State Department Chose a Tea Party Critic to Explain the Tea Party to Foreign Journalists

By Penny Starr | October 28, 2010 | 6:49 PM EDT

Michael Fell of Culver City, Calif., holds up a sign reading ‘STOP SPENDING MONEY’ as he speaks at a tea party rally in Irvine, Calif., Thursday, April 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

( – The U.S. State Department recently asked a New York Times reporter who has criticized the tea party movement to discuss the the tea party and its role in the midterm election with foreign reporters who are covering next week's contests.

Kate Zernike, who spoke at the Foreign Press Center in Washington on Friday, Oct. 22, has authored a book that is critical of the conservative grassroots movement. "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America" was published by her own employer. Times Books is a partnership between the New York Times and Henry Holt and Co. asked the State Department why it would choose a journalist who has criticized the tea party to “brief” foreign reporters on the movement.

A spokeswoman responded with a written statement, noting that a "long-standing goal" of the Foreign Press Centers in Washington and New York is to "deepen foreign journalists’ understanding and comprehension of the complex political, economic, and social contexts which make up American society today."

The statement said the Foreign Press Centers accomplish this goal by "scheduling briefings with both U.S. government officials and subject matter experts.” These experts are volunteers, she said, and are not paid by the U.S. government.

State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson told that although she had not read the transcript of Zernike’s Oct. 22 briefing, she was certain it was consistent with the ongoing efforts of the press centers to help foreign reporters with their work.

She said asking “political experts” like Zernike to talk to the foreign press is about “bringing a bit more context to what’s going on today.”

“I don’t think she’s there to push a certain [agenda] -– I’m sure she isn’t,” Thompson said. “We would have never chosen a journalist to push a particular political agenda or perspective to the group.”

In her  Oct. 22 briefing for the foreign press at the State Department, Zernike said some of the ideas supported by the tea party movement “come off as crazy.”

For example, Zernike noted that some conservatives have called for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education: “I think people look and say, ‘Oh, let’s get rid of this bureaucracy. We can save so much money.' They don’t realize, until the Democrats point it out, that this would mean getting rid of federal student loans and grants; this would mean no federal aid to state schools.”

When asked by a Norwegian reporter if the tea party had “relations to the more traditional fringe group, the right wing of American politics, like a John Birch Society,” Zernike said she thought the movement started out with people concerned about fiscal matters but as it has grown, “it has attracted people who see this as an opportunity to express some outrageous thoughts.”

Zernike also said “there has been some attaching of militia groups to the tea party movement.”

In her own account of the Oct. 22 briefing at the State Department, as reported in an Oct. 26 article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “The Tea Party, Exported: How Do You Explain Christine O’Donnell to the French?” Zernike did not mince words about the movement.

“For months, I have been observing the foreign fascination with the Tea Party movement -- a fascination as bemused as it is bewildered, as self-satisfied as it is horrified,” Zernike wrote in the Oct. 26 article.

She said some foreign reporters have practical questions about the Tea Party, such as how it will affect trade or who its leaders are. "Others are struggling -- just like many Americans -- to put the Tea Party movement in context,” Zernike wrote. “A French reporter wanted to know, for example, whether you could compare the Tea Party to the conservative moralizing and strident anti-immigration platform of that country's Front Nationale. And for many others, the question is simply: Is it really as extreme as it seems?”

“You can detect a note of hopefulness in the last question, which helps explain the central obsession with the Tea Party overseas: It has affirmed the love-hate relationship the rest of the world has with the United States,” Zernike wrote. “The questions foreigners ask and the assumptions they make often reveal a desire to affirm their biases about Americans -- their presumed lack of sophistication, their reflexive jingoism.”

“The Tea Party, to them, is a sign that Americans could be really as hopeless as they thought all along,” Zernike wrote.

Zernike mentioned that an Australian reader had sent her an email saying, "I assumed the Tea Party was just a combination of Glenn Beck's tearful conspiracy tirades and various small groups of extremists and oddballs that provided entertainment for outlets like Fox News and the Daily Show."

She concluded the essay by saying that the foreign press needs to know that the tea party is “best understood as a conservative insurgency.”

'Echo of slavery'

In August, writing about Glenn Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Zernike said, when the Tea Party talks about states' rights, "critics say they hear an echo of slavery, Jim Crow and George Wallace,” while Tea Party activists say “they just want the states to be able to block the federal mandate on health insurance.”

Zernike said the government programs that many Tea Party supporters call unconstitutional "are the ones that have helped many black people emerge from poverty and discrimination.”

Zernike ended her "political memo" on Beck's rally by noting, “Even if Tea Party members are right that any racist signs are those of mischief-makers, even if Glenn Beck had chosen any other Saturday to hold his rally, it would be hard to quiet the argument about the Tea Party and race.”

'Boiling Mad'

In her book "Boiling Mad," Zernike describes some of the older, white people who have swelled Tea Party ranks at rallies, and some of whom do not know the difference between YouTube and “U2.” She also suggests that tea partiers have failed to understand the successes of the Obama administration.

Zernike said tea partiers’ support for the “independent entrepreneur” explains "how they could be impervious to reports from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the closest thing the government has to a neutral arbiter, that the federal stimulus had cut taxes and created millions of jobs and that the health care legislation passed in 2010 would reduce the federal deficit.”

She also states in her book, “To talk about states' rights in the way some Tea Partiers did was to pretend that the twentieth century and the latter half of the nineteenth century had never happened, that the country had not rejected this doctrine over and over. It was little wonder that people heard the echo of the slave era and decided that the movement had to be motivated by racism.”

According to the Foreign Press Center's Web site, the two other “experts” who briefed the foreign press in October on the U.S. midterm election were Alexander Burns, a Politico reporter; and Thomas Mann, a congressional expert and senior fellow in governance studies at the liberal Brookings Institution.