#Occupy Wall Street. To cover or not to cover?
That is of course the question that, 13 days into the group’s occupation, has been kicked around in the blogosphere ever since Current TV’s Keith Olbermann got outraged and alleged there was a “media blackout” of the nascent protest movement. He was also outraged by coverage that was apparently published in spite of the blackout—by that “crap” paper the New York Observer and the “protest critics of the The New York Times.” That coverage was, according to Olbermann, unfair. Yet, while the Times’s and the Observer’s reporters actually went to Occupy Wall Street grounds before issuing their opinions while Olbermann, well, didn’t.
Regardless, the host’s fury, egged on by irritated occupants of Wall Street, prompted some self-reflection by the media. NPR’s ombudsman gave reason why the station hadn’t covered the protest; Jay Rosen found the rationale uncompelling. The Atlantic mocked the media for spending more time covering the non-coverage (without really coming down about whether the occupation should be covered more). Other outlets seemed to bend to their will—Time ran a story titled “Occupy Wall Street Protest: 12 Days and Little Sign of Slowing Down,” saying, somewhat puzzlingly, that the organization seems to have more staying power than ever with a crowd of just 300—though OWS had promised 20,000 and Time noted that on day one there were a reported 3,000—sleeping at the protest ground. Matt Stoller on his naked capitalism blog argued that the media got it wrong in interpreting and reporting OWS as a protest; he calls it a “church of dissent”; it’s an interesting perspective, but maybe not one that helps the case for greater coverage.
Meanwhile, Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo crunched the numbers and penned a smart post about how there really is no media blackout. Occupy Wall Street has been covered by the mainstream media—and been covered a fair amount. It’s just not the kind of coverage the protest group—which produces a lot of media in its own right—was hoping for.
When you take Pompeo’s media coverage tally into account, there’s a case to be made that Occupy Wall Street has gotten as least as much media attention as it deserves.
For a perhaps concurring perspective from the world of social science, consider the canonical work of American sociologist and political scientist Charles Tilly (he died in 2008) who developed widely-accepted criteria of what constitutes a ‘social movement.’ Yes, the media is not academia—there is of course a place for things that are timely, newsworthy, and important—the police’s questionable use of pepper spray on protesters for example—but in deciding the extent to cover a nascent protest movement, to which national media attention is oxygen, it is worth considering his criteria.
1. A sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target audiences: let us call it a campaign;
2. Employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering; call the variable ensemble of performances the social-movement repertoire. and
3. Participants’ concerted public representations of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC) on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies: call them WUNC displays.
Now, let’s look at Occupy Wall Street.
Condition 1: Campaign. OWS vows it will be a sustained effort—they swear they’re not budging from Zuccotti Park—but 13 days in, it’s a little early to tell, eviction looms, and we’ll have to take them at their word. Organized? By some press accounts and the looks of the livestream feed, not really. Yet, saying the group is totally disorganized is also unfair: a visit to OWS’s various websites quickly proves the group has some semblance of structure and organization, and very much has it together on the internet.
New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.