The election-night premiere of the Tea Party News Network was hardly optimistic.
As live-streaming Internet coverage of the political debacle headed into its ninth hour from billionaire super-PAC donor Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian Las Vegas—where the shoe-string operation had shipped an anchor desk and half a dozen part-timers for the occasion—news director Scottie Nell Hughes, the network’s only full-time employee, got into an online bickerfest with shock-radio personality Erich “Mancow” Muller.
Mancow, as he’s known to listeners, phoned in and told Hughes he was so disgusted by the reelection of President Obama that, as far as he was concerned, the United States of America was over and done. If that was the case, Hughes shot back, she was more than happy to help him move to Ecuador.
“In my opinion, he was very rude,” recalled Hughes, who was co-anchoring the podcast with right-wing talk jock Rusty Humphries.
Over at the Fox News Channel, the mothership of conservative media, a disbelieving Karl Rove was having his own, much more publicized meltdown. But TPNN’s Mancow Moment was arguably just as dramatic—albeit less consequential, and played out for a tiny fraction (1/126th) of Fox’s election-night audience of more than 11 million viewers.
Which raises the question: is there really a need for Tea Party journalism, especially at a time when the once-trendy ideological crusade—which dominated the political landscape a mere two years ago—is being discredited, reviled, and blamed for much of what is damaging today’s defeated and dispirited GOP?
Wrong question, says Washington campaign-finance lawyer Dan Backer, a partisan Republican who advises the Tea Party News Network and its founder, Arizona marketing entrepreneur Todd Cefaratti (who designated Backer to speak for him. Cefaratti, a controversial figure in Tea Party circles, has occasionally been accused of misusing donations and email lists—complaints that Backer dismisses as unjustified and inspired by jealous rivals within the movement).
“Everyone talks about the Tea Party as though it dragged the Republican Party to the right,” Backer told me. “The problem isn’t that it dragged the party to the right. It’s that we as Republicans did not communicate effectively with the people sharing a conservative vision. We spent too much too much time running to the center, and I think that was a mistake.”
Backer, who acknowledged that the GOP “tanked with women and tanked with Hispanics” in the Nov. 6 election, blames the “country-club Republican establishment,” especially Mitt Romney, for crafting a vague and timid message that simply didn’t connect with working folks worried about big government, fiscal irresponsibility, the welfare state, and mushrooming deficits—the foundational concerns that inspired the Tea Party movement in early 2009.
Indeed, the Tea Party News Network’s first attention-getting act—shortly after the enterprise was formally announced two weeks ago—was to declare its refusal to endorse the Republican presidential nominee. “We considered an endorsement of Gov. Mitt Romney, but concluded that his record raises too many questions about the level of his commitment to conservative principles and limited government,” the network said in its endorsement of None of the Above. “The Tea Party has been burned too many times by Washington politicians who promise change but don’t deliver once elected.”
Scottie Hughes, who participated in the non-endorsement decision, offered a critique of Romney’s policy prescriptions that sounded eerily like Barack Obama’s—“and I would very rarely admit that Obama and I could agree on anything,” she said. “How was Romney going to balance the budget? He’d wink at [Tea Party favorite] Paul Ryan, but he himself never set out a policy. He always gave lip service but he never set out a true policy to justify it with.” Romney’s moderate record in Massachusetts, where he mandated universal health insurance and failed to confront the teachers’ unions about pensions and hiring practices, didn’t help. “That had most conservatives biting their nails,” she said.
A tall, striking blonde in her early 30s, Hughes is the face of the Tea Party News Network, which is probably a smart marketing ploy, since the network’s website is otherwise populated by doughy, middle-aged white guys. The mother of two young boys and the wife of a Nashville home-builder and former Army captain who also serves on the Sumner County Commission, Hughes got her start in conservative talk radio, producing and booking guests for a local Nashville personality and then for Humphries and other franchise players on the Talk Radio Network.
“I’m extremely socially conservative,” she said, noting that the Tea Party News Network is focused on economic, not social, issues. “I grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh—my mom always had the car radio turned to him. That formed my political views. And when I was 9 years old, I remember watching the Gulf War happening, and watched Wolf Blitzer and bombs exploding—and I knew I wanted to be a wartime journalist.”
Hughes, who visited Iraq between stints as a stay-at-home mom, worked for Patriot TV, another small conservative outlet, before joining the startup TPNN. She has managed to snag interviews with almost every political figure alive, including James Carville and former Obama environmental adviser Van Jones, who was demonized by the right but with whom Hughes claims a friendly relationship.
Her biggest scoop so far—before TPNN was announced—came at the Democratic National Convention when Palm Beach County Democratic chairman Mark Alan Siegel told her in an interview that the only reason conservative Christians support Israel is to fulfill a Biblical prophecy of the Second Coming. They “just want us to be there so we can all be slaughtered and converted, so they can bring on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ,” Siegel claimed. After the interview went viral, Siegel was forced to resign as chairman.
At the moment, TPNN’s website, which is depending on advertising revenue to make it profitable one day, aggregates news and opinion and features unpaid contributors on video, but it is still defining its brand and mission. The network’s video signature features stentorian music and a rotating globe reminiscent of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Hughes said she plans to meet with Cefarrati and others this week in Phoenix to chart the network’s future direction.
At least one thing seems clear, however: Hughes and her colleagues won’t be cheerleading Speaker of the House John Boehner over the next 50 days as he seeks compromise with Democrats in a bipartisan effort to agree on tax policy and avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. She is especially disturbed by Boehner’s recent comments that suggest flexibility on the issue of raising revenue.
“We’re already taking the stance that instead of trying to compromise and going more moderate and embracing tax hikes, Republicans in the House should be doing the opposite,” she said. “The things Boehner has been saying are not good, from our viewpoint. If he keeps it up, they’ll run somebody against him for speaker.”