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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, if it was crowded in your church on Easter Sunday imagine what it was like at Washington, D.C., where all over town people are hoping President Obama and his family will join their congregation. How does a family find the right church? We'll talk about it in our Faith Matters conversation in a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about those tea parties you may have heard a lot about. Not the ones some people have for baby showers. No, these are the ones where people are showing up to rally against unfair taxation. In Kentucky, hundreds of people gathered at the state capital to protest higher tobacco and alcohol taxes, while protesters in Texas and D.C. carried signs criticizing the federal government's stimulus package, among other things..

Many of the demonstrations took on the flavor of a mock Boston Tea Party but some are asking whether these protests really are a grassroots uprising or a marketing campaign by a particular media organization. Joining us to talk about all this is Howard Kurtz. He hosts the "Reliable Sources" media segment on CNN and he writes a media column and covers media for the Washington Post. Also with us is Reihan Salam. He is associate editor of the Atlantic and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win The Working Class And Save The American Dream." He is here with me at the studio. Thanks so much for coming.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Associate Director, Atlanta): Thanks for having me.

Mr. HOWARD KURTZ (columnist, Washington Post): Hi Michel.

MARTIN: And Howard, first of all, you've expressed a concern that these tea parties are not really grassroots at all. Tell me why you're concerned about that or why you think that.

Mr. KURTZ: I wouldn't go quite that far. I mean, clearly a lot of people of a lot of different agendas, whether it's anti-Obama, anti-government, anti-tax, showed up in cities across the country to kind of vent. And that's fine. And that's the way American democracy works. At the same time, it's just as clear that the profile of these events was raised considerably when Fox News decided to have this sort of daily drum beat about these tax protest, tea party day and so forth. And many of its high profile hosts and personalities either covered or went to or spoke at or were stars of some of these protests.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip where we have a montage of some of the Fox News hosts talking about the tea parties. And here it is.

(Soundbite of a montage on Fox News)

Unidentified Man: The tea party movement is part of a nationwide initiative to protest government spending.

Unidentified Man: People are starting to get angry.

Unidentified Man: Outrage and discontent.

Unidentified Man: Disenfranchisement.

Unidentified Man: Repeal the pork. Our bacon is cooked. This is all part of this nationwide grassroots movement.

MARTIN: Well, Howard, you would draw a distinction, I think you would, between covering an event like that and speaking at it, being a speaker at such an event, wouldn't you?

Mr. KURTZ: Sure. But when a Sean Hannity or a Glenn Beck shows up at one of these events and builds his show around it, it's a fine line, that person becomes the star. Now I don't think that the Fox News reporters are in the business of crusading against the Obama administration or for these tea parties. But clearly, these hosts, you know, who are opinion people and are paid for their views and who are entitled to jump on any bandwagon they want, they decided to put their media muscle behind these protests.

MARTIN: And I should mention at this point that we asked Fox News for a representative to come on the program to characterize how they view their coverage of these tea parties. We worked at all day and after repeated requests they declined to provide a guest or issue a statement or assist in our conversation in anyway. So I think it's fair to point that out. Reihan, what's your take on these tea party protests, political theater, grassroots marketing, what is that?

Mr. SALAM: I think there is such a blurring of boundaries in American politics and American media period, that it's really hard to disentangle this stuff. I know that at NBC, this very traditional news culture, there is another concern about, you know, you see the ginning up of great enthusiasm around people who are very much political personalities in their own right, who have constituencies of their own.

And I think Fox, I think Howie is absolutely right, it's this kind of thin line and you want to separate out what's news and what's opinion. But someone like a Sean Hannity, I mean, functions very much as a politician, as an activist would earlier on. I do think that this really is a genuine distributed kind of movement that's been ginned up in a lot of different ways. For example, twittering, for you know, all kinds of distributed social media has been a big part of sparking this stuff. And it's also true that the coverage works in this interesting kind of cocktail that's built up something bigger than it would have been otherwise. But you know, I certainly think that it's a genuine upsurge. But…

MARTIN: An upsurge of what and about what? I mean, given that President Bush generated a record deficit of $1.7 trillion and given that the tax and spending plan passed by the Obama administration with the help of…

Mr. SALAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: …the Congress will cut taxes for most Americans, not for the wealthy. But you don't - I don't know, do you really see, you know, investment bankers throwing tea?

Mr. SALAM: It's very straightforward. There are fewer Republicans in America right now. And that smaller band of Republicans really feels as though they're not included in the process. Maybe they shouldn't but that's certainly how they feel. They feel besieged. And so, when people say that, you know, when you see polling data saying that Barack Obama is a quote unquote "polarizing president" it's kind of funny because actually you just have Democrats, you have more independents who are favorably inclined towards him and they like him in large numbers.

And then again, you have that small shrinking minority that doesn't. But the thing is that when you listen to Glenn Beck, when you listen to lot of these guys, they characterize this minority as a silent majority. And there is this level of cognitive dissonance. There is just really sharp disconnect between the folks who are going to these tea parties and, you know, the voters who are staying at home and who are basically mildly supportive. They're basically rooting for President Obama. And I think that that generates a lot of anger, frankly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the tea party tax protests with media critic Howie Kurtz and Republican commentator Reihan Salam. Howie, you made an interesting observation about this. You said that Fox News sees this tax protest as a big story, CNN as a modest story, MSNBC as a great story to make fun of. Why is there - and you also said that I think newspapers don't think this is a story at all. Why do you think there's such a gap in how this is perceived?

