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.
But in the beginning, the crowds were small and the protesters were unfocused, she said, with the “fringier elements” predominating. “The rest of her quote was, ‘I want to blow bubbles down Wall Street,’” Ms. Bellafante said of Ms. Wartell. “I understand where she’s coming from. She represents a trend there that did see that approach, the theatrics and spectacle approach, as the way to go. Personally, that’s not the way I want to change the world. That’s not how I think we get the Tobin tax.” The Tobin tax, suggested by Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, is a tax on short-term currency conversions.
Other New Yorkers who might have been sympathetic to a more coherent protest were also repelled by the Bohemian scene, Ms. Bellafante said.
“The Wednesday of the first week, I wrote about a woman who was sort of dancing with her top off in Liberty Plaza,” she said. “She then starts to represent to the passerby what the movement is about and that’s kind of embarrassing … I just think that tactically they need to step up their game.”
Ms. Bellafante’s column appeared online Friday night, unfortunate timing considering the protest quickly changed tenor the next day after 80-some demonstrators were arrested. The grassroots movement has galvanized rapidly since then. As of Sunday, one member of the finance committee said the group was taking in close to $1,000 a day in crumpled ones and fives donated on site. In just two days, the media center went from a laptop and an umbrella to a miniature CNN newsroom with a generator, restricted entry and more than five computers. The movement bought its spokesman Mr. Bruner, an unemployed 23-year-old college grad, a BlackBerry.
Ms. Bellafante wrote a second story following on her “spectacles” piece, “For Police, Another Protest Brings Another Overreaction,” in which she expressed a measured optimism. “Specific ambitions still had not emerged, but a new intensity had begun to replace the limp theatrics,” she wrote.
“Like night and day!” Arun Gupta, a founding editor of the free paper The Indypendant and one of the creators of the pop-up newspaper The Occupied Wall Street Journal, said of Ms. Bellafante’s coverage. “The first piece she wrote–that was a hit piece … then she writes this other piece that, it flips it around, where she compares the police to a three-year-old having a tantrum.”
Of the coverage at large, he was bullish. “It’s definitely gotten better,” he said. “The best PR they ever got was the cops pepper-spraying a white woman.”
The media narrative definitely changed after a video emerged of two apparently non-violent protesters being pepper-sprayed by a senior police officer, said one sympathetic reporter who was covering the protest for a major New York daily but did not want to speak for attribution.
“The key point was conflict, which every media person loves,” he said. “You have a group of gutterpunks and over-educated college students sitting around talking about things–that’s not a story. It’s a story when those people clash with police.”
But even as the reporters thirst for violence and the TV cameras gravitate toward the outrageous, reports are coming in with increasing nuance. The Daily News ran a story about the packages being shipped to the protest every morning. “What started as a loosely organized sit-in to protest the practices of Wall Street has grown into something much larger and harder to define–an ever-changing, ultra-democratic clamor for social change,” wrote staffer Christina Boyle. What happened to “spoiled brats”?
(Full disclosure: The Observer has produced about three dozen items on the protest since its inception displaying varying degrees of snark. “I think their outrage is well founded,” said executive editor Aaron Gell, whose first item on the protest on observer.com was titled, “The Wall Street Protesters: What the Hell Do They Want?” “My tone was skeptical, but my point was that if you’re opening on Broadway, you need to get your act together. And they seem to be doing that.”)
European outlets were more likely to take the protest seriously before any pepper spray was unleashed, said Victoria Sobel, a protester who works on the finance and media committees. She said the European media seemed more “excited.” The media team has received interview requests from European outlets including Radio France and independent newspaper in Slovenia, we were told. One Bangladeshi journalist who was in town covering the United Nations was “ecstatic,” another media team member, Julien Harrison, told The Observer. “This is a story,” said one reporter from the Paris-based Anka News Agency who had been covering the protest since the first day. He was sympathetic to the claims by some protesters of a deliberate media blackout. There are those who believe the coverage has been directed by powerful players pulling strings behind the scenes.
But the reality seems more complex. And like the protesters, the journalists are driven by varying motivations.
“The local and national media were more skeptical in a hopeful way,” said Ms. Sobel, who has been giving interviews since the early days of the protest. “A lot of people thought this was going to happen in 2008, and it meant a lot to a lot of people that it didn’t happen in 2008. You really expected to see maybe the unions do something at that moment and it never happened.”
But as the protest coheres, the media response is “falling into place,” she said.
We were speaking with Ms. Sobel at a table in the McDonald’s on Broadway half a block away from the protest, which serves as the unofficial green zone, with a steady stream of both protesters and police. As we spoke, the Anka News reporter sat down nearby to upload photos. “They are saying 700 now,” he said gravely, referring to the number of arrests. “This is a big story.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story said ABC’s T.J. Winick was interviewing a Columbia University student; in fact the young man was a professor. The Observer regrets the error.
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