I've always liked the story, despite the fact that it may be apocryphal, about the brief fascination among the media in the 1980s and early 1990s with groups like the KKK. Supposedly the KKK itself had declined – other white supremacist and neo-nationalist groups were siphoning off members – to the point that one annual Klan rally was attended by only around 100 souls…more than half of whom turned out to be either undercover law enforcement or undercover journalists hoping for a salacious story.
I don't know if that's true, but it isn't hard to believe. The media have a strong interest in crowds of freaks, and they remain interested in such groups long beyond the point at which anyone else does.
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To the public, even among racists, the Klan rated a strong "Who gives a rat's ass?" by the Eighties. But among the media the response remained the same: make sure you get a burning cross picture and a few good quotes about the Jews or something. Journalistic interest in the group persisted beyond its relevance to the point that reporters began outnumbering participants.
Last week in Naples, Florida a group of around 15 journalists showed up to cover a book signing by Witch/failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. Exactly five members of the public attended the event, one of them apparently an odd teen who asked her to sign his book on demonology. Having five people in attendance doesn't even qualify something as an event. Basement punk shows can get 50 people to show up with little effort. The average PTA meeting has five times that many attendees. I could do a comedy show in Naples, Florida and get five people to show up.
I understand why the O'Donnell event is of interest to the media while events with larger crowds are not: they want to see the Tea Party Freaks in all their glory. They want misspelled signs, crackpots with guns, old people ranting about the gub'mint, flags aplenty, and some dipshit dressed as Paul Revere.
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Fox News aside, Teabaggers are entertainment for journalists and comedy relief in news broadcasts. The problem, of course, is that the continued obsession with the Tea Party ignores the fact that the Tea Party doesn't really exist anymore. For any number of plausible reasons the people showing up to events in 2009 and early 2010 aren't showing up these days. Tea Party USA is just another hacky activist group – as it always has been, arguably – fronted by dinosaur Beltway insiders like Ralph Reed and Dick Armey. It no longer even has the veneer of a populist uprising. Without the crowds of freaks it's neither entertaining nor a believable front group for a bunch of tycoons. It's just another fad entering its 15th minute of fame, a hollowed out orange peel from which the media are attempting to squeeze the last drop of ratings value. The unfortunate consequence is to further the false impression that the Tea Party continues to be politically relevant.