Mr. KURTZ: Because we live in an age of increasingly polarized media. And MSNBC, to cite one example, has rather dramatically moved to the left. And when these tea parties started to get some national attention, in part through the efforts of Fox News, MSNBC decided that its role was going to be to make fun of them and to mock them and not to take them seriously at all, which I think was rather dismissive of some of the people involved who, you know, are not just taking marching orders from Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, but wanted to demonstrate. You know, demonstration is as old as the Republic, even older.

And I think that the nation's top newspapers which finally got around to covering them on April 15th, kind of had their heads in the sand as well. So, while Fox may have gone too far in trumpeting these disparate and sometimes small events as some kind of major opposition in the brew, in the making, I think a bulk of the mainstream media were way too dismissive in just basically refusing to cover at all or simply making fun of it.

MARTIN: I think I'm still not sure what I think, what you think about this, is, do you think that Fox is leading the zeitgeist or just expressing it perhaps more robustly than is journalistically appropriate? I mean, one analogy that comes to mind is Lou Dobb, of course works for your network, CNN. Many people identify him with the kind of anger around immigration issues but you can't deny that there is that public sentiment. But in these case, as Reihan pointed out, the polls show the majority of Americans support what Obama is doing, they support the stimulus package. They support, you know what I mean? So do you think that - is Fox leading or are they following something and the rest of the media just isn't tapped into what is really there?

Mr. KURTZ: Well, that's an interesting chicken-and-egg question. I think one of the things these protests showed us is that there are some strong misgivings among a minority of Americans. Not so much about the taxes, although, you know, a lot of people predict that Obama's spending plans will lead to higher taxes but they haven't so far. So this may be the world's first demonstration, world's first preemptive protest about taxes that haven't been imposed yet, but about the high level of spending, which is of course a subject for considerable Washington debate. So I don't think Fox News created that but I do think they saw these tea party protests as a vehicle. Both are good marketing vehicle, because it got Fox a lot of attention and a way for some of its more opinionated hosts to get in on the action.

MARTIN: Reihan, what's your take?

Mr. SALAM: I've got to say, I mean, this is just a general observation about the media, but I think that, you know, you follow your audience. I think that that's, for example, MTV is own by Sumner Redstone. I don't think Sumner Redstone shares the politics of MTV's news programming but, you know, I think they have a sense of where youth are and they want to, you know, be right there with them. So, I think that, you know, you have a little bit of this conversation where, well, we want people to go in this direction but they know they can't push things too far.

And I really do think that Fox News knows that they have a tight connection with this base of viewers. In cable news terms, it's a very big base of viewers. In electoral terms, this is not a huge group of people. This is a, you know, aging constituency. And I think that, you know, I have sympathy with lot of the tea party protesters and what have you, but I think that, you know, there is a way in which these protests actually are making the political viability of this kind of conservative activist movement kind of they're actually undermining it.

At the same time that they're ginning up this great enthusiasm, and the same time they're doing a really good job for these media entities that, again, want to excite this small but significant base.

Mr. KURTZ: At the same time remember when Cindy Sheehan was marching outside George Bush's Crawford Ranch to protest his conduct of the war, and she of course lost a son in Iraq, the - what you might call the more liberal media outlets, you know, swarmed all over that story, arguably a small story and made her into a symbol of anti-war opposition. Fox News, as I recall, was more hostile, certainly more skeptical of Cindy Sheehan. So to your point, media organizations sometimes look for symbolism that will appeal to the people who watch those networks or read those publications.

MARTIN: Reihan, for years the narrative on the democratic side was that they were at the mercy of the grassroots and that the grassroots was pushing the party in a direction that was not sustainable in a broader electoral context. Are these tea parties a symbol that perhaps the opposite, the same thing has happened on the other side of the isle?

Mr. SALAM: That's the thing that happens sometimes when you have a shrinking political party. You have a shrinking party and the folks who have ownership of the party, the folks who identify with it most intensely, they want to seize the reigns. Sometimes this actually works out decently well. For example, when you have the net-roots say, we want to seize control of the party, they, you know, were - their views were at odds in a lot of ways with a lot of mainstream Democrats, with a lot of mainstream voters.

But they were very focused on political tactics, more on that than on ideology to some extent. They had a few core concerns but they were willing to compromise on a lot of other things. So a lot of liberal net-roots activists were, you know, we don't like guns but we're willing to support candidates who do. I think that the conservative activists right now are a little less pragmatic.

MARTIN: I'm not going to ask Howie to predict because as a journalist that's not fair. So Reihan I am going to ask you to predict. These tea parties, a story a month from now, six months from now?

Mr. SALAM: I think they are because I think it's very possible that they will give rise to something really significant in the conservative movement.

MARTIN: Howie, I'm going to let you bite if you want to. A story a month from now?

Mr. KURTZ: Well, you know, it's hard to say because we might look back if opposition to the Obama tax and spending policies increases and say, this was the prop 13 of 2009. But if that opposition never quite coalesces then it will be just seen as a flash in the pan.

MARTIN: Howard Kurtz, he hosts "Reliable Sources" which covers the media on CNN. He also writes a media column and covers the media for the Washington Post. He joined us on the phone. With me here in the Washington, D.C. studio, Reihan Salam, associate editor of the Atlantic and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win The Working Class And Save The American Dream." Gentleman, thank you both so much and have a great weekend.

Mr. KURTZ: Thank you.

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