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Is Occupy Wall Street Getting Its Fair Share of Press?

What would Charles Tilly say?
September 29, 2011

#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.

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According to Tilly, the basic elements of a social movement are:

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.

A Huffington Post blogger also reported that the group had at least planned as much to have had yellow balloons on hand to tie around the wrists of children and elderly and designate them for public safety reasons. Even if there is no visible leader, clearly there was a core group began planning this event back in July. Public? Check. Making collective claims? The group has many grievances, but what they want to do about them or achieve by occupying Wall Street is much less clear—both in those “unfair” media reports and the content churned out by OWS’s own media machine. Will the occupation end when stiffer financial regulations are passed? The death penalty is ended? The tax code is reformed? Of target authorities? Also very unclear is who OWS is targeting to act. The 1%? The 99%? Congress? “Republicrats”? The global and financial elite? Other authorities? If their demands are aimed at a national level, it’s interesting that Adbusters, a Canadian magazine, is backing the movement.

Condition 2: Social Movement Repertoire: OWS seems to be in the process of developing this. They have adopted the repertoire of many a past protest (signs, drums, marching, an air of hippiness). They have developed their concept of General Assemblies and invoke history—not unlike the Tea Party—by staging their occupation and marches on Wall Street and associating themselves with the Arab Spring. At the protest grounds, having been banned from using megaphones, they have developed a “public mic” system in which the statements of a single speaker are repeated and amplified by the crowd. They have also built a sophisticated social media infrastructure and communicate on Twitter. Yet, just by looking at the pictures or a livestream of events, aside from the presence of technology (lots of Macs), it’s so far hard to distinguish OWS from any other liberal protest.

Condition 3: WUNC displays, (i.e. how the movement tries to represent itself to the public): so far, OWS has not brought the WUNC. Worthy? Tilly explains this can come from participant demeanor and an air of seriousness. OWS seems to project by it’s worthiness by its own media machine, shrewdly developed in advance of the protests to steer the narrative and call attention to itself—the rather sophisticated websites, Twitter feeds, livestream technology, and thought that has gone into documentation and projecting an image online is impressive. OWS’s PR machine has not been matched by on-the-ground reality. OWS is all hype. There was much buzz before the group began its occupation on September 17; there were going to be 20,000 to converge and campout on Wall Street. The problem was, and has since been, there wasn’t. As Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe notes “that is not a media conspiracy. It’s math.”

Unity? Doesn’t seem like it. Interviews with those camping out on Wall Street seem to indicate their grievances are all over the place—the execution of Troy Davis, the mind-meld of Republicans and Democrats, the American “police state.”

Numbers? OWS has displayed numbers, but they haven’t been impressive At its peak, OWS has drawn, at the very most, 5,000 demonstrators. That figure is disputed, and the media consensus for the number that camps out in the park and participate in daily marches is around 200-300. Even if we use the believed-to-be-inflated 5,000 figure, that is not that many people—in New York, in America. Generally the press does not cover protests, which happen frequently around the country in DC and New York; in front of embassies, the UN, and government institutions. Bet you heard less about this protest, which also drew thousands, which happened just last week, also in New York.

Commitment? The 300 people that have camped out on Wall Street for 12 nights. That’s demonstrating commitment. So is quitting your job to be one of them (NPR found at least one protester who had come from California after doing just that.)

They press coverage indicates that most journalists have found Occupy Wall Street a movement not significant to give much coverage. If Tilly were around today, given his criteria, he’d likely agree.

So, maybe Occupy Wall Street is a social movement in the making—as the start-up of satellite efforts like this might indicate—but it’s not one that deserves the national media spotlight, or to be the “lead story on every nightly newscast,” as Olbermann imagines would be the case with Tea Party occupiers, just yet. OWS has some things to prove and figure out about itself. It’d be irresponsible for the national media to give it attention that overstates its influence (it might also be in OWS’s best interest to avoid such coverage until their objectives and methods are better resolved). Whether the media hastily flipped the spotlight on with their initial coverage of the Tea Party is an important, but separate question.

It’d also be irresponsible for media to fall for the public relations efforts of a protest group, just as it’d be irresponsible media to fall for the PR of a formal advocacy group or a corporation or a government official. It needs to be remembered that Occupy Wall Street has a lot at stake and a serious interest in perpetuating itself. It may be that the effort—if not the underlying ideas—is just not that newsworthy.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.