For nearly two months, the animated political cartoon sat on npr.org virtually unnoticed. And then someone discovered it, was disgusted and launched it into the blogosphere -- making it a raucous rallying point for conservatives.
The conservative tom-tom was extremely impressive.
When the "Learn to Speak Tea Bag" cartoon making fun of "Tea Party" activists was published on Nov.12, there were 5 comments. By 6 p.m. this past Monday, there were 258. By Wednesday night, over 1,100 people had commented and it was still the most-recommended link on NPR's web site. On Monday and Tuesday, calls came in every 10 minutes. Over 300 wrote to me -- most of them angry.
The 90-second animation, which creator Mark Fiore calls satire, rather summarily dismisses participants in the Tea Party movement as inarticulate, paranoid bumblers. The video "teaches" the viewer to speak conversational "tea bag."
Moderator: Finally, learning a new language doesn't have to be hard. You can be fluent in conversational tea bag in just a few short minutes. Lesson one: Don't get distracted by the confusing words of other languages.
Character: I think the public option and the competition it would foster would really -- socialist, socialist.
Moderator: Good, very good. Lesson two: If you're having trouble understanding the words of others or being understood yourself, use teabag's stronger, more descriptive words.
Character: "Nazi, Nazi, Nazi."
It's actually not that funny -- especially to those on the right, including members of the Tea Party movement, which is populated by passionate Americans who don't like the direction President Obama is taking the country.
"The cartoon is a perfect caricature of what NPR looks like to conservatives: liberals snidely imagining conservatives to be monosyllabic clods who can't make an argument beyond name-calling," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center. "Conservatism is 'satirized' into a form of political retardation."
Here are some typical comments NPR received:
"There's no doubt I'm a conservative although I'm not part of the Tea Party movement, but I am tired of getting slammed for disagreeing with the government," said Myron Harris of Florida. "When I see a place like NPR promoting an anti-conservative agenda, it becomes very frustrating."
"This should be on the Democratic National Committee website," said Don Miller, who lives outside of Sacramento. "Why did NPR allow this? I'll tell you why. The people who allowed it have the same views."
"I'm sick of liberals calling conservatives 'tea baggers,'" said Ryan Parker, of Kansas City, KS. "The sexual reference really bothers me."
Sexual reference? Apparently, there is one and I invite you to read Jay Nordlinger's excellent essay for National Review explaining a not-so-obvious meaning behind the term "tea bagger."
The Tea Party movement began with a Tax Day protest last April where organizers suggested sending a tea bag to the White House. "A protester was spotted with a sign saying, 'Tea Bag the Liberal Dems Before They Tea Bag You,'" wrote Nordlinger. "So, conservatives started it: started with this terminology. But others ran with it and ran with it."
Interestingly, while the cartoon discusses how to "speak tea bag," it never uses the term "tea bagger."
There was no sexual insult intended, said both Fiore and Ellen Silva, NPR's opinion editor who signed off on the cartoon after fact-checking it.
"I take full responsibility for putting it up on the site," said Silva. "I confess to thinking the term 'tea bagger' was just a slang term for Tea Party supporters and had even heard conservatives referring to themselves that way. Any other connotation didn't occur to me until after the recent ruckus erupted."
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, a "tea bagger" is: "a person, who protests President Obama's tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as "Tea Party" protests (in allusion to the Boston Tea Party of 1773)." "Tea Bagger" was a finalist for the dictionary's "Word of the Year."
Repeatedly, I've heard people, such as Pete Wilson of Wiggins, MS, exclaim: "I refuse to have my tax dollars used for such an offensive slur."
NPR does not receive direct funding from the federal government. Less than 2 percent of its annual budget comes from competitive grants from federally funded institutions. The rest of NPR's budget comes from corporate sponsorship, foundation grants, investments and dues and programming fees paid by 901 independent public radio stations.
