Occupy Wall Street marched into Lower Manhattan on September 17, with thousands of demonstrators shutting down the heart of the Financial District to protest political and economic inequality and highlight the need for an American democracy movement. In the days that followed, activists formed an ad hoc community in New York City's Liberty Plaza, an experiment in collective politics that called for putting the needs of the 99 percent above the greed of the 1 percent (Adbusters, 9/19/11).
The initial response of corporate media to these remarkable developments? To call it a yawn would be overstating their enthusiasm. In the first several days, a couple of U.S. newspaper stories appeared per day, mostly in papers that were at most a subway ride away: the New York Daily News (9/17/11), New York Times (9/17/11), Newark Star-Ledger (9/18/11), New York Newsday (9/19/11) and Wall Street Journal (9/19/11). That Newsday story was headlined "Protests Close Wall Street Second Day"--a development corporate media bizarrely chose to see as a strictly local story.
The Washington Post, which prides itself on being a national newspaper, waited until September 21 to run two sentences covering the protest: "Police have arrested seven more people at an ongoing protest on Wall Street. A police spokesman said Tuesday that one person suffered a minor leg injury while resisting arrest." The only other sentence on Occupy Wall Street the Post published in the remainder of the month (9/25/11) referred to "more of the usual suspects making more of the usual noise, as with the mostly young, white anarchists who targeted Wall Street this past week."
Overseas, the demonstration's early days were getting coverage in papers in Britain, Canada, Australia, China and Pakistan. "The Call to Occupy Wall Street Resonates Around the World," a British Guardian op-ed headline proclaimed on September 19--but not, apparently, in American newsrooms.
U.S. television was even worse, with no coverage at all on ABC, CBS or NBC in the first week of the demonstrations. On the PBS NewsHour (9/19/11), the protests got a two-sentence reference, tacked on to the end of the stock market report. There were other brief mentions on cable news, as when CNN's Wolf Blitzer (9/19/11) remarked: "Protests here in New York on Wall Street entering a third day. Should New Yorkers be worried at all about what's going on?"
Some voices in the media noted the lack of coverage. One of the first was documentarian Michael Moore, who remarked on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show (9/19/11), "People are down on Wall Street right now, holding a sit-in and a camp-in down there--virtually no news about this protest."
At the top of his Current TV show (9/21/11), Keith Olbermann said: "So five days of clogging downtown Manhattan, protesting corporate control of the economy, and you haven't heard a word about it on the news?" He asserted, "If that's a Tea Party protest in front of Wall Street about Ben Bernanke...it's the lead story on every network newscast."
Olbermann's comparison to the right-wing protest movement highlighted a glaring double standard; the media's preference for covering Tea Party gatherings over progressive activism is well-documented. A September 2009 Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C., garnered far more coverage than a similarly-sized gay rights rally the following month (Extra!, 12/09). Thousands of activists at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June 2010 did not merit anywhere near the coverage accorded to 600 attendees at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville (Extra!, 9/10). The progressive One Nation Working Together rally (10/2/10) brought thousands to Washington--but little media attention (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/6/10).
The size of a given Tea Party gathering does not seem to much matter. When about 200 Tea Partiers gathered in Washington earlier this year (FAIR Blog, 4/1/11), an account in Slate (3/31/11) noted, "There was at least one reporter for every three or four activists."
After hearing from these and other critics (including grassroots activists responding to a FAIR Action Alert--9/23/11), corporate media did step up their coverage of Occupy Wall Street. But the increased attention seemed at least as much a response to increasingly repressive tactics from the NYPD--including mass arrests and the pepper-spraying of nonviolent demonstrators--as it was a recognition of the movement's growing importance.
New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer (9/28/11) grappled seriously with the police brutality on display in the videos of the march, noting straightforwardly, "If a nightstick were substituted for pepper spray, a conventional weapon instead of an exotic one, the events on 12th Street would bear a strong resemblance to simple assault." Perhaps the harshest critic of police violence in corporate media was MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, who devoted three segments to the issue (9/26/11, 9/28-29/11). Pointing to footage of police tackling a person carrying a video camera, O'Donnell noted:
Since the Rodney King beating was caught on an amateur video camera, American police officers have known video cameras are their worst enemy. They will do anything they can to stop you from legally videotaping how they handle their responsibility to serve and protect you.
Nevertheless, some journalists seemed strikingly reluctant to take videotaped evidence of police violence at face value. CNN anchor Ali Velshi (9/26/11) dismissively introduced footage of brutal police work, saying that protesters were "now screaming abuse after they were arrested over the weekend." After running a snippet of a cop violently subduing a protester, co-anchor Carol Costello noted, "Of course, what you can't see is what came before the fight"--a disclaimer that could be made every time CNN runs videotape.
A September 27 New York Times piece (FAIR Blog, 9/28/11) seemed to defend the police force's brutal response, with reporter Joseph Goldstein depicting a police department concerned about "terrorism" and the "destruction and violence" that supposedly accompany "anti-capitalist demonstrations." Such police worries, according to Goldstein, "came up against a perhaps milder reality on Saturday, when their efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated"--an oddly passive way to describe police use of pepper spray and body slams against nonviolent demonstrators.
Goldstein wrote that the protesters "seem unorganized and, at times, uninformed"--though his uncritical perpetuation of media myths about violent demonstrators (Extra!, 1-2/00, 3-4/00; FAIR Action Alert, 7/25/00) made the reporter seem less informed than the protesters he patronized.
Condescension was a common thread in much of the coverage. In another New York Times piece (9/25/11), reporter Ginia Bellafante derided the "intellectual vacuum" of the protests, and their "apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it." She described one protester as a "half-naked woman... with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968."
In a segment labeled "Seriously, Protesters?!," CNN's Erin Burnett (OutFront, 10/3/11) reported that she
went to Wall Street today to see those protests for myself. I saw dancing, bongo drums, even a clown.... I asked several protesters what it was that they wanted. Now, they did not know.... It seems like people want a messiah leader, just like they did when they anointed Barack Obama.
Misidentifying the TARP bank bailout program as the central point of the protest (FAIR Action Alert, 10/4/11), Burnett gave an on-air lecture to a demonstrator about how banks paid back their loans from the government, concluding, "This was the big issue, so we solved it."
But CNN (9/26/11) also provided one of the more illuminating moments in corporate media coverage of the occupation, when host Piers Morgan gave Michael Moore a rare opportunity to articulate some of the grievances that actually prompted the movement to Occupy Wall Street:
The main thing is, No. 1, is that the rich are getting away with a huge crime. Nobody has been arrested on Wall Street for the crash of 2008. They're not paying their fair share of the taxes. And now with the Citizens United case of the Supreme Court, they get to buy politicians up out in the open....
It all points to, are we going to live in a democracy that's run by the majority of the people, or are we going to be living in a kleptocracy, where the kleptomaniacs down on Wall Street, who have stolen people's pension funds, they've wrecked people's lives, millions have been thrown out of their homes, millions are without health insurance, millions have lost their jobs?
Of course, given that virtually every media decision-maker is in the 1 percent--if not the 0.0000001 percent--it might be difficult for them to articulate that point of view too clearly.