Newsroom Insider: Occupy Wall StreetMainstream media whiffs on coverage of biggest U.S. grassroots movement in 35 years
Roll the timeline backwards to September of 2005. I was covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for a major wire service when a newly arrived colleague sheepishly asked "what am I covering? Are there press conferences or press releases or what?"
I was taken aback.
First, because I wasn't a manager at the time - I was a reporter just like him. And second, because he's a great guy and a veteran journalist who should have known the drill. However, he had spent his entire career in DC and no journalism subset receives as much attention from public relations professionals and is as dependent upon them, with the exception of the New York City press corps.
"Dude, just step outside and start talking to people," I responded. "You can't walk 20 feet without tripping over a great story."
The same scenario seems to be hampering coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) by the mainstream media the past three months. Reporters have become increasingly dependent on prepared news since 1990 as editorial staffs have been cut. So much so, that some younger journalists now think their job is to regurgitate press releases and press conferences, rather than originate news from scratch.
The ragged "information desk" that OWS runs in Zuccotti Park is a disturbing place for journalists expecting to find a friendly PR professional to make them feel good about themselves and tell them what to write, because there are no professional flacks there. Instead, it's staffed by the "kids" of the movement, who don't spend a lot of time fawning over reporters.
That's why we're seeing so many stories about OWS' "scattered message" and so many lame articles about its supposedly deleterious impact on area businesses. The painful truth is that to cover OWS you have to get off your ass as a journalist, cut through the bubble separating you from the unwashed masses, and wade in.
It's basic street journalism. The kind retired scribe Jimmy Breslin made famous.
It's also the kind of old-school journalism too many national reporters who landed their jobs with the help of the "right connections" have never done.
This failure was illustrated by a recent CNN poll that found that while the vast majority of Americans view bankers as "greedy, overpaid and dishonest," most don't have an opinion about OWS, which is basically a movement against such greed. The largest block - 32% - had a favorable opinion of OWS in the telephone survey of 1,007 adults conducted Oct. 14-16, versus 29% with a negative opinion. However, 13% had no opinion at all and 26% had never heard of OWS.
The latter figure is no surprise given that the mainstream media actually sought to ignore the protests early on. The fact that OWS has grown from a few hundred people in one city to more than 100,000 protesters in 400 American cities and 48 states is the best proof of how out of touch such media have become. OWS also claims to be in another 1,000 cities outside the U.S.
The terrible job that The New York Times has done covering OWS is itself a window into the absence of economic diversity within its newsroom, because it's basically the largest intact news team that doesn't exist to serve Wall Street. The Times takes a misplaced pride in hiring kids with prep school and Ivy League backgrounds, which all but ensures that most of its reporters and editors have led privileged lives and been raised in safe suburban communities.
Despite all the ridiculous articles that have been written about the absence of a single cohesive message among the OWS protesters - aka I can't find a publicist to tell me what to write - there actually is a single shared message that's pretty easy to identify. Everyone in OWS agrees that the few are taking too much from the many.
Sadly, that message has been lost in much of the ridiculous reporting on the movement by the mainstream media. The Fox News affiliate in New York City has led the race to the bottom, tossing aside whatever pretence of objectivity its news team formerly possessed with a steady stream of negative stories about the protest being a destination for prison inmates and a health hazard, and its displacement of a farmer's market that had formerly operated in Zuccotti Park every Tuesday. And that was just their Oct. 26 morning broadcast.
Local Fox anchor Rosanna Scotto has characterized the protesters as "unemployed Yuppies." However, she has declined to explain how they can be both unemployed and "young upwardly mobile professionals" at the same time.
The most common negative story details how OWS is hurting area businesses and is almost always written by business reporters trying to ingratiate themselves with the sources on their beat.
This business story is both self-serving and misleading, but has appeared in several different cities. It's also a safe bet that each article started with a public relations professional trying to justify their existence.
I've actually been down to OWS several times as a reporter (right), unlike anchors like Scotto who almost never leave their air conditioned studios to do an honest day's work. I hate to rock the bullshit boat, but most retail businesses around Zuccotti Park are benefiting from the increased foot traffic.
For example, protesters are buying food from local eateries and push carts at all hours of the night and day. When I worked in Lower Manhattan in 2010-2011 these very push carts normally shut down after 8 p.m. However, they're now open overnight to serve the hundreds of OWS supporters camping in Zuccotti Park.
But who cares?
The significance of OWS isn't whether or not the local McDonalds is being helped or hurt by it. The significance of OWS is that average Americans are taking to the streets again and doing so in the largest numbers since the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That's a huge story.
The other significance of OWS is that people are starting to realize that large corporate and industry interests have priced them out of their own democracy, by deluging elected officials with legalized bribes. That's also a huge story and one with potentially devastating implications for the Fortune 500.
So, why are we reading so many stories about the scattered message of OWS, which is really just a reflection of its inclusiveness, and about its impact on food retailers?
Because our newsrooms are now full of young journalists who have become addicted to the PR drips plugged into the back of their heads. They're running scared in a contracting industry and are afraid to rock the boat by thinking for themselves. It's just easier and safer for them to lean on PR professionals instead, especially when so many industry veterans have been forced out of newsrooms and into PR.
OWS' shared message that "greed is not good" dovetails perfectly with the biggest attitude shift identified in the CNN poll, which found that 54% of those surveyed think Wall Street bankers and brokers do not act in the nation's collective economic welfare. That compares with just 30% in 1990.
The ridiculous misrepresentation of OWS was never more evident than on Oct. 5, when organized labor joined OWS in Lower Manhattan to protest Wall Street greed. The rally drew more than 30,000 people and produced one of the biggest politicial marches I've ever seen in Manhattan outside of a parade, and I've been living in and visiting New York City on and off since I was 8 years old.
Unlike New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who grew up in Boston, I attended high school in the Bronx and college in Harlem. Unlike his kids, I didn't go to privates school, I attended the public school system created for the rest of us by the ruling 1%.
Incredibly, all of the major media vastly understated the crowd size, which they listed as 5,000. Even worse, they didn't cite a source for the 5,000 figure, which suggests it originated with someone influential who declined to give their name.
So, who is influential enough to plant this kind of disinformation with every major news organization without giving their name? Only a source that reporters deal with every day and ignore at their peril. In short, someone who represents either the Bloomberg administration or the New York Police Department.
Why didn't they give their name? Think about it - would you want your name on a lie?
And it was a lie. The crowd spent 60 minutes to 90 minutes leaving Foley Square, with five to 10 people leaving every second through an exit at the bottom of the park. When you multiply five times 3,600 seconds, the result is a minimum exit-rate of 18,000 per hour though that one exit. This pace doesn't even include people exiting the park elsewhere.
The real number of protesters in Foley Square that day was probably between 30,000 to 50,000, rather than the 5,000 reported. That's not a small miss.
The reporters who published this ridiculously low crowd estimate also forgot a simple fact, which is that Michael Bloomberg is not a noncombatant in this little fracas. He's the 12th richest person in the United States with a net worth that Forbes estimates at $19.5 billion, which was amassed almost entirely on Wall Street.
It costs about $1,500 a month for a Bloomberg LP terminal, which means the financial information provider probably doesn't have any customers in Zuccotti Park. However, Bