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The New Populism- A Panel Discussion

October 18, 2010

By Elizabeth Haley
University of St. Francis

On Saturday, October 9, the Mid-America Press Institute gathered a panel of journalists, a political activist and a political scientist to discuss the long-term implications of the Tea Party and other grassroots groups as a part of the “Election Night and Beyond,” a conference that provided working journalists with strategies for covering politics and the fall 2010 elections.

Led by Christopher Ave, government and politics editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Christopher Witko from the political science department at St. Louis University, Jo Mannies, a journalist with the St. Louis Beacon, and Dana Loesch, the co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, spoke on various topics regarding new populism. The panel focused primarily on the Tea Party movement.

Panelists said there is truly no solid definition for the Tea Party. Many misconceptions and opinions exist about the movement. This was evident during the panel discussion. However difficult to describe, the Tea Party is, in simple terms, grass-roots activism. It is a collective social movement with no specific leader. Though commonly associated with the Republican Party, most of the panelists agreed, the Tea Party population is a mix of political parties.

The people involved in the movement have a tendency toward fiscal conservatism. Some are socially conservative while others involved are socially liberal. Despite political association, the Tea Party participants believe spending and big government in the United States are excessive.  Witko pointed out that the Tea Party seems to be a faction of the Republican Party, while self-proclaimed independent Loesch said the Tea Party is not a faction, but an unattached political conscience and a sign that United States politics is shifting toward the center.

The panelist’s opinions on the Tea Party may have varied, but that is what made the session interesting and informative. Each panelist explained, basically, the Tea Party had no one leader. It is not a traditional political party. Loesch stressed that the Tea Party strives for the people to shape the politicians not the politicians shaping the people.

Without a solid or specific leader of the organization and a variety of personal beliefs, the Tea Party is not something that is easy to cover as a journalist. Perhaps because of that fact, coverage of the Tea Party tends toward editorial rather than objective news. This was a point of contention for the Loesch. The panelists provided some opinions on the press coverage of the Tea Party and offered advice for journalists.

Loesch and Mannies agreed it is positive that the Tea Party lacks a leader because that keeps the organization driven by the people. They also pointed out that it is easy to attack an individual, but much harder to attack a big idea. Though those factors are positive, they perhaps cause or contribute to some media misconceptions on the movement.

Since the start of the Tea Party, the media has pushed that the movement is predominately Republican. Loesch explained that the movement is made up of other parties: Libertarians, classical liberals and Democrats, as well as Republicans.

The panelists agreed it is important to remain objective as a journalist when covering a grass-roots movement of any kind. Mannies explained that journalists need to report what happens, not to be a part of what is happening.  The panel expressed that as a journalist you should be aware of your personal views but not pollute your coverage with those views. Never fit the facts into a narrative. Give the facts and do not editorialize. A journalist’s job is to observe and report.

The panelists expressed that the long term implications of the Tea Party are yet to be seen, but will likely provide a springboard for change in the Republican Party. The Tea Party will likely be a factor in the November 2010 elections.

Another interesting fact that came from the panel discussion had to do with social media and blogs. Media professionals are aware that social media and blogs are the newest and fastest way to get a message to an audience. The Tea Party is privy to this technology and utilizes it heavily to tell their story. This allows the Tea Party population to have its own voice.

Whether reporting on the Tea Party or other grass-roots activism, it is crucial for a journalist to report and leave judgments and opinions out of copy. Inform the readers, tell the story and the only way to do so, in the words of Jo Mannies, “Just keep going.”



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