UPDATE December 9, 2011
Here’s a quick update on how the news media is getting the story wrong now. This article from Time has this gem as it’s opening sentence:
Zuccotti Park is encased in barriers, looking more like a crime scene these days than a hotbed of social activism, but while the drummers and the mike checks and the signs are gone, Occupy Wall Street activists claim their ranks are growing and the movement is stronger than ever. (my emphasis)
About the only thing true here is the part about it looking like a crime scene. If our reporter was a little more dedicated to getting the story right, he might have visited on a weekend or even came back later (assuming he was actually there at all). He would have seen that there are still many meetings in the park (with mic checks, spelled incorrectly in a major publication BTW…), and that people do still come here with signs, etc. Saying they are “gone” is wrong. Less prominent, but not gone.
I’ll let you know if he gets back to me on these problems with the article. UPDATE : He has. Looks like he’s more interested in defending his spelling (and he’s right, although “mic” seems to me to be the more popular version, and more accurate since it means “microphone”) than his assertion that protestors and signs are “gone” from Zuccotti Park.
Also consider this little throwaway snippet from an otherwise excellent New York Times article that deserves it’s own blog (and I may write it soon), concerning Mayor Bloomberg’s outrageous response to an NYC congressman’s effort to look into police misconduct:
The back-and-forth exchange between the mayor and the representative reflects how bitterly divided the public is over the Occupy Wall Street protests and how to respond to them.
Uh, how? Two politicians arguing over whether to investigate NYPD abuses is a reflection of public division? Most Americans want to see police brutality and false arrests investigated, and this is supported in many polls… so what are they divided on? This reflects more on the reporter’s divided opinion than anything else. Don’t worry, I asked him about it.
By Fred Gates
It is often asserted that the length of time needed to assess if changes (to diet, exercise or other habits, and to social trends) are going to last is 90 days. The 24-hour news and pundit media gave the Occupy Wall Street movement 60.
There are many reasons for this, not the least of it being that the MSM has neither the patience or the tools to follow a story this long. But besides this is the sad fact that the media has started to feed off of itself, repeating the misconceptions and memes that were begun by the right — namely that the movement is only relevant to the “fringes” of society, and that it lacks a cohesive platform.
To counter this misconception I’m offering, with small fanfare (OK, with NO fanfare), a list of OWS demands. Don’t be too excited: these demands are of the media.
1) Continue to Cover Occupy Wall Street
The dramatic decline of coverage of OWS protests and action began immediately after the raid and “eviction” of OWS protestors from Zuccotti Park on November 15th. Obviously many took the word “eviction” literally, as if by not allowing people to camp (and sleep) in the park any longer they have been removed from the park. I can say from my own experience that this isn’t true. Zuccotti Park remains the center of the movement and is still populated by OWS people, admittedly in smaller numbers, who are doing the same things as before — but simply are no longer sleeping here.
My last visit I saw many protesters, myself included, engaging with passers-by. We had signs, passion, and some small conflicts with police and security officials. Much of the discussion was to clarify that the movement was not over and to invite folks to join in. Many simply asked “what can I do?*” These were tourists, old people, Wall Street workers, even the cops and security people themselves … they mostly had jobs and seemed as if they had “taken a bath” recently. All the elements of before where there, with the exception of the presence of any reporters or photographers from major media outlets. As anyone who was there in the first 30 or 60 days could tell you, this is a big change — we were literally tripping over the media presence here before.
Typical coverage implies that no one is here, and that OWS faces coming up with a “post-eviction” strategy. It is difficult to see how the media would actually know what is going on in Zuccotti Park now, since they simply have no one there.
An example might be in order. You wouldn’t be alone if you watched coverage of Donald Trump’s meeting with Newt Gingrich about his cringe-worthy debate without knowing that a group of OWSers where there, at street level, urging Newt to “take a bath” and stop his “dirty” politics. This clever retort to Newt’s dismissal of OWS (with the same phrase) was videotaped by most of the media there, including CNN — but ended up on the editing floor.
