#OWS: The Status Quo Strikes Back

I went with my wife and daughter to Times Square on Saturday evening, October 15, to add our numbers to the #occupationWallStreet demonstration that ended up there, climaxing a day of global protest. It was invigorating to know people were there, like us,  specifically for the shared purpose of declaring to the world that this is a movement–or a revolution, I like to think– only just beginning. And on top of that, to witness the tourists and ordinary denizens of the shops, hotels, restaurants and street corners near America’s Crossroads seeming to get that they were observing history being made around them, like the diners pressed against the windows on the second story of  T.G.I.Friday’s staring down at the throng-choked sidewalk below.  It was difficult to tell how many in the crowd were existing in the gray area between tourist just happening to be on the spot and protester in the making. (Truth be told, probably not many. But among the workers, that’s another matter.)

When we got home, my wife read aloud a report from Reuters called “Wall Street protests go global, riots in Rome,” that stunned me–actually depressed me, to be more precise. The story, by Philip Pullella from Rome with additional reporting by Ray Sanchez and Ed McAllister in New York (among others elsewhere), gave the distinct impression that, besides the Roman riots, the news service’s reporters were unimpressed with the subject. “The Occupy Wall Street movement has gathered steam for a month, culminating with the global day of action,” the article said. “It remains unclear what momentum the movement, which has been driven by social media, has beyond Saturday.”

I can’t help but wonder what journalistic tool Reuters is planning to use to gauge that momentum beyond Saturday. If the article’s report on the Times Square demonstration is any indication, it’s safe to predict it won’t be precise.

Under a subhead reading, “NOT AS LARGE AS HOPED,” the story continued:

In New York, where the movement began when protesters set up a makeshift camp in Lower Manhattan on September 17, organizers said the protest grew to at least 5,000 people as they marched to Times Square in midtown Manhattan.

Some were disappointed the crowd was not larger.

“People don’t want to get involved. They’d rather watch on TV,” said Troy Simmons, 47, who joined demonstrators as he left work. “The protesters could have done better today. … People from the whole region should be here and it didn’t happen.”

To be clear:  Reuters quoted one disappointed man–not a protester himself, by his own assessment, but someone who joined the march after work–to give the sense that the protest as a whole was “not as large as hoped.”

I’m sure that what depressed me–what continues to depress me–about this reporting is its calling to mind the decades of journalism about protests practiced virtually universally in the media, most gallingly in venues self-described as liberal to be sure. I think especially of the disgraceful performance by the New York Times in January 2001, when barely a peep–if even that–was sounded in the paper about the tens of  thousands of angry demonstrators (20,000, by one estimate) at the Bush inauguration following the unsettling post-election of November-December 2000.  After two months of deeply disturbing revelations about the sickness of the American electoral system, it was as though the media had had enough of the frightening uncertainties of history and were eager to get back to the safety of status quo. Editors had to have made a conscious decision to leave the anti-inaugural protests out of the narrative. (What were the protesters going to do? Protest the newspapers?)

This attitude toward dissent was repeated in the run-up to the Iraq war. A little stung by criticism over its neglect of the January 2001 protest, apparently, the Times and other news agencies did manage to take some notice of global demonstrations in September and October 2002 and February and March 2003, but they tended to use the term “thousands” to describe marches with  “hundreds of thousands” and bury the stories deep inside, while giving front page, above-the-fold coverage to the Bush administration’s trumped up case for war.  Were they trying to make amends to the hawks for their role in souring the American public on the Vietnam war? Did they buy the Bushists’ arguments that you were either for the terrorists or against them?

In any case, #ows had performed the magic trick of making the media’s ills seem to disappear for a brief moment.  They seemed to be reporting on the Wall Street protest as though it were in a foreign country with a despised government. They were actually interested in what the protesters had to say and what they seemed to be trying to do. Several Times writers–not just Paul Krugman–began writing sympathetically and intelligently about the protests, notably Mark Bittman and Nicholas Kristoff, not to mention the editorial board. (Michael Kimmelman wrote a perceptive piece for the Sunday Review, as well.) In short, #ows appeared to be working toward liberating not just the masses but the Times as well.

But Reuters’ depressing article serves to remind us that the problems within the culture–including how the media report about it–are deep. One month of revolution is not enough to sweep decades of deadening habits away.

Long live the occupation!

One thought on “#OWS: The Status Quo Strikes Back

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