Blatantly Biased Tabloids and Clueless Mainstream Media Keep Missing the Obvious Big Story at OWS
Many mainstream news outlets are flummoxed at best, condescending at worst, when it comes to their coverage of the new movement.
By Sarah Seltzer
“Occupy Wall Street, go home!” The New York Post has launched what can best be described, metaphorically, as an “all-out-war” on the protesters camping downtown in Zuccotti Park, making a naked effort to aid any ouster by throwing every filthy hippie stereotype in the book at the occupiers and seeing what sticks (so far, not much).
If the Post, and other media players, stepped away from Zuccotti Park, or flashpoint rallies, they might see something different: seriousness, cooperation, an “open-source movement ” that is actually (really, it is!) different in key ways from other social justice coalitions that have come before it, instead of trying to fit this into a traditional media narrative.
Because while the Post’s bias is clear, many other mainstream news outlets can be described as flummoxed at best, condescending at worst, when it comes to their coverage of a new movement that is leaderless, has no list of demands, and is aiming to be as much a state of mind as an organization, a multi-faceted sea-change rather than a single entity.
It’s been a long time since our country saw the rise of a social movement this broad and ambitious and not devoted to any one issue. There’s no rulebook for covering it like one covers a campaign, or a company. And for a powerful corporate media addicted to the “View from Nowhere” approach — he-said, she-said reporting that pretends to be entirely neutral — trying to adjust to the movement is not going so well.
It’s no wonder that a New York Times reporter at the first “Spokes Council” meeting was booed (although allowed to stay). The Times’ coverage has been among the most bemused and sneering at times. Yes, an “open” movement should always allow press, no question. But narratively (and journalists love narrative!), it’s a nice twist that reporters who have been protected by the privilege and the prestige of their legacy media institutions now get to feel the scorn and maybe even the sidelining that many of the protesters have felt from mainstream society and its press for decades.
Extreme Opposition and Hippie-Bashing
Let’s start at the extreme end of anti-OWS propaganda: from printing enlarged photo-spreads detailing fistfights in the downtown vicinity to running huge headlines like “Enough!” and “Zoo-Cotti” the New York Post’s intense dwelling on the protests, it seems, is rivaled only by the paper’s interest in the Kardashian divorce and local sports franchises. But this singularly focused, angry attack reveals that, contrary to claims of uselessness and insignificance, the occupation presents a real threat at the notoriously reactionary and sleazy Murdoch-owned tabloid. The paper doth protest the protest too much.
Gawker’s Lauri Apple penned a takedown on the Post’s most recent scaremongering efforts, which incuded sending a reporter downtown to actually “investigate” the site, noting that “the Post has come to refer to anyone spotted near Zuccotti who is not a cop or a Hipstercop as a ‘protester.’”
Old-fashioned hippie-bashing, including an almost obsessive level of reporting on hygiene, sanitation and hairstyles in the park, has been a tactic used by almost everyone from the Post to The Daily Show. Media onlookers, apparently, still find clothing and countercultural signifiers worthy of mention, decades after the derisively intended terms, hippie and beatnik, were coined by media entities of those eras.
Still, the Post’s response, while frustrating because of the paper’s popularity in the city, arises from a source with a clear bias that almost any reader with basic media literacy can understand.
What’s more disturbing are the sins of omission from outlets that are supposed to be neutral.
Sins of Omission
On the first night that Occupy Oakland was getting teargassed in the streets, I flipped through my TV channels to see if anyone was reporting on the chaos I was reading about on Twitter. On MSNBC, there was mention of previous incidents in Oakland, but nothing live. Everywhere else I saw only discussion of the GOP primary.
Meanwhile, the drama unfolded on Twitter and on livestreams, as photos of smoke-filled streets, videos of projectiles being hurled into peaceful crowds, and most horrifyingly footage of the injured Scott Olsen amassed online in close to real-time. It was riveting, and provided definitive proof that in this case the revolution (and the backlash) would not, in fact, be televised. It would be tweeted.
Later, amateur media watchdogs expressed concern that at least one local news copter had to “refuel” and cut off its feed just as the tear gas canisters were about to fly. A coincidence that was unfortunate, but the video that was nonetheless captured by local stations and by lone citizen journalists with cameras and videotapes won the night and provided incontrovertible evidence that shaped all coverage. And yet newspaper coverage the next day was anemic at best, despite this being the first police crackdown of such a violent nature in years.
A silver lining to this cloud? The fact that now media has developed to the extent that an intelligent discussion can be had about these events. On “Up With Chris Hayes,” the Saturday morning after the Oakland crackdown, I saw Hayes and writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Heather McGhee have a serious discussion which acknowledged both that this news was delivered by social media, and also that the police brutality directed toward occupiers around the country was only a taste of what communities of color deal with all the time. The guests noted that the confluence beween the police state and the disenfranchisement of the 99 percent was becoming clearer and clearer.
Rachel Maddow also ran a segment on the importance of an alliance between the “stop stop-and-frisk” movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. This was nuanced, complex territory that activists often navigate far from the cameras, and it was in the “mainstream media.”
A Desire for Conflict
Here’s something else that’s being omitted from coverage, that isn’t as dramatic as police beatings and tear gas: what’s happening down at 60 Wall Street, an open atrium (another privately owned public space) that has become the preferred meeting spot for many of Occupy Wall Street’s busiest working groups and soon, its “Spokes Councils.” There is no anarchy here, although there are anarchist-style decisions being made. There is no chaos, and the conflict is worked out on an individual level.
This doesn’t fit in with a traditional media narrative of “conflict,” or of protests and encampments, nor does the methodical nature of consensus-building necessarily gel with a 24-hour news cycle. The decision to allow working groups to use a Spokes Council to make decisions, instead of going through the General Assembly, took weeks and a painful number of long meetings to hash out. But those decisions happened, and that in and of itself is a story.
Media critic Felix Salmon wrote an excellent post for his Reuters blog on October 31, taking on his colleagues’ coverage of the movement, with this need for conflict as a sticking point: “Journalists love conflict, of course, and so when they cover OWS thereâ€™s a tendency to try to gin up the story with imaginary beefs â€” OWS hates the Jews! Goldman has declared war on OWSâ€™s bankers! Etc. This is not helpful,” he wrote.
So here’s a tip for the reporters who are scared of Zuccotti Park: get off the 2/3 train at 60 Wall Street and enter a space that is quiet, taken over by circle after circle of protesters, using hand-signals and gestures and conversation to reach consensus-based decisions. Ask the people at these meetings–many of whom have “real” jobs or are students and teachers–what parts of their new process are better than the procedures they use at their offices or in classrooms. Ask them what they are planning, and when it will happen. New tents? Civil disobedience? Anti-oppression training? Ask them how they introduce each other using “preferred gender pronouns” and don’t make fun of it, but note how it shows the way sophisticated gender theory has permeated the movement. Ask them where they’re staying in New York City, or who’s staying on their couches.
Not Buying Leaderlessness
On November 7, the New York Times public editor asked a group of his media expert colleagues: “How should The New York Times cover this movement that resembles no other in memory?” The responses were almost universal in their derision of the movement’s avowed uniqueness, and they were positive that any devotion to “leaderlessness” was a lie being passed off by a secret cabal of Occupy Wall Street leaders to deny their own existence. One writer for the Brooklyn Ink was quite convinced that the media team are the “real leaders” of the movement–an anointing whose self-regarding elements seem to have been lost.
But Occupy Wall Street is actually succeeding, without leaders. Are there a core of particularly active members? Yes. Have I started to notice regulars downtown moderating meeting and staffing desks? Yes. But while there may be point people, there are too many of them to even be a core. Every time I go downtown I meet more movement stalwarts, and more arrive each day. Yes, there are some things about Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots that resemble other old-school lefty movements. But this absolute dedication to horizontalism is real and it’s big. And it deserves to be taken seriously.
Here’s a story: how quickly the Internet has allowed the horizontal, leaderless, goal-less ethos of the movement to catch on, so that first-timers marching to Times Square or Foley Square were already using the human mic (they’d seen it on YouTube) and carrying signs that said “The Movement is the Message.” Newcomers at GAs are embracing hand-signals. If all these people can understand and accept the direct democratic ideals of the movement, surely the media can.
Kevin Jones, commenting on the Public Editor’s post at NYTimes.com, had this to advice to offer:
Stop looking for leaders and answers. It’s revisionist to do and you’ll only find yourself behind the news–playing catch up. This is an open source movement … Accept that it cannot be fit into preexisting categories and report on the organism itself as it grows and develops. Therein you will find the answers to many of the questions being asked….And be prepared to be patient–there is no rushing this process.”
An Absurd Threshold for “Neutrality”
Occupy Wall Street’s overarching message (income inequality and reckless financial institutions are bad) is a particularly pertinent one for media professionals, who have seen their sector shrink, their workload increase, and many of their jobs reduced to “contractor” status–no health insurance for you.
And yet some of them, having been caught holding signs at protests, have been fired from jobs at public radio, while other reporters have to attend rallies clandestinely or refrain from chanting or using the “people’s mic” to maintain their alleged neutrality. Neutrality, for many organizations, remains the hard and fast rule, when it’s no secret anymore that pure objectivity doesn’t exist, that journalists are people with opinions.
It’s this kind of weird insistence on neutrality over solid reporting that leads to statements like “Occupy Wall Street activists are protesting against what they say is a growing inequality” when in fact, the facts are out there and the numbers document that inequality has grown. So why put it in the protester’s words?
One of those fired journalists, Caitlin Curran, carried the famous sign reading, “it’s wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn’t aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.”
This sign quoted an Atlantic piece by Conor Friesderdorf on why Goldman Sachs’ Abacus deal was wrong. Her piece about her experience revealed the inherent contradiction in the media’s approach toward this movement, chastising it for having no message but declaring that participation invalidates reporting chops:
It’s unclear to me how our participation, on our personal time, in a non-partisan movement warrants termination from our jobs. If the protest is so lacking, in terms of message and focus, then how can my involvement with it go against The Takeaway’s ethical policies?
Beyond Curran’s situation, Friesderdorf himself thinks that media outlets having “a general rule against any participation in public protests is absurd.” Why? because hiding the fact that smart journalists actually have opinions and exercise their democratic rights adds to the perception of a “secret liberal bias” that only hurts the media in the end, leaving journalists prey to James O’Keefe-style stings.
Make Your Own Media
In this vacuum, DIY and Indie media have shone. From freelancers and progressive writers who have found themselves arrested and teargassed as they stand with marchers to young people with cellphones and cameras and Twitter accounts, more media is being made about Occupy Wall Street than about any movement that’s come before. There are newspapers and gazettes being made by occupiers and friends of occupiers, and blogs and tumblrs about women, people of color, queer people and individuals’ experience within the movement.
Increasingly, people are turning to these outlets because they’re giving readers a new kind of narrative: one of defiance, critique, contemplation and reflection from within, or from the margins of the movement. Those are the best stories about movements, after all.
Russ Baker writes of “traditional” media outlets covering Occupy Wall Street: “These institutions of inquiryâ€”and the kinds of people chosen to run themâ€” are not our best hope for understanding and solving our problems. We need to move on to something new, and better.”
Maybe we already have.
Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.