The Tea Party's Media Lockdown

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 7:19 AM EDT

Look no further than Shirley Sherrod or Stanley McChrystal to understand why many politicians exclude reporters and news cameras from all but the most choreographed campaign events. But the practice hasn't typically applied to their rank-and-file supporters, unpaid volunteers such as leafletters, block-walkers, and MeetUp group members. At least, not until this year. Unusually tight restrictions on media access imposed by candidates such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sharron Angle of Nevada, both tea party Senate hopefuls, are being adopted by their supporters at all levels—even folks outside the official party structure who hand out homemade campaign signs at street fairs and gun shows.

"I think everybody is very worried of being painted in a poor light," Ginny Saville, the organizer of the Lexington Rand/Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty MeetUp group, told me last month. "And that worry isn't just for Rand's campaign; that worry extends all the way down to us. We don't want the entire Liberty effort to be painted as a bunch of gun-totin', bible-bangin', anti-semitic racists—all the things that are pinned on us a lot. And it has been happening really bad lately."

Saville's was the only tea-party-related MeetUp group out of the 13 that I contacted in Kentucky and Nevada that agreed to speak with me over the phone. The others didn't respond or referred me to people who never called back. Even Saville drew the line at a phone chat. "When people see your name and what you have written, I don't think they're gonna be real interested in you tagging along" for campaign activities, she said. "I think everybody is very, very gun-shy of the media right now."

Saville and many other Paul campaigners cut their political teeth working for the 2008 presidential campaign of Paul's father, GOP congressman Ron Paul, whose grassroots machine went to equal but opposite extremes with the press. Believing that Ron Paul and his small-government agenda were being ignored by the mainstream media, his backers blasted off countless press releases and eagerly spoke to me and the few other reporters who gave them ink. They also bypassed the mainstream media altogether by creating a network of independent websites, MoveOn groups, and YouTube channels that became the envy of Washington—and laid much of the groundwork for the tea party protests of 2010.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.