Taking Back the Street—and the Story

In the July/August 2011 issue of Orion, I highlighted the way local communities are taking the media into their own hands—creating innovative community media and digital storytelling projects. The Occupy Wall Street protests are an experiment in this kind of DIY media culture. Occupiers in cities around the world are employing new and old tools to tell their story—from social networks to pamphleteering. In New York City, protesters have even published their own journal—the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Below, my colleague at Free Press, Megan Tady, examines the media’s role in the Occupy movement from the perspective of a few independent journalists on the ground. —Josh Stearns

The “Media Circus” of Occupy Wall Street Coverage

Big news: The establishment media are finally picking up on the Occupy Wall Street story. In fact, Occupy Wall Street coverage increased to nine percent of the overall news hole from October 10–16—up from two percent two weeks prior. As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show said, the media dial has gone from “media blackout” to “media circus.”

Increased airtime and column inches, however, don’t necessarily equal quality reporting. Protest coverage has consisted mostly of reporters and news anchors making sweeping generalizations about a “hippie movement.” Media watchdog groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting say stories have been short on actual facts and long on criticism of the protests. From interviewing scholars and “experts” to speak for the protesters instead of talking with the legions of folks at the encampments themselves, to pinning the movement on a few scantily clad youngsters, the media are fumbling to tell this story in a quick, seamless sound bite.

But why are the mainstream media botching this? And if the mainstream media aren’t telling the full story, who is?

The Botch Job

To be fair, some mainstream reporters and commentators have produced lucid, elegant, and instructive coverage. But for the most part, the media appear confused, dismissive, and patronizing of a movement that is sparking action across the nation.

The reporting we see is a result of larger problems. Mainstream media, owned by only a handful of corporations, has evolved to defend, rather than report on, the companies that fund and own it. A movement that is indicting major corporations for corruption, greed, and scandal is therefore attacking mainstream media outlets. We’re asking reporters to bite the hand that feeds them, and most are willing to risk only a nibble, if that.

Independent journalist Allison Kilkenny, co-producer of the political radio show Citizen Radio, has been tracking the mainstream media’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street. She was interviewed for Free Press’ podcast, Media Minutes. She said the public is right to question reporters and news anchors who are dismissive of Occupy Wall Street. CNN’s Erin Burnett, for example—who has been lambasted for her comments on the protests—is a former Citigroup employee. “It’s not surprising that someone who is herself a corporate shill, and who is on a network that has corporate advertisers, would not depict Occupy Wall Street in the most favorable light,” Kilkenny said.

Corporate favoritism and self-censorship are just two ill effects of a heavily consolidated media system. Here’s another: there aren’t enough reporters on the ground to cover the protests blooming throughout the country. As companies have gobbled up media outlets across the country, they’ve cut their costs by laying off thousands of media workers, closing bureaus, paring down camera crews, and sharing stories with outlets they used to compete against.

Many local media outlets aren’t equipped to cover a story like Occupy Wall Street with depth or true investigation. Instead, you’ll find two-minute news segments about activists protesting “corporate greed” (a made-for-TV agenda that simplifies a more complex movement), or stories focusing on arrests with only a brief reference to why people are gathering in droves. Kilkenny said:

“When [reporters] say stuff like, ‘[The protesters are] scattered ideologically,’ what they mean is, this isn’t a traditional, hierarchical organization and it confuses me. I don’t understand the democratic process that they’ve chosen to adopt. I’m overwhelmed because I have to interview a lot of people and I just want to interview one person who’s the leader.”

John Farley is the multimedia Web editor with New York City’s public media magazine MetroFocus. On September 24, he was arrested while reporting on the protests. In an e-mail, he told Free Press how he thinks the mainstream media has been covering Occupy Wall Street:

“By the second week of the protest, mainstream media began to acknowledge that the protests were happening, but the coverage was largely patronizing, even mocking. Coverage made fun of the relative youth of the protestors, of their attire and even of the fact that they had time to camp out on Wall Street because they don’t have jobs—ignoring the fact, of course, that joblessness is a cornerstone of their complaints.”

Kilkenny said these judgments hid the real story, and made it hard for the audience to discern what was actually going on in Zuccotti Park. “Americans should be angry in the sense that this is the only meaningful resistance that has emerged since corporations robbed the country blind,” she said. “Now there’s actually a legitimate response to it, and what are they saying? ‘Oh, there’s hippies in a drum circle.’”

With the protests surging and an estimated 10,000 people gathering in New York City on recent weekends and thousands more in cities around the world, commentators and reporters continue to delegitimize the movement. For example, Sunday, October 16th’s Washington Post buried the story about the mass protests in a one-column-inch slot in the right-hand corner of the front page. The story continued on page A20, complete with a leading image of a protester torching a car—rather than one of the thousands of images of peaceful demonstrations that took place all over the globe.

Giving the Whole Picture

“If Occupy Wall Street has done nothing else, it’s allowed us to see how lazy and inept our media is,” Kilkenny said.

It’s also allowed us to see who is doing the best reporting. Public media reporters like Farley, independent journalists like Kilkenny and local citizen journalism projects like The Uptake have been stepping in and filling the void, providing a voice for the folks on the streets. Rather than simply sending a reporter to Zuccotti Park for a few short interviews and base descriptions, these reporters and outlets are spending hours among the protesters to learn who they really are, and what they’re really demanding. Take Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, which recently broadcast its entire show from New York City.

Instead of whitewashing the protests under a neatly spun narrative, many of these outlets are doing the legwork to help the public understand our financial system and how this movement has sprung up. Participants in Zuccotti Park have set up an independent media center to amplify their voices to the world. And social media is helping people share and view images, video, and testimony that aren’t available on mainstream media. Free from corporate control, these outlets are reporting on this movement without anyone pulling the strings—or moving the mouths—behind the curtains.

Josh Stearns is Associate Program Director at Free Press. His piece “Take Back the Media” appeared in the July/August issue of Orion. Megan Tady’s article first appeared at SaveTheNews.org.


  1. The media are the number one instrument of oligarchic mind control wielded by our rulers. Our child-like passivity in front of our tv sets is the ideal situation for brain-washing. Orwell did his best to make us aware of this — to little avail.

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