The ‘Media Circus’ of Occupy Wall Street Coverage

NOTE: This is a guest blog post from Megan Tady. Megan is a writer for Free Press. Prior to working with Free Press, Megan was a national political reporter for In These Times magazine, a staff reporter and editor for The New Standard, and worked extensively as a freelance journalist.

Big news: The establishment media are finally picking up on the Occupy Wall Street story. In fact, Occupy Wall Street coverage increased to nine percent of the overall news hole from Oct. 10-16 — up from two percent two weeks prior. As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show said, the media dial has gone from “media blackout” to “media circus.”

Increased airtime and column inches, however, don’t necessarily equal quality reporting. Protest coverage has consisted mostly of reporters and news anchors making sweeping generalizations about a “hippie movement.” Media watchdog groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting say stories have been short on actual facts and long on criticism of the protests. From interviewing scholars and “experts” to speak for the protesters instead of talking with the legions of folks at the encampments themselves, to pinning the movement on a few scantily clad youngsters, the media are fumbling to tell this story in a quick, seamless sound bite.

But why are the mainstream media botching this? And if the mainstream media aren’t telling the full story, who is?

The Botch Job

To be fair, some mainstream reporters and commentators have produced lucid, elegant and instructive coverage. But for the most part, the media appear confused, dismissive, and patronizing of a movement that is sparking action across the nation.

The reporting we see is a result of larger problems. Mainstream media, owned by only a handful of corporations, has evolved to defend, rather than report on, the companies that fund and own it. A movement that is indicting major corporations for corruption, greed and scandal is therefore attacking mainstream media outlets. We’re asking reporters to bite the hand that feeds them, and most are willing to risk only a nibble, if that.

Independent journalist Allison Kilkenny, co-producer of the political radio show Citizen Radio, has been tracking the mainstream media’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street. She was interviewed for Free Press’ podcast Media Minutes. She said the public is right to question reporters and news anchors who are dismissive of Occupy Wall Street. CNN’s Erin Burnett, for example — who has been lambasted for her comments on the protests — is a former Citigroup employee. “It’s not surprising that someone who is herself a corporate shill, and who is on a network that has corporate advertisers, would not depict Occupy Wall Street in the most favorable light,” Kilkenny said.

Corporate favoritism and self-censorship are just two ill effects of a heavily consolidated media system. Here’s another: There aren’t enough reporters on the ground to cover the protests blooming throughout the country. As companies have gobbled up media outlets across the country, they’ve cut their costs by laying off thousands of media workers, closing bureaus, paring down camera crews and sharing stories with outlets they used to compete against.

Many local media outlets aren’t equipped to cover a story like Occupy Wall Street with depth or true investigation. Instead, you’ll find two-minute news segments about activists protesting “corporate greed” (a made-for-TV agenda that simplifies a more complex movement), or stories focusing on arrests with only a brief reference to why people are gathering in droves.

Kilkenny said:

When [reporters] say stuff like, ‘[The protesters are] scattered ideologically,’ what they mean is, this isn’t a traditional, hierarchical organization and it confuses me. I don’t understand the democratic process that they’ve chosen to adopt. I’m overwhelmed because I have to interview a lot of people and I just want to interview one person who’s the leader.’

John Farley is the multimedia Web editor with New York City’s public media magazine MetroFocus. On Sept. 24, he was arrested while reporting on the protests. In an email, he told Free Press how he thinks the mainstream media has been covering Occupy Wall Street.

Farley wrote:

By the second week of the protest, mainstream media began to acknowledge that the protests were happening, but the coverage was largely patronizing, even mocking. Coverage made fun of the relative youth of the protestors, of their attire and even of the fact that they had time to camp out on Wall Street because they don’t have jobs — ignoring the fact, of course, that joblessness is a cornerstone of their complaints.

Kilkenny said these judgments hid the real story, and made it hard for the audience to discern what was actually going on in Zuccotti Park. “Americans should be angry in the sense that this is the only meaningful resistance that has emerged since corporations robbed the country blind,” she said. “Now there’s actually a legitimate response to it, and what are they saying? ‘Oh, there’s hippies in a drum circle.’”

With the protests surging and an estimated 10,000 people gathering in New York City last weekend and thousands more in cities around the world, commentators and reporters continue to delegitimize the movement. For example, Sunday’s Washington Post buried the story about the mass protests in a one-column-inch slot in the right-hand corner of the front page. The story continued on page A20, complete with a leading image of a protester torching a car — rather than one of the thousands of images of peaceful demonstrations that took place all over the globe.

