Occupy Wall Street's Media Problems

Occupy Wall Street’s first media problem was that there was no media. On September 21, Keith Olbermann chastised New York newspapers and major news outlets for ignoring the demonstrations in their first five days.

“[The protesters] are not going to be able to refine their goals based on reading bad reviews in the protest critics of the New York Times,” said the Current TV anchor, formerly of MSNBC. Mr. Olbermann did not explain why the Times would be obligated to help Occupy Wall Street crystallize unrest into specific demands.

(via twitter.com/danlatorre)

To Mr. Olbermann, The Observer‘s mildly skeptical coverage rendered the paper “a piece of crap” that “didn’t really fit into this explanation,” but once the New York Times review came in, it sounded a lot like ours.

With a list of demands as schizophrenic as ending joblessness, “the modern gilded age,” political corruption, and capital punishment, The Times’ Ginia Bellafante concluded on Saturday that protesters were “pantomiming progressivism rather than practicing it knowledgeably.”

Upon reading her piece, Occupy Wall Street’s de facto PR man, Patrick Bruner, shaved off his punk hairdo, to show he meant business.

A visit to Liberty Plaza later that night illuminated the demands and challenges of creating a media narrative out of a non-hierarchical demonstration.

Occupy Wall Street’s media camp anchored the protest—a heap of equipment circling a tripod from which a handful of volunteers manned a live stream, updated a blog, and operated an information booth. The tables were strewn with granola bars and the ground was littered with cigarette packs and Red Bull cans. During the quiet first days of the protest, the media team provided a steady stream of free photo and video footage to the bloggers and news sites that began to give the protest media traction.

At about 9:30, the information booth was visited by a man whose long gray hair suggested he had seen a demonstration or two, who was earnestly concerned about the scattershot cause of Occupy Wall Street. We caught the end of the defense offered by the booth attendant, a young man with dirty hair and thick framed glasses.

“…and plus this whole generation’s been depoliticized,” he said, half apologetic, half vexed, as he stuck out his hand.

“Listen, I’d love to talk to you about this more later, but right now there’s a line of people,” he said, gesturing toward The Observer and the young man beside us in a name tag that said Occupier Justin.

Justin had dropped by to make an announcement on the live stream—the online video feed that had been continuously broadcasting from Occupy Wall Street since September 17. The Observer was looking for someone to talk to about it. Who was running the show around here?

“You should talk to Nikki,” the Information guy told The Observer, pointing to a twenty-something woman in leopard print pajama pants and a red silk camisole.

Nikki’s attention could not be diverted from a cell phone call, in Spanish, before she wandered out of the media camp. The Observer lingered.

Because the protest was continuously documenting itself, it was hard to tell who was participant, who was reporter, and who was tourist, snapping photos for their Instagram feed as they would of their cat or their breakfast.

While we waited for Justin to make his announcement and free up the man with the Information, a petite blonde recruited us to hold a digital voice recorder to his face.

“This is Justin from the Arts & Culture committee,” he said. “I’m here to announce that we’ve built a police barrier made out of votive candles, peace and love.”

80-odd protesters had been arrested that afternoon, and the police presence was still felt even blocks away from the plaza. A rumor circulated that they would make another round of arrests once the TV cameras had packed up for the night.

“Just make sure you have a bag packed and ready to go,” someone told a strung-out couple who approached the Information booth.

Justin gestured to aim the camera over his shoulder. On a small stone ledge bordering the park’s trees—where on a normal day the Wall Street workers who don’t get bonuses sit and eat Halal cart lunches—small candles had been lit at one foot intervals.

It was exactly the kind of gesture that made Occupy Wall Street hard to take seriously—it was superficial, lighthearted and lacked urgency. Occupation is not a permanent state; yet the line of candles said nothing of what would have to change in order for the demonstration to disperse. Worse, it displaced the movement’s anger and energy toward NYPD, which is not responsible for the country’s unemployment or yawning income gap.

