December 8, 2023

Occupy Wall Street Puts the Coverage in the Spotlight

But in almost every other respect, mainstream news media outlets have been put right in the middle by the movement.

Newspapers and television networks have been rebuked by media critics for treating the movement as if it were a political campaign or a sideshow — by many liberals for treating the protesters dismissively, and by conservatives, conversely, for taking the protesters too seriously.

The protesters themselves have also criticized the media — first for ostensibly ignoring the movement and then for marginalizing it.

Lacking a list of demands or recognized leaders, the Occupy movement has at times perplexed the nation’s media outlets. Press coverage, minimal in the first days of the occupation in New York, picked up after amateur video surfaced online showing a police officer using pepper spray on protesters. On several occasions, video of confrontations with the police, often filmed by the protesters, has propelled television coverage.

In the initial coverage, “I saw almost nothing that talked about our reasons for being there, and that trend has largely continued,” said Patrick Bruner, an organizer for Occupy Wall Street in New York. He said the group welcomed investigations of “our ideas, why we’re here, what we’re saying and talking about.”

Alicia Shepard, who was until recently the ombudsman for NPR, said most news coverage of Occupy “hasn’t been about the issues, it’s been about who’s up and who’s down,” likening it to the “horse race” style of coverage prevalent in political campaigns.

An analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indicates that the movement occupied 10 percent of its sample of national news coverage in the week beginning Oct. 9, then steadily represented about 5 percent through early November.

Coverage dipped markedly, to just 1 percent of the national news hole, in the week beginning Nov. 6, supporting Ms. Shepard’s assertion that it had “died down” before the early morning eviction in New York last Tuesday. It has since rebounded strongly.

Throughout the protests, Occupy Wall Street has become something of an ideological litmus test, with accusations of media bias from the left and the right. Days after the protest began in New York, the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore appeared on MSNBC, asserting that the mass media had a tendency to play down left-wing protests.

Conversely, L. Brent Bozell III, the president of the conservative Media Research Center, appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox telling other media outlets to “put their pompoms down for a minute.”

Now, any time there are misstatements of fact — on Thursday the Fox News affiliate in New York falsely reported that protesters planned to “shut down” the subways, and “CBS Evening News” reported that hundreds had turned out for an afternoon rally when in fact many thousands had — questions about bias are raised.

Even as some protesters have complained about the media, others have courted coverage, and still others have taken matters into their own hands. For more than a month, Tim Pool, a 25-year-old from Illinois, has been attending Occupy Wall Street events in New York and live-streaming them to the Internet from his cellphone. “I just wanted to see an accurate portrayal of what was happening without internal or external bias,” he said.

Mr. Pool clearly sympathizes with the protesters but considers himself independent from the group. At the peak of the protests in New York on Thursday, 30,000 people were watching his shaky video feed at any given moment, according to his host site, Ustream. Mr. Pool said the police officers treated him like a protester, not a cameraman, raising questions about who qualifies as a reporter in the Internet age and what rights they should be afforded, if any.

The questions are relevant in part because 26 reporters and photographers have been arrested at protests linked to the movement, according to a count by Josh Stearns of the media advocacy group Free Press. A significant portion of those arrested were freelance workers, students and writers for alternative publications. “As journalism is changing,” Mr. Stearns said, “it’s going to create new friction and conflict over what we mean by the First Amendment.”

Many journalists were blocked from Zuccotti Park as the eviction took place on Tuesday morning, leading to accusations of police suppression of media coverage.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the restrictions were put in place “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.”

Journalism groups have filed complaints about the restrictions and arrests, resulting in renewed scrutiny of how the Police Department processes requests for press credentials. Of the 10 reporters arrested in New York on Tuesday, half had credentials. Discussing the arrests, Mr. Stearns said, “In the heat of the moment it may be very hard to tell who is and who isn’t a journalist,” though he said that was no excuse.

Some reporters have reported being threatened by protesters in the last two months, but for the most part the criticisms have been confined to signs and shouts, particularly when Fox News cameras are nearby.

Attesting to the opinionated tone of much television coverage, Fox hosts and guests have described the protesters as a “group of nuts and lunatics and fascists” (Karl Rove), “demonic loons” (Ann Coulter) and “a bunch of wusses” (Greg Gutfeld).

On MSNBC, meanwhile, optimism reigns in comments like “it is what working people are talking about” (Ed Schultz) and “it has the support of tens of millions of Americans” (Michael Moore).

A number of journalists have been pilloried for their perceived opinions, including the CNN host Erin Burnett, who mocked the New York occupation on her broadcast. Critics seized on the fact that she was engaged to a bank executive.

The public radio host Lisa Simeone was dismissed by one of her employers, Soundprint, after she was reported to be a leader of an Occupy camp in Washington, and a freelance journalist, Caitlin Curran, was fired by “The Takeaway” radio show after she was photographed holding her boyfriend’s sign at a protest. In an essay for Gawker, Ms. Curran wondered what ethics codes she had violated since she said Occupy Wall Street lacked a single “message and focus.”

The absence of broad media attention initially gave protesters a shared grievance. Since the Vietnam War, there have been many instances when protest movements have criticized the media over perceived slights, said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia who helped to organize the first national antiwar protests in the 1960s.

But there is less of an “obsession” about that these days, he said, “because they’re making their own media.”

There is The Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper, for instance, and the “We Are the 99 Percent” group blog.

Priscilla Grim, who has helped produce both, said she was “hoping to see a real resurgence in independent media, to not just cover the issues of Occupy, but to cover the issues that all people are dealing with.”

Mr. Bruner, the Occupy Wall Street organizer, echoed that. Early on, he courted CNN, The New York Times and other news outlets by e-mailing reporters and editors with daily protest updates. But, he said, “we’re fighting a system, and this media is a part of the system.”

He added, ”And when this media doesn’t cover us in a fair light, the desire isn’t to shame them, it’s to create an alternative.”

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