Giving the Whole Picture

“If Occupy Wall Street has done nothing else, it’s allowed us to see how lazy and inept our media is,” Kilkenny said.

It’s also allowed us to see who is doing the best reporting. Public media reporters like Farley, independent journalists like Kilkenny and local citizen journalism projects like The Uptake have been stepping in and filling the void, providing a voice for the folks on the streets. Rather than simply sending a reporter to Zuccotti Park for a few short interviews and base descriptions, these reporters and outlets are spending hours among the protesters to learn who they really are, and what they’re really demanding. Take Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, which broadcast its entire show from New York City last Tuesday.

Instead of whitewashing the protests under a neatly spun narrative, many of these outlets are doing the legwork to help the public understand our financial system and how this movement has sprung up. Participants in Zuccotti Park have set up an independent media center to amplify their voices to the world. And social media is helping people share and view images, video and testimony that aren’t available on mainstream media. Free from corporate control, these outlets are reporting on this movement without anyone pulling the strings — or moving the mouths — behind the curtains.

Photo by (cc) Thomas Altfather Good

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Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Mainstream media is the circus.

Gloria H.
Gloria H.4 years ago

We need more of us CARE2 people e-mailing their friends about OWS. I take it most of us are more or less moderate/liberal and have a wide range of like minded friends. They know us, if we speak our truth to them about OWS in our hometowns, etc it will have a ripple effect. Just today, I got an e-mail from a friend who didn't know OWS was about. Good opportunity to send her some links about it. We can set an example.

Ernest R.
Ernest R.4 years ago

@ Mike C “ You are protesting the wrong place:” No, it is the right place whether or not corporate suckholes like yourself are happy about it.

Stanley Balgobin
Stanley R.4 years ago

For Independent unbiased coverage Watch LinkTV on Dish Newtork (Ch 9410) or Direct TV satellite. Also internet web site check out Amy Goodman Democracy Now "The war and peace report"

Charles Wallis
Charles Wallis4 years ago

I applaud these people. Already, without leaders, platforms, etc. they have forced the media and politicians to at least pretend they care about people, fairness, and jobs. I hope they can sustain themselves through the 2012 election. They are providing some small barrier against the tsunami of untraceable money.

Mercedes Lackey
Mercedes Lackey4 years ago

OWS has not been co-opted by Obama (though he's trying), nor the Dimocrats (though they are trying). There is just as much criticism of Obama at OWS as of the Repiglicans. This is a truly independent, truly democratic movement.

I'm not at all surprised that mainstream media hasn't a clue. Mainstream media has been clueless for years; all they ever do is read the handouts given them by corporations and their corporate spinmasters. All you have to do is look at the way they handled the BP/Halliburton oil blowout in the Gulf to see that in action.

Rita White
Rita White4 years ago

Thank you for the information

Karen and Ed O.
Karen and Ed O.4 years ago

“If Occupy Wall Street has done nothing else, it’s allowed us to see how lazy and inept our media is", Kilkenny said.

Amen! If people want to know what's going on in this movement they have few choices, but one is Keith Olbermann on Current TV. He has kept up with what is going on and has interviewed a number of participants. Check it out if you can.

Morgana Washington

NOTICE: A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED FOR FOR THIS FRI., the 28TH!!!!! Now its time to ratchet things up! Don't go to work, unplug everything, spend time with yourself and your family (including the furry ones), love, meditate, laugh, sing, dance, dream, be and WITHDRAW YOUR participation in a system that is unfixable.

Rob Keenan
Rob Keenan4 years ago

It's obvious,Mike C.,that the media coverage has you concerned about what Occupy is and what it isn't. It ISN'T part of or run by the Obama campaign.Nor is it run by the Democratic Party.One of the things many of us with Occupy are upset about is all the corporate campaign money infecting our politics across the board,and we're especially steamed about how the US Supreme Court worsened that with it's Citizens United ruling.One thing I'd like to see come out of this,looking to 2014-'16,is a completely new political alignment that relies on these people to people efforts as the only way around all that money. In the mean time I sure don't see the Republicans as a suitable choice for '12 .

And you ,Robin B.,are like the Sgt. Schultz character from the old "Hogan's Heroes" show when it comes to the Occupy protests: you KNOW NOTHING! The ones I've been to have not in any manner been drug or alcohol parties.If you've got a brain and choose to use it,it would be obvious that that's the last thing that's going to happen with all the cops present.And if what we're doing is allowing some homeless people a little extra food,GOOD! I'm glad SOMEONE is on their side! On the other hand,Robin B.,the first place for someone to get harrassed for trying to sleep-especially at night-is at a Occupy protest.