Wall Street Occupied, Media Uninterested

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor
September 23, 2011
Filed under Columns, OPINIONS

In case you missed it, thousands of demonstrators launched coordinated protest rallies at Wall Street and other financial centers in cities around the globe on September 17. Claiming inspiration from both the pro-union protesters in Wisconsin and Arab Spring revolutionaries in Egypt, the demonstrators set up camp around Wall Street and its global counterparts and were still there as of press time six days later. While many Oberlin students raised money for the demonstrators and organized to join them, the intended long-term protest is something that those of us who intend to make progress toward our degrees can only watch from the sidelines.

Watching from the sidelines would be easier if the mainstream media displayed a measurable interest in reporting on these protests as a serious political event. The New York Times’s only mentions of Occupy Wall Street have been two entries on its City Room blog — nothing in its print edition — that have served mainly to detail the police actions and arrests in response to the protests. “For months,” the Metro desk writer assigned to the blog wrote, “the protesters had planned to descend on Wall Street on a Saturday and occupy parts of it as an expression of anger over a financial system that they say favors the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens.” If the event was in planning for months, why exactly did theTimes only deign to notice it once demonstrators were already in the streets being arrested? The contrast between these items of (online-only) coverage and the rivers of ink the Times has spilled about Tea Party protest rallies over the last few years is striking, to say the least.

Despite the incessant yammering on the right about left-wing bias in the mainstream media, such a double standard reveals some of the biases that play a more central role in shaping journalists’ coverage of political events. One such bias is what media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen refers to as the “Church of the Savvy,” delineating the proper stance of a journalist “not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological and dreamy.” A left-wing blogger with a less academic tone might describe this mentality as opposition to “dirty fucking hippies.” The epithet makes perfect sense; after all, most East Coast media elites may have little personal experience with truck-driving Limbaugh listeners or minority-abusing police officers, but practically any college-educated American can relate to the spectacle of starry-eyed radicals getting high in their dorm rooms and proposing far-reaching, wholly impractical schemes for human progress.

The Occupy Wall Street protests, like any news story containing a whiff of ’60s-inspired activism, are reflexively portrayed with an air of frivolity by association. When demonstrators debated prior to protesting how to distill their many reasons for protesting into one coherent demand, what could have been viewed as a consequence of ideological diversity has often been ridiculed instead as a sign of incoherence and aimlessness. Stephen Colbert, whom one can count on to say outright what most media figures would only blurt after a heavy dose of sodium pentothal, sent a team to the protests to “film the fabulous furry freak show and find out just what these moon units are demanding through their clouds of bong smoke.”

An ironic result of this mentality is that protest actions often do receive extensive media coverage — as long as they’re already affiliated with established, respectable political actors. To some people, the financial backing the Tea Party receives from sources like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (via FreedomWorks) and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (via American Crossroads) may reveal the movement’s claim to anti-government, outsider status as a bald-faced lie. To many journalists, however, if press releases announcing “grassroots” protest rallies are written by staffers who once drafted press releases for the White House, it’s an indication not of soullessness but of seriousness.

As I wrote last week in an unrelated op-ed, the job of the news media is supposed to involve “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Journalists who have played this role admirably, such as Edward R. Murrow standing up to the McCarthy-era Red Scare or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposing the criminal activities of the Nixon administration, are idolized precisely because they lived up to this commandment by using the simple power of the truth. The more you follow the modern media, whose patriotic fighter-jet graphics and sensational coverage of inconsequential issues like the Casey Anthony trial conceal an unduly selective coverage of political events, the more you start to see such figures as exceptions to the rule — and such exceptions as on their way to extinction.

UPDATE: Since this op-ed was originally published in the Review, the Times has broadened somewhat its coverage of the protests. Far from contradicting the points made above, though, the article “Protesters Are Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim” embodies the journalistic tropes discussed in this op-ed to a T.

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