The Year in News 2010

The 2010 Midterms: A Tea Party Tale

In the mainstream press, the election became a major story, registering second overall, filling 10% of the coverage studied for the year. But much of that was compressed from Labor Day to Election Day. During that period, indeed, the election made up nearly a third (30%) of the newshole studied by PEJ in the mainstream media.

The key element of that coverage was the emerging political movement that coalesced around opposition to President Obama and an expansion of government and that helped propel the GOP electoral wave.

Indeed the biggest election storyline from September 13-November 2, at 13% of overall election coverage, was the impact of the tea party and one of its leading figures, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. They accounted for more coverage than the role and impact of President Obama himself, even though many observers saw the election as a referendum on the president. And they garnered twice the attention devoted to the impact on the campaign of the two top domestic issues—the economy and health care.

Much of that coverage was driven by tea party candidates who found themselves in the media’s sometimes unwelcome glare. Exhibit A was Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate. O’Donnell, who took some controversial policy positions, quickly began generating attention for decade-old comments about masturbation and “dabbl[ing] into witchcraft.” Even though she was soundly beaten in the general election, O’Donnell was a lead newsmaker in 8% of all the election stories from September 6 to November 2. The only campaign figure to get more attention, Barack Obama, wasn’t on the ballot.

Much of that coverage was driven by tea party candidates who found themselves in the media’s sometimes unwelcome glare. Exhibit A was Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate. O’Donnell, who took some controversial policy positions, quickly began generating attention for decade-old comments about masturbation and “dabbl[ing] into witchcraft.” Even though she was soundly beaten in the general election, O’Donnell was a lead newsmaker in 8% of all the election stories from September 6 to November 2. The only campaign figure to get more attention, Barack Obama, wasn’t on the ballot.

Other than Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and California Governor Jerry Brown, the rest of the 10 top election newsmakers were Republicans. They included a number of tea party favorites, such as Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Joe Miller in Alaska as well as New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. A long shot candidate who was routed on November 2, Paladino generated headlines for derogatory remarks about homosexuals and a heated confrontation with a New York Post reporter. Indeed, with the exception of Rand Paul and Lisa Murkowski, who won a write-in campaign, all those GOP candidates lost on Nov. 2.

Indeed, a significant portion of the coverage of candidates like O’Donnell and Paladino had a gawking, quasi-voyeuristic component, with the media drawn to controversy and color. That didn’t necessarily add much depth to the public understanding of the tea party phenomenon. And a qualitative evaluation of election coverage finds that in much of the media, there was more of a fierce partisan argument about what the tea party was than a journalistic exploration of that subject.