To be fair, there is a little less going on … and certainly less of the drama of big stories concerning police brutality, celebrity interlopers, and the supposed hypocrisy of people with money joining in. But more to the point is the fact that the “what is going on here?” and “tell us what you want” stories have completely vanished. I’m sure the fault for this rests partly on OWS in refusing to distill the movement into sound bites. But the other reason is that the media got high on its own supply: it became an echo chamber for the meme (which I believe was started by people on the right who want to see OWS fail) that there is no message to be had. After 60 days of trying to get that sound bite, they gave up. Worse, by doing so they — perhaps by accident — declared the biggest misconception to be true: the movement can’t or won’t say what it is for, and cannot commit to even one coherent demand.
The energy once used for real reporting (asking questions that matter) has now been reallocated to assert that nothing will change. The movement is a failure.
2) Stop Repeating Right-wing Memes about OWS
The inclusion of right-wing talking points into the MSM coverage of the protests was subtle at first, but is now the main story. Classic Nixonian attacks were leveled: they were dirty hippies, anarchists and socialists, anti-capitalist, outside-of-the-mainstream losers who should be seen as criminal, even dangerous. It is an effective lie, and the people involved (or pretending to be) that fit the profile were immediately given front-page treatment to imply that they WERE the movement. Anyone who has actually been to one of these protests or events knows otherwise … yet the negative coverage managed to seep into the mainstream. Some of my friends who are good, solid people — and, yes, liberals — actually expressed a fear of going to the park: that they would somehow end up arrested. The power of the meme had run full circle: a right-wing attack had created a “chilling effect” on possible participants, and certainly tamped down “positive” coverage of OWS. They had won.
Perhaps the worst misconception that the press absorbed is the “no message, no demands, no leaders” lie.
Back in September I was impressed by the protestors VERY SPECIFIC signs recommending public policy changes, and have since found (rather easily, I’d say) that fully ALL of the OWS people I know agree with most of them. A popular sign early on (and today) urges the reinstatement of the Glass-Stegal Act. That’s pretty damn specific, and just one of a few popular mainstays. At least 5 are represented by this list on a forum post at the OWS website.
Yet the coverage of these easily discerned demands was spotty in the beginning and is altogether absent now. Wikipedia has a surprisingly accurate picture of OWS that any media person could at least begin with. They summarize what the protests are about in a single sentence:
The protests are against social and economic inequality, high unemployment, greed, as well as corruption, and the undue influence of corporations—particularly from the financial services sector—on government.
Not a sound bite exactly, but pretty damn spot-on. And then there is our common sense, also easily reported on by simply asking people what they think, summarized nicely by this quote from the same entry:
Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful. Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher. What upsets banking’s defenders and politicians alike is the refusal of this movement to state its terms or set its goals in the traditional language of campaigns … They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture. — Douglas Rushkoff writing for CNN (my emphasis)
So a movement with a clear (but not short enough?) message and clear ideas of how to achieve its goals is said to have none. As brutally as some in the media treated the early Tea Party protests, they somehow avoided this level of scrutiny, even when all they said was “We want our country back.” Well, so do we.
I’d submit that the only reason the “no message” meme is now conventional wisdom is that the right-wing media machine got way out in front of the story and repeated the lie endlessly. If we on the left had known we might shut down (or at least slow down) the Tea Party by simply saying “they aren’t saying anything!” we probably would have tried it. We aren’t that cynical of course, for better or worse.
3) Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
Finally, consider how much was accomplished in two months. It’s hard to argue that OWS did not completely change the national dialogue in this period: we were talking about deficits, now “income inequality” is a common phrase among pundits and politicians alike. Barack Obama’s latest speech channeling Teddy Roosevelt, included the assertion that his goals were “neither 99% values or 1% values” but rather “American values,” was directly lifted from an OWS slogan. Is the media giving the movement any credit for its huge influence on politics?
OWS’ most basic demand — awareness — has been met in a big way. The public knows the emperor is naked, and it remains to be seen if they forget or not. Certainly the MSM should at least offer a fair analysis of the huge impact this has had, if only to balance their lame “its all over” stories. At least give the public information and let them choose what to do with it. Sadly, they have moved on.
When December 17th arrives OWS will officially be just 90 days old. Perhaps this anniversary will give some in the media a reason to reassess it or at least give an update. Color me doubtful.
*My answer to most who asked this was very simple: “Tell people you know that you talked to a protestor who was polite, clean, moderate and had specific goals and strategies for OWS … this is not getting out for some reason.”