On "America's Newsroom" Wednesday morning, Fox News host Megyn Kelly declared that "it's tea party time, from sea to shining sea." A short while later, "anti-tax tea parties" rose to the top of the network's Hot List.
In between, Fox News reporter Griff Jenkins -- who earlier this week donned colonial garb as he traced the history of the tea party movement -- reported on a tea party protest in Washington's Lafayette Park. Meanwhile, Fox hosts Neil Cavuto, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren were all preparing for their own on-the-scene reports from tea parties around the country.
"Can't get to a tea party?" Fox's Bill Hemmer asked viewers the other day. "Fox Nation hosts a virtual tea party -- you can check it out on the site, a location of a tea party in your area."
Nobody's covering the tea parties quite like Fox -- and that's prompting critics and cable news competitors to say that the network is blurring the line between journalism and advocacy.
"Fox appears to be promoting these events at the same time it is presenting them in a way that looks like reporting," said Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.
Burgard called the practice "pseudo-journalism," adding: "We have seen this before from Fox News Channel, but its role as galvanizer of opposition to President Obama's policies and leadership posture appears to be emerging."
A Fox spokesperson said the network did not have an executive available to speak about its tea party coverage. A second Fox representative declined repeated offers to address the charge that it was blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy.
While tea party organizers say their movement is nonpartisan, the protests lean hard to the right: Newt Gingrich and Michelle Malkin are on board, as is Freedom Works, an organization run by former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey. And more than a dozen prominent Republicans were set to participate in tea party protests Wednesday, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) and a slew of other Republicans from Congress.
While Fox has obsessively covered the tea party plans for days, CNN and MSNBC have given the protests scant mention. Indeed, MSNBC's on-air personalities have taken to mocking Fox for its tea party attention -- reveling in double entendres and juvenile jokes.
On Tuesday's "Countdown," Keith Olbermann played clips of Fox personalities talking up tea parties. "As ever," he said, Fox was "showing both sides 'fair and balanced' -- supporting the tea baggers and sponsoring the tea baggers."
Similarly, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said that "our colleagues at Fox News are not just reporting on tea bagging, they are officially promoting it."
And during Monday's "Hardball," host Chris Matthews laughed at a Fox commercial for tea party coverage, and said, "I have got to believe that [Fox News president] Roger Ailes has the biggest tongue in his cheek when he does these ads."
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Pew Research Center's nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that tea party coverage follows the path taken during the presidential campaign, where "you have two cable networks in the evening that have staked out ideological turf."
In today's fractured cable news landscape, Jurkowitz said that each network can make "different decisions about the significance of an event."
For Fox, it's hard to argue with success. With Obama in the White House, the news network has been dominant over MSNBC and CNN during prime time: Last month, Fox's ratings topped both networks combined.
But while opinionated hosts like Hannity expected to offer sometimes controversial views, Fox's critics say the network has gone too far by promoting attendance at the protests.
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters has beaten the drum daily about Fox's involvement with tea party events. "I think everyone's pretty floored at the line that's been crossed here, directly into activism," said Erikka Knuti, Media Matters communications director.
In an open letter Tuesday, Media Matters president Eric Burns called on "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace to "publicly address recent actions by Fox News personalities that unambiguously cross the line separating news and legitimate commentary from political activism and demagoguery."
During his "Reliable Sources" show on CNN Sunday, Howard Kurtz said that Fox may be guilty of going overboard on the tea parties -- but that "CNN and MSNBC may have dropped the ball by all but ignoring the protests."
The Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, said that the tea parties have received relatively little attention from other networks -- and less than was devoted to protests against Proposition 8, the California measure that outlawed gay marriage in the state.
"It's time to end journalism by censorship," Dan Gainor, a vice president with the organization, said in a statement. "None of the nation's top news outlets have treated the tea party movement remotely fair; they've all but spiked the coverage."
According to the site TaxDayTeaParty.com, the current incarnation of tea parties started after CNBC's Rick Santelli "set out on a rant to expose the bankrupt liberal agenda of the White House administration and Congress" and the "flawed 'Stimulus Bill' and pork-filled budget."
Despite the anti-Obama, anti-Democratic rhetoric, TaxDayTeaParty.com administrator Eric Odom says he's "never seen any activity as nonpartisan" as the tea party movement. He said he expected tea party protesters to include Democratic delegates for Hillary Clinton as well as Republicans and libertarians -- all coming together as part of a "new breed of activist."
So what about Fox's coverage?
Odom says the network's involvement is probably "a wise business decision."
"You find out what people want and you give it to them," Odom said. "People want news related to the tea parties, and they're providing it.
As for CNN and CNBC -- where Santelli yelled about tea parties in his rant against Obama's economic plan -- Odom said the two networks have "been eerily silent."
CNN didn't run its first real segment on the protests until Monday's installment of " The Situation Room.
CNN political director Sam Feist said that his network will report on the tea party protests as they happen -- but as just one angle in the week's overall tax coverage: "Your Taxes: The Real Deal."
"We're covering it as a part of a broad look at tax day, taxes, spending, stimulus and how it's all related to the economic crisis the country is dealing with," Feist said.
"There is the possibility we will cover it as a news story, depending on the news of the day," said a CNBC spokesperson, who noted that Santelli will not be involved in any events.
But Santelli was asked about the "cultural phenomenon" of tea parties on Wednesday's "Squawk Box."
"I don't know about cultural phenomenon, but I'll tell you what," Santelli said, "I think that this tea party phenomenon is steeped in American culture and steeped in American notion to get involved with what's going on with our government. I haven't organized. I'm going to have to work to pay my taxes, so I'm not going to be able to get away today. But, I have to tell you -- I'm pretty proud of this."
An MSNBC spokesperson said the network would be covering the tea parties as it has covered other protests in the past but declined to comment further.
But there is one media outlet that will cover the protests with Fox-like intensity: the left-leaning Huffington Post.
"It is a perfect citizen journalist story," Arianna Huffington told POLITICO, "because it's something happening around the country at the same time where people who are involved with us in our citizen journalist project can report back."
Already, 1,800 "citizen journalists" have signed up, according to a spokesperson, and Huffington said that they'll abide by traditional rules in doing pen-and-pad reporting, taking photos, making short films and using Twitter.
Huffington balks at the notion that her site's citizen journalists will be showing up with an agenda.
"The idea that we are infiltrating is completely bizarre," Huffington said. "Everything we are asking citizen journalists to do is purely journalistic."
"They have to be there as journalists," Huffington added, "not as activists."