NEW YORK - Media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests started out exactly as one might expect. There was little coverage at first (FAIR Action Alert, 9/23/11), and as it expanded, much of it consisted of snide dismissals of demonstrators' ignorance, hygiene and so on.
But then something happened. Following incidents of police abuse, including the unprovoked pepper-spraying of several demonstrators on September 24, media coverage began to pick up (FAIR Activism Update, 9/29/11). NPR executive editor Dick Meyer explained that the protests were not covered early on because they "did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective." But within a day or so, NPR was covering the protests, as was the rest of the media.
Soon the actions were being treated as front-page, top-of-the-newscast material. Consider this Brian Williams introduction at the top of the October 5 NBC Nightly News:
We begin tonight with what has become by any measure a pretty massive protest movement. While it goes by the official name Occupy Wall Street, it has spread steadily and far beyond Wall Street, and it could well turn out to be the protest of this current era. The lyric from 45 years ago in the Buffalo Springfield song "For What It's Worth" could also describe this current movement right now. Once again, there is something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear, but it encompasses a lot of things: anger, frustration, disenfranchisement, income disparity, unaccountability and general upheaval and dissatisfaction.
A USA Today editorial (10/12/11) was headlined "Five Good Reasons Why Wall Street Breeds Protesters." A New York Times editorial (10/9/11) took on the "chattering classes" who complained that Occupy Wall Street lacked a clear message or specific proposals: "The message--and the solutions--should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening."
This is not to suggest, of course, that coverage is uniformly positive or respectful. October 15 saw massive demonstrations around the world, which made it onto the front page of the next day's Washington Post--in the form of a lower right-hand corner blurb approximately one column inch long, directing people to page A20 to find news about protests in "more than 900 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia."
Some coverage was absurd. Reuters (10/13/11) published a disgraceful piece attempting to link the protests to billionaire George Soros--a false conspiracy one would expect from talk radio host and former Fox News star Glenn Beck (FAIR Blog, 10/13/11).
Of course, actual Fox personalities were plenty busy. Host Bill O'Reilly quipped (10/14/11), "Do we have all kinds of crackheads down there?" He later added that the Wall Street protest is "dirty and filthy. There's rats running all over. There's dope all over the place. They're having sex outside at night and all of this stuff." Fox Business reporter Charles Gasparino declared (10/17/11): "It's not just protest Wall Street. It's protest Wall Street and it's an embrace of Communism and there is no doubt about it."
"Starbucks-sipping, Levi's-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denounce corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer explained (10/14/11). Krauthammer maligned the protesters as "indigant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees" whose policy proposal boils down to "Eat the rich."
In the New York Times (10/17/11), former executive editor Bill Keller devoted a column about the "good news" happening around in the world--none of which has to do with the global movement against inequality: "Bored by the soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism of Occupy Wall Street?" Keller asks, before cheering Slovakia's position on European Union bailout, which has done more "than the cumulative protests of Occupy Wall Street have done in a month of poster-waving." A column by the Times' David Brooks (10/11/11) dismissed the protesters as "Milquetoast Radicals."
But overall the protests have received significant and sustained media attention. This is surprising, given corporate media's history of marginalizing or belittling progressive protest movements (Extra!, 7-8/00; 7-8/05, 7/11).
So why are things different this time around?
From the very start, activists were criticizing the media for paying little attention to the demonstrations (FAIR Action Alert, 9/23/11). This likely had some impact, as did the persistence of certain media figures--Current TV's Keith Olbermann and MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell among them--in essentially shaming the corporate media into paying more attention.
One of the core complaints--that the media could hardly justify silence on OWS, given their keen interest in any Tea Party activism (Extra! 12/09, 9/10)--probably weighed on the minds of some editors and producers as well.
There is a tendency among elite reporters to view politics as largely a contest between the two major political parties. In that light, OWS could be considered newsworthy as a political opportunity for an embattled Democratic president and his party. As the Tea Party providing a jolt of enthusiasm and energy to the Republican Party, pundits are wondering if OWS will do the same for the other side.
Political reporters, ideology aside, do seem to crave a certain type of balance. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank explained (10/11/11), "A revived populist movement could be a crucial counterweight to the Tea Party, restoring some balance to a political system that has tilted heavily to the right."
But media have a hard time understanding a movement that does not appear to want to associate its activism with the political establishment. Much of the early criticism about the movement's lack of a "message" could be interpreted as elite confusion over political activism that does not seek to work the normal levers of power. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum (10/18/11) argued that the current demonstrations resemble earlier protests against corporate globalization "in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions."
Applebaum's column concludes by acknowledging that global economic power can undermine democratic institutions--but that protesters should nevertheless work within the existing political order or they "will accelerate that decline." It is a difficult suggestion to square with protesters' concern that the political system is rigged.
Still, the quantity and tone of much of the coverage is surprising. It's unlikely that corporate media, whose general Wall Street boosterism (Extra!, 7-8/02) reflects both their ownership and their dependence on corporate advertising, would suddenly turn against their owners and sponsors.
At the same time, American capitalism is seen by some elites as in a state of crisis, with consumer-led growth hampered by stagnating incomes and the limits of debt-based consumption. While the Tea Party movement proposes lower taxes and deregulation--policies that are likely to exacerbate inequality--there is at least some appetite among the wealthy for redistributive reforms to preserve the health of the profit-making system, as evidenced by billionaire Warren Buffett's calls for raising taxes on high incomes.
While the desire for fundamentally overhauling the economy is likely to be limited among those who have benefited most from its current structure, a widespread protest movement can create pressure to acknowledge the concerns of the economically pressured majority. Even some Republican politicians and presidential contenders have done so.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads, political elites are trying to find ways to adopt some of its message. A Washington Post front-page story (10/15/11), headlined "Obama Looks to Harness Anti-Wall St. Angst," reported that the White House plans to "turn public anger at Wall Street into a central tenet of their reelection strategy."
The Post article acknowledges the inherit difficulty for a White House that drafted an economic team with deep ties to Wall Street to try and run against Wall Street. But it is nonetheless a sign that political and media elites sense that there is something significant happening in the streets--even if they don't know what it is.
The real test of corporate media's willingness to seriously engage the protests and what they acknowledge to be widespread feeling behind them will come as these translate into calls for concrete policy and legislative change.