That said, there are problems with the Tea Bag animation. Chief among them is it doesn't fit with NPR values, one of which is a belief in civility and civil discourse.
Fiore is talented, but this cartoon is just a mean-spirited attack on people who think differently than he does and doesn't broaden the debate. It engages in the same kind of name-calling the cartoon supposedly mocks.
And why is NPR running a cartoon from just one perspective?
"Where is the opinion piece making fun of President Obama?" asked Susan Begat, from Sarasota, FL. "NPR won't run it. That video shows the deck is stacked against the Tea Party."
Not quite. On Dec. 31, Fiore took after Obama on npr.org.
And NPR has covered the Tea Party movement as an important political story. Last fall, for example, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel spent 5 days with Tea Party activists in Dallas and portrayed them in a thoughtful, 12 1/2-minute story on Dec. 9. ATC also has an on-going series profiling up and coming Republican leaders.
Political cartoons are new to NPR. Fiore's syndicated cartoon began appearing weekly on NPR's opinion page in early October, with little fanfare and not a lot of hits. He told me he leans left.
"I would call my political philosophy one of just going after things that annoy me or call out for satire," said Fiore, who lives in the San Francisco area. "For this particular animation, I wanted to take it to the extreme level I could to show how crazy these comments were. If people think they are being called idiots, that's their interpretation."
NPR's online opinion site, where Fiore's cartoons appear, also is relatively new. In addition to columns by NPR commentators, it publishes an array of opinion and analysis articles by outside contributors. Silva strives to make sure there are an equal number of female and male voices as well as minority perspectives -- something which is sorely lacking in most opinion pages.
NPR's opinion page "is comparable to a newspaper's traditional Op-Ed page," said Dick Meyer, executive editor for NPR News. "Except there is no 'NPR perspective,' " he added, meaning that NPR does not post its own editorials (as most newspapers do) or deliberately slant the commentary in one direction.
To bring different viewpoints, NPR has partnered with the National Review, The Nation, the New Republic and Foreign Policy.
Meyer brought Fiore to NPR as an experiment. Fiore creates his cartoons and syndicates them. They appear on a variety of online sites including NPR, SFGate, CBS News and Slate. NPR does not suggest ideas to him, but retains the right to edit or reject any cartoons Fiore submits.
"Would it be nice if there were other Web-original cartoons from other perspectives to run with Fiore?" said Meyer. "Sure. We think there are and we've been looking for a while in fact. And I think criticism that we don't have a conservative cartoon is certainly legitimate and reasonable."
There will be no apology and Fiore's cartoon is staying up, said Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news. "Opinion and satire are going to sting some members of the audience and soothe others," she said, noting NPR has received some positive feedback. "This one satire is not the only coverage on the topic and while it offends some members of the audience, I see no reason to remove it."
Some good came from the feedback deluge. NPR's top editors responded quickly. The word "opinion" was greatly enlarged above Fiore's cartoon to make it clear it was not a news report. And editors added a stop/start button on the cartoon (previously it launched automatically) and provided an introduction saying the cartoon was Fiore's "personal take."
"Labeling is one of the most important parts of publishing commentary," said Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news. "And the labeling on the page as originally published was neither clear nor prominent enough. That was a mistake and we have fixed that."
But if NPR continues using Fiore, it should quickly find a cartoonist to counter his decidedly liberal take. Critics are right to take NPR to task for only representing one side using such a strong visual medium as an animated cartoon with sound and text. Putting it up against conservative National Review articles doesn't cut it. The near-record response proves that more balance is needed.
NPR should also state more clearly that the perspectives on its opinion pages do not represent the views of NPR or its member stations.
"NPR has to make thoughtful decisions about how it projects itself moving forward and about its continued implementation of this type of multimedia," said Kenneth Irby, an expert in visual journalism at the Poynter Institute. "Surely, NPR has to be mindful of its political image over time and how it has been viewed as being overly aligned with the liberal left. Again, there is a danger, not power, in leaning too far either way."