From Blackout to Circus: The Evolution of Media Coverage at Occupy Wall Street

Is the media ignoring Occupy Wall Street ... or obsessing about it? Skeptical reporters may prove sub rosa superfans.

geraldo at ows hannah grant From Blackout to Circus: The Evolution of Media Coverage at Occupy Wall Street

Geraldo Rivera interviewing protesters at Zuccotti Park on Saturday, Oct. 1. (Photo: Hannah Grant)

THE PROTESTERS AT OCCUPY WALL STREET have had at least one of their demands met: the perceived “media blackout” decried by so many, including Current TV’s Keith Olbermann, has clearly ended. Is the protest a story now? The Observer asked NBC’s Michelle Buettner, who arrived Sunday and had just finished interviewing a father with a precious young toddler perched on his shoulders. “It’s a story,” she snapped. “We’re here covering it.”

Hey, it took The Observer four days to show up, we offered.

“So we’re all sort of getting our bearings,” she said.

Indeed. Zuccotti Park was suddenly crawling with one-man camera crews feasting on the colorful scene. “I’m over it!” one demonstrator who had traveled to the protest from Florida said. “Everyone’s a media whore!” Geraldo Rivera’s crew was shooting B-roll of the bean sprout-and-cheese sandwiches being served for lunch as anchor after anchor interviewed a young man in a pink polka-dotted leotard and bra sitting next to a chalkboard that read “OUR ECONOMY IS MODELED ON A CANCER.” Another crew captured a protester, covered head-to-toe in a black Darth Vader-esque costume, who posed in a sort of crouching tiger over the spread of slogan-bearing signs. “We’re talking to a Columbia University professor, a political science professor,” ABC’s T.J. Winick told The Observer excitedly. “So if you want to get some quotes from him, feel free to go up to him after we’re done.” (Bonus! The young man was black.)

In the first week, protesters bemoaned the lack of mainstream media coverage. In reality, there was no media blackout. The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington was on the story early and The New York Times’s Colin Moynihan has been covering the protest on the ground since September 17, the first day. Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo tallied up the number of pieces and concluded there were “plenty of stories, none of them big.” But then the snarkerati took it up. The first crew sent by Fox News was from the satirical late-night talk show Red Eye; The New York Daily News ran an editorial carrying the headline “Occupy Wall Street protesters are behaving like a bunch of spoiled brats.” Gawker wrote in an early primer on the protest, “Is This Thing Going to Descend Into Exciting Chaos? Unlikely.”

“I think mostly the coverage has been bad,” said Anthony DeRosa, the social media editor at Reuters who had been following the protest in the media and on Twitter and visited the protest in person for the first time Saturday. “I was surprised. I thought it was mostly young trustafarians from what I was reading. Turns out the crowd is very diverse–young, old, various races, men, women, you name it. And when I arrived they were in the midst of general assembly”–the protest’s hyperdemocratic method of decision-making–“and everyone was so attentive. Each person stood up, had a legit and coherent beef and the crowd echoed it patiently.

“I don’t see myself as a supporter,” he said. “I saw that these people have a legit beef and they’re being unfairly portrayed, which is as much journalistic malpractice by the mainstream press as taking a side. I’m not taking a side, I’m pointing out that the press is being unfairly dismissive. It’s as if you don’t dismiss them you’ve failed as a journalist, which is ridiculous. Cynicism is some default position you must take, which is bullshit.”

In all, coverage appeared to be as confused and directionless as the protest, perhaps for the same reason. “It’s difficult for the media to build a narrative because this is a leaderless protest,” Occupy Wall Street’s spokesman Patrick Bruner observed as the protest entered its second week.

By happenstance, the Times’s Ginia Bellafante had just taken over for Susan Dominus in writing the Big City column, which aims to highlight contrasts between the rich and poor in New York–a paradigm into which the protest fit neatly. Ms. Bellafante’s column about the protest, “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim,” described the protesters as “street theater.” One caption noted that the protesters’ demands were still unformed: “Coming from many states, they had many causes. One said simply, ‘I want to create spectacles.'”

That protester was Becky Wartell, 24, who was one of many demonstrators who were unhappy with the story. “I didn’t say simply, ‘I want to create spectacles,'” she told The Observer. She’d spoken at length with Ms. Bellafante, she said, and her quip about spectacles was in reference to her role on the arts and culture working group, the committee that creates signs and coordinates street performances among other forms of creative expression. “I love the juxtaposition of this incredible community in the heart of the financial district,” Ms. Wartell said. “I do want to create other fun juxtapositions to get people’s attention.”

“I got so much hate mail,” Ms. Bellafante told The Observer. “But largely the people who wrote me were not there the first week and assumed I had spoken to the two or three kooks out of the incredibly knowledgeable, Mark Rudd types,” she said, namechecking the Weather Underground cofounder.

In fact, Ms. Bellafante is openly sympathetic to the protesters’ general grievance. “You know I think that it is insane and immoral that we tax hedge fund managers and private equity managers, the way we tax their income is capital gains, and that would be a great rallying point,” she said.