Occupying The New York Times?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, has the tree fallen? This is an age-old philosophical question. A similar question might have been asked of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement: if a collective of demonstrators inhabit a public park to protest social and economic inequality, and no mainstream news media report it, has it happened? While such an event might, in the past, have gone unnoticed beyond a small circle of people, if not reported by the mainstream news media, today the growth of social media such as Twitter and Facebook has made the question irrelevant. With or without them, the event can be recorded and broadcast by its participants, and not just locally, but around the world.

For anyone who hasn’t heard, OWS is a protest movement that began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, a private-public park in New York City’s lower Manhattan financial district. The occupation, partly inspired by the Arab Spring, especially the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square in January 2011, was proposed by Adbusters Media Foundation, a Canadian activist group critical of corporate and consumerist culture. At its heart, OWS is a social phenomenon; a lone individual could never have executed this event. This social movement raises important questions about the nature of public space, about basic human rights, about what constitutes a decent quality of life, and about the need for human connections. It offers a critique of capitalism. It is a rich, complex event.

This essay takes a closer look at the mainstream news media’s coverage of the movement, as expressed in the New York Times, especially during the first two weeks of the occupation. While the Times describes itself as covering “all the news that’s fit to print” and is considered within the industry as the “newspaper of record,” its coverage of OWS was seriously lacking and included significant misrepresentations. This helps explain why many people distrust the corporate news media, and look to alternative sources and social media for information.

First, the Times’ coverage was spotty and limited. While the event was covered on its opening day by writer Colin Moynihan, the story was published in the City Room blog, which does not appear in the print edition; a reduced version of the story appeared the next day. The next two stories (9/19, 9/24) also appeared only in the City Room blog, and focused primarily on the arrest of demonstrators by police. The mainstream media’s limited coverage of the event, especially after video of police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters circulated widely on the Internet, drew the criticism of political commentator Keith Olbermann on September 21. Two days later, the Times presented its first major story, but it appeared in the New York and Region section, rather than on the front page or National section, nearly a week after OWS had started. The story’s headline mocked the movement, reading, “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim.” In the lead paragraph, writer Gina Bellafante furthered the dismissive, condescending picture of the protest movement, describing it thus:

a noble, but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, [which] had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka. A blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park, facing Liberty Street, just west of Broadway.

The article inaccurately characterized the movement as consisting of “frustrated young people,” even though the initial report in the City Room blog had included Bill Steyart, 68, from Forest Hills, NY, and quoted organizers as saying the rally included a diverse assemblage of groups. And in a tone that was more editorial than reportorial, Bellafante wrote, “The group’s lack of social cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face…” Bellafante’s article did not mention the police assault on the protesters, even though a separate story about it appeared in the City Room blog the same day. It is noteworthy that there were two stories, rather than a single, unified article.

Second, the Times failed to present a full picture of the origins and historical parallels of the movement. While the second blog entry on Sept. 19 mentioned Adbusters Media Foundation, Bellafante’s story in the print edition did not. The initial blog entry also reported that some organizers called it the United States Days of Rage, an apparent reference to a violent protest against the Vietnam War in Chicago in 1969, yet Bellafante’s story referenced instead 1968, a year more generally associated with the counterculture of the 1960s. Finally, the Sept. 19 blog entry quoted organizers as saying “the protests were inspired by demonstrations in Egypt and Spain,” yet Bellafante’s story in the print edition made no mention of this important global connection.

Third, while the Times drew comparison to the social unrest of the 1960s, the movement’s tactics of direct action and occupying public spaces were more evocative of the 1990s’ anti-Free Trade movements, such as the anti-World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in November 1999, an event that targeted unfettered global capitalism. When the newspaper finally mentioned this connection, it deflected the violence of globalized capitalism onto the protesters, describing them as “a visible example of lawlessness akin to that which resulted in destruction and violence at other anti-capitalist demonstrations, like the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in London in 2009 and the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.”

From the start of the occupation, the New York Times ignored and diminished the movement by relegating it to its blog pages, and then mocking it in the print edition. In the early months of the protest, and even today, it is common for people to say, “I know they – meaning, the occupiers – haven’t achieved anything concrete, but…” This idea that the protesters had not achieved anything concrete was a constant refrain in the mainstream news media. However, it now is clear that the protesters have achieved a great deal by shifting the dominant discourse from an obsession with the national deficit to the topics of social inequality and of meeting human needs. I think this discursive shift is powerful, and I’m grateful to the protesters for having created it.

Before I became a sociology professor, I worked as a reporter at New York Newsday. As a general policy, most newspapers do not cover citizen protests or demonstrations. An editor I admired made it clear to me that “news” only happened when social institutions with established power – such as the Mayor, the Board of Education or the Police Department – did or said something. A gathering of disgruntled people, publicly airing their grievances, was not considered to be inherently newsworthy…until someone got pepper-sprayed or arrested by the police. It was only later when I went to graduate school that I critically questioned how the mass media functioned and even questioned what my old editor had said.

We should bear in mind that this is not just a national phenomenon; it is global. Recently, on a friend’s Facebook page, I saw a poster of hungry, emaciated children, with the words, “For much of the world, we are the one percent.”  This struggle is not just about each of us getting a bigger piece of the pie. Rather, it’s about really questioning the nature of the pie itself, this economic system of capitalism we live in – not just nationally, but globally.

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