What the Media Aren't Telling You About American Protests
I am lately reminded of an assignment when my metro editor sent me to cover a “gentle protest” over the Gulf War of the 1990s in Jackson, Mich. (Don’t remember that war – or what it was about? That’s OK – because it was probably “security” and “oil,” and George W. ultimately righted his dad’s failure to see that war action through to its completion: killing Saddam Hussein, or at least dismantling his government. But I digress.)
It was an after-hours event, likely on a weekend (as that was my beat). And when I arrived at the designated time, well after sundown, I found one lone woman walking the length of a wall at an armory or similar government-type outpost with, not a flashlight, but a real, flickering candle. Back and forth, in the dark, trudging in the snow.
No one else had shown up – except me, that is. The place was deserted and, as I recall, not on a busy road. I actually had to drive by twice before I even saw her candle and a small chair she set up for herself when she got tired. It occurred to me that, if I walked away, it would have been the same as if she’d never been there at all. Yet, incontrovertibly, there she was: protesting a war that, at the time, no one was particularly riled up about. It wasn’t a story, really.
But I decided to speak with her anyway. I walked with her for about an hour and asked questions. Apart from understanding that my editors expected my story for the next day’s edition, I also sensed that there could be a story to tell – and that, if I didn’t, no one might ever consider an opposing view that, while solitary, might be worth listening to.
I’d have to dig through years of clips to find that story now. (I’m sure it resides in the Jackson Citizen Patriot morgue). But it’s not the story that’s important to me now.
It’s that I covered it at all – and that my editors were grateful I did. And that readers seemed to value the fact we were there to capture a moment in their community they would otherwise not have known about.
More than a week ago, a small band of peaceful protesters descended on Zuccotti Park (formerly Liberty Park) in New York City, not far from Wall Street. They dubbed their little movement “Occupy Wall Street.” And, on the first weekend, starting Sept. 17, they had quite a number of people join them in marches and speeches that essentially claimed the 99% of Americans who aren’t the 1% of uber-rich are disenfranchised – and have critical needs related to unemployment, cost of living, and a range of other social issues that are either being ignored outright or largely swept under the rug by our finance-focused government.
These young people, accompanied by like-minded Xers and a few Boomers, didn’t get much coverage to start. (I doubt any authentic movement, at the outset, ever does.) The media that did arrive briefly aired the same complaint: “They are a loosely organized group of disaffected youth who are more like hippies and have no real goal,” they yawned. “Nothing to see here, but we’ve done our job by ‘covering’ it in our blogs,” they seemed to say to New Yorkers and anyone outside the Big Apple paying attention. “This too shall pass.”
The only problem is, it hasn’t. And I suspect after this weekend, it isn’t going to.
Now in its 10th day, protestors are very much entrenched at Zuccotti Park (with people across the United States and around the world watching their activities via live-streaming video, as well as sending them supplies and money, even pizza via local vendors). This past Saturday afternoon, there was a large march to Union Park, through Washington Square (and, at times, through moving traffic – which was pretty incredible to watch in real time) – and all seemed to be going well with chants and songs as the trek was covered by Occupy Wall Street’s new media team, such as the young woman Net followers dubbed “50/50 Anchor Lady,” with hair that was half blonde, half brownish-black.
As I say, all was well – that is, until a phalanx of NYC police moved in and started making mass arrests. Twitter was the only way most of us knew it actually happened; the media team, scarily, was picked off shortly after the march gained momentum near Washington Park.
It’s not like no one was aware the police were coming. I myself could hear what was going down on the police scanner, which I alternately monitored while toggling back and forth between live-streaming and searching for news updates on Google.
The tension was building - you could feel it while watching from hundreds of miles away as the protestors kept dodging orange fencing and an increasingly ominous presence of officers. The marchers were peaceful - but resolute in their efforts to keep marching.
Then, right in the thick of things, the live-streaming ended just before the mass arrests and some disturbing instances of outright police brutality (documented and later distributed via cellphone photos). But, I should note, not before the world had already witnessed some of those protestor/cop encounters. It was shocking, actually, to watch people pushed with real force or slammed to the ground when, to my eye, they hadn't provoked anything remotely requiring that kind of police-state response.
I had been one of the hundreds, then thousands, to witness the march from nearly beginning to end – and that was not how I’d expected things to turn out. But, almost on cue (as if to underscore the government's fear this would spread), things escalated quickly and publicly in the glaring view of the Twitterverse, very likely to the chagrin of the NYPD, Michael Bloomberg and anyone on Wall Street who didn’t want this little movement to earn attention or gain credibility.
Within a matter of minutes, thousands of people were logging into the live-streaming site or retweeting the police presence. Yet, the media still weren’t covering the event, except as an aside, almost. I recall the Village Voice reported on several key tweets from Occupy Wall Street – laudable in providing “real time” updates, but I never could tell if they sent an actual reporter to the site at the time. (Back in the day, my own editors would have pushed me out the door. And sent back-up reporters.)
Not to be flip, but if 60-80 people were arrested for dog-fighting, or for wrangling outside a tony nightclub, or protesting at the United Nations, that might have gotten coverage. I’m pretty sure that would have received some attention. But this: In my humble opinion, it got very little. Some, finally - but people had to be hurt, and the police department's reputation tarnished, when neither was necessary if the media were operating as it should.
Since then, media coverage has been defensive. (Said one reporter, and I’m paraphrasing here: “It’s not fair to say Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been covered.” And then a short list of stories was included to prove the point.) And the coverage has been light: I was impressed Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and even Stephen Colbert have noted this is more than dismissive hippy-ism; but no major news organization has (to the best of my knowledge) paid more than the barest attention thus far.
Perhaps it’s because no one wants a popular movement or peaceful rebellion to spread at a time when many Americans are fed up with their dysfunctional government leaders. We have enough problems, the leaders and media friends might be thinking: Why stir the pot?
Perhaps it’s because they sense, as does Bloomberg, that once a train like this gets going, it can be hijacked by the wrong people and cause real damage. (That, alone, is worthy of another story altogether.) But is that a reason to quell coverage, really?
In the end, though, a large-scale failure to acknowledge and cover this “small” group of protestors – now growing in numbers, thanks to outrage at the rough-housing NYPD, and quickly propagating similar groups in other cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., etc. – is akin to a media blindness.
The media’s job is not to turn a blind eye. The media’s job is to report. Period. Which is yet another reason why Americans are not trusting the modern media. And I have to say, given what I’ve witnessed in recent days in and around Zuccotti Park, that I clearly understand why my profession is much maligned these days.
If people are there, and they have something worthwhile to say – regardless of whether it is popular or potentially alarming or against the political status quo – it is news. Good reporters should be covering it, regardless of their personal political preferences – and let Americans come to their own conclusions.
Is it a media blackout?
Sure seems that way to me. If I can cover one voice about a Gulf War, and contribute to society’s understanding of our greater human experience, then the media can certainly begin paying attention to thousands of marchers - and what appears to be the beginnings of an American movement.
I would call upon our news organizations to acknowledge their collective mistake in ignoring this story, remember that their calling is higher than the profit motive, and begin covering news that engages our thinking skills.
America needs the media now more than ever. To find it absent, while the entire world is watching this unfolding and increasingly important story (and they are) is a travesty and a statement about how far we have fallen as a nation built on freedom of speech and thought.
These are voices worth hearing at this time of trouble and strife. Hundreds of those voices are gathering in New York and other cities right now, representing diverse people and backgrounds and views - and trying to send a message that change, Real Change, must happen.
I want to hear what they have to say. As an American, I need to hear. As a media consumer, I demand to hear. Don't you?
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