While Justin made his announcement, Barbara Ross, a member of the Occupy Wall Street photo team, was hunched over a MacBook, uploading a video clip to YouTube. A young man with a crew cut and leather bracelets had snuck under a barrier and crouched down beside her. He read her an open letter to Wall Street which he had scratched in a composition notebook.

He hoped to get it published.

“It’s a lovely letter,” she told him, “but I don’t know anything about how to get it printed. Try the Arts & Culture committee.”

Ms. Ross, the eloquent and crunchy-pretty spokeswoman for the environmental organization Time’s Up!, told The Observer that the profusion of citizen journalists among the protesters was a mixed blessing.  They provided a lot of raw photo and video, which allowed her to be stationary and keep an eye on the equipment. Even in the calm before and after the arrests, security is dicey.

She had to remove one attendee she believed was covering the protest, she said, when she saw him zooming and focusing his lens on the screen of a team member’s laptop as they entered a password.

Occupy Wall Street’s media output is critical to keeping the demonstration inclusive, accessible, and democratic, but the content of the demonstration is a secondary concern for the live stream, according to Ms. Ross. (How many will tune in for another hour of drum circles and acoustic ballads?) The documentation doesn’t really become important until things go wrong.

During the arrests Saturday afternoon, police targeted those central to the protest, according to another live stream team member, Vlad Teichberg. Thanks to a broadcast buddy system, they were able to document the arrest of one of the bloggers, he said, and grab a computer from another before his hands were cuffed. According to Ms. Ross, recent photos showed a cop lunging at a protester unprovoked, yet the man had been arrested for aggression against the same officer.

Mr. Teichberg, a 38-year-old Russian émigré and self-described “media activist,” staged similar media operations at the Republican National Convention and G8 Summit. With Ms. Ross, he helped document the monthly cyclist demonstration Critical Mass. Video footage of the Friday night group rides was crucial in 2008, when it served as proof that the cyclist Christopher Long, who had been charged with assault, was in fact a victim of police brutality. NYPD later paid a $965,000 settlement to cyclists who were wrongly arrested.

With a viral video and a shamed cop, the obscure social event for environmentalists and DIY kids became front page local news. Now, it’s a launch pad for bigger targets.

“We’ve been using the monthly Critical Mass rides to train media warriors,” Mr. Teichberg said.

Police brutality wasn’t among the disparate reasons people gathered to Occupy Wall Street last week, but it’s quickly rushing in to the protest’s ideological vacuum. Mean cops offer a tangible stand-in for a decade of abstract bullying and bondage by financiers who are unregulated, profiteers who are untaxed, and elected officials who are for sale. Many of the protesters are too young to have registered these shifts in society’s tectonic plates as they happened, but are not far from the age when the pigs broke up their house parties.

Protestors like to point out that they’re on the cops’ side—NYPD salaries place officers safely among the “99%” they represent—but, as one might have predicted from the trajectory of Critical Mass, altercations with the police are the fastest way to legitimize and draw attention to an otherwise juvenile movement. Arrests provide concrete numbers for headlines and handsome young faces with bloody noses make good homepage photos.

Yesterday, a video made the rounds which, unless Warren Buffett arrives with a confetti cannon full of twenties, will be the most popular to emerge from the first eight days of the demonstration.

Two young women are penned against the sidewalk by an orange net, but they strain against it as they look down the sidewalk in horror, where someone is being aggressively handcuffed, bloodied face down on the pavement.  While they’re looking away, a high-ranking police officer in white swiftly approaches them, douses them with pepper spray, and slips back into the crowd. The two young women, blinded, drop to their knees screaming and clutch at their faces. Two women behind them also begin to cry as their faces visibly redden.

The video won’t bring regulatory reform to financial services, reinstate capital gains tax, or repeal Citizens United, but it is one way to end a media blackout, or bounce back from a bad review.

“The cops spraying a bunch of white girls, well, our donations have tripled,” one of the victims, Chelsea Elliott, told the Village Voice.

Occupy Wall Street's Media Problems