Covering Occupy and the Tea Party

Dig in and dive deep, Todd Gitlin says

With the nation’s political media gripped by electoral fever in the run up to the presidential election, perhaps now is a good moment to pause and note that two of the most important forces that have shaped American political discourse over the last four years have been not parties or candidates, but political movements that emerged from outside the political system, namely the Tea Party and the Occupy movement.

The particular challenges of covering these two movements was the subject of a symposium at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on Monday night, moderated by Todd Gitlin, the author of a new book about Occupy.

While no attempt was made to equate the two movements, which hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the driving idea behind the panel was that political movements—as opposed to candidates, elections, and governments—require a different journalistic approach: They demand deep, constant immersion to fully understand.

Or at least that is Gitlin’s view. “Movements are strange, and if you don’t have a feel, or openness to something that is sui generis and view it as a mob or a failed political party or a failed organization or something, then you’re going to miss it,” he told CJR in an interview following the symposium.

Gitlin argues that this deep approach can succeed in capturing the nature of a movement under certain conditions. “Immersion will teach you a lot if you just keep your eyes and ears open, but for sure it’s a necessary condition that you decide going in that when you look at a movement, you’re not going to judge it by whether it’s an organization. It isn’t an organization, and if you view a giraffe as a failed elephant, you’re not going to have much to say about giraffes.”

Aside from Gitlin, the diverse panel included five journalists and one author of an academic study on the Tea Party movement who have, in very different ways, reported these movements as he suggests, not by dropping in occasionally on a meeting here or a protest there, but by immersing themselves and exploring them deeply and thoughtfully.

Anchoring the straight news end of the spectrum were two journalists from The New York Times: Kate Zernike, who also authored a book on the Tea Party and Jonathan Mahler, who wrote an exhaustive and ultimately controversial story for The New York Times Magazine about the confrontational Occupy Oakland movement. Miranda Leitsinger, who covered Occupy for NBC News Digital, was also present, and Harvard scholar Vanessa Williamson shared insights from her research on the Tea Party.

Seated at the opposite end of the table was the outspoken, tattooed, hip-hop loving Boston Phoenix reporter Chris Farone, a who wrote a book after embedding in Occupy encampments throughout the country. Farone was also among the journalists arrested in New York in September while covering demonstrations on the one-year anniversary of the movement. While Farone was explicit both about his admiration for the movement and his criticisms of it, he said that he was able to gain Occupiers’ trust through immersion, by showing up repeatedly, even sharing “cigarettes or some weed” with the demonstrators.

Much of the night’s discussion was focused on the reporters’ own impressions and tales from their reporting. Zernike recalled an enraged Tea Partier attempting to rip up her notebook. Farone recounted interviewing dozens of Occupy protesters during his hours in an NYPD holding cell in September.

Perhaps the most controversial moment of the evening came when an audience member pressed the two Times reporters to respond to the criticism of former public editor Arthur Brisbane, who accused his own colleagues of betraying a progressive bias because of their robust Occupy coverage.

In her response, Zernike made the point that the Times had initially overlooked the Tea Party and was eager not repeat the mistake with Occupy.

“We were late covering the Tea Party,” Zernike said. “I started covering it in November, and I don’t think I wrote my first story until January of 2010, right before [Massachusetts Senator] Scott Brown won, and you know it had been going on since the summer. No one had written anything.”

“I think there’s always a nervousness that we’re going to miss a story,” Zernike continued. “If this thing happening in Lower Manhattan is going to become a big deal, we don’t want to be accused of missing it.”

What about Brisbane’s accusation that Occupy became a “cause” among Times journalists? Zernike disagreed, saying, without elaborating, “I think people were a little more careful than he’s giving them credit for.”

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Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo