one of the 800 protests. He didn't talk to them, but he inferred plenty:

But on Wednesday, as I left the daily press briefing at the White House, I had to pass by two hundred or so soggy teabaggers.

Teabaggers? Cue the rimshot!

And what I saw convinced me that many of them were--oh, how to put this politely--too dumb to know to come in from out of the rain. How could I tell? The signs they carried. The messages painted on the placards included, "Taxes are theft"; "It's my money"; "Give me my money back"; "Say No To Taxes"; and the like. There also were numerous signs blasting Obama as a socialist. (By the way, unless you want to dismantle Medicare, you, too, are a socialist.)

Sober, fair assessment, this one. He's welcome to quibble with their signs, but asking the sign-holders about their signs might be more productive for someone wishing to understand a story. Corn assumes that "It's my money" is the battle cry of only the strictest of libertarians who wish to abolish all taxes, thereby constructing for himself a useful straw man to bat around. But I actually went to a tea party, in a small town in North Carolina. It was filled with retirees trying to protect their grandchildren from debt, mothers of two with "Don't Tread on Me" flags, sweet church-going ladies with American flags flying from their Hover-Rounds. This was not a raucous, conspiracy-theorizing, anti-government crowd of revolutionaries.

But it was a crowd of people who find it useful to remind the government that the tax money it's spending is earned by the people it governs, just as our government derives its power from the consent of the governed. Surely Corn doesn't think that simply because the American people have once "consented to be governed" or taxed that they should evermore be silent about the ways in which they are governed and taxed, lest they be considered "too dumb to know to come in from out of the rain."

These people were not protesting particular policies of Obama; they were decrying the foundation of the American political system: citizens pay taxes that cover the costs of government services. How many of the conservative talking heads and political leaders who hailed the tax day protests would agree that there should be no taxes? In this nation, adults debate tax rates and the proper use of tax funds and even the form of taxation implemented by the government--not whether or not there should be taxes.

They actually were protesting particular policies of Obama, which Corn might have known had he attended even one event. Some of the fair criticism of the tea parties is that the crowd's grievances are somewhat unfocused. That's true, but the movement does quibble with specific, though disparate, policies, all on the grounds that a massive expansion of government power and spending is detrimental to us and future generations. They cite the stimulus, the bank bailouts, proposed cap-and-trade, hikes on tobacco taxes, and caps on charitable tax deductions.

I'm sure there were at least a couple people at a couple of these events who believe there should be no taxes at all, but it's hard to make clear enough how uncharacteristic they would have been in the crowd I saw, if they existed at all. But no matter. Corn just assumes away, granting himself the sapient silage he so desperately wishes to fell. Can he finish strong with a stereotype as insulting and hackneyed as his teabagging joke? Yes, he can:

The folks in the rain outside the White House were marginal government-haters. Some had been bussed in from who-knows-where--maybe from ultra-libertarian survivalist compounds in rural West Virginia.

Ooof! West Virginia! Good one. Haven't all overdone West Virginia jokes in the East Coast elite handbook been updated to overdone jokes about Wasilla yet? I wasn't at the Washington tea party, but the folks I saw in Edenton, N.C. were anything but marginal.

What's most disappointing about this blog post is that David Corn knows from marginal, kooky protesters with anti-government goals. Commendably, he wrote about them, in great detail, back when avowed Communists were organizing and governing the message of anti-war protests in Washington.

One man in the crowd was wise to the behind-the-scenes politics. When Brian Becker, a WWP (World Workers Party) member introduced (of course) as an ANSWER activist, hit the stage, Paul Donahue, a middle-aged fellow who works with the Thomas Merton Peace and Social Justice Center in Pittsburgh, shouted, "Stalinist!" Donahue and his colleagues at the Merton Center, upset that WWP activists were in charge of this demonstration, had debated whether to attend. "Some of us tried to convince others to come," Donahue recalled. "We figured we could dilute the [WWP] part of the message. But in the end most didn‘t come. People were saying, 'They‘re Maoists.' But they‘re the only game in town, and I've got to admit they‘re good organizers. They remembered everything but the Porta-Johns." Rock singer Patti Smith, though, was not troubled by the organizers. "My main concern now is the anti-war movement," she said before playing for the crowd. "I'm for a nonpartisan, globalist movement. I don‘t care who it is as long as they feel the same."

The WWP does have the shock troops and talent needed to construct a quasi mass demonstration. But the bodies have to come from elsewhere. So WWPers create fronts and trim their message, and anti-war Americans, who presumably don't share WWP sentiments, have an opportunity to assemble and register their stand against the war. At the same time, WWP activists, hiding their true colors, gain a forum where thousands of people listen to their exhortations. Is this a good deal -- or a dangerous one? Who‘s using whom?

I daresay if Corn dug, he would find nothing so nefarious in the organizing of the tea parties or deceitful in the crafting of their messages. But he didn't bother to look. Corn is welcome to be as skeptical as he wants, but doesn't he owe the parents, grandparents, and business owners protesting at the tea parties the same professional respect he granted the Commies of the anti-war protests?

If you want an informed take on the Washington tea parties from a reporter who was actually there, read my friend Dave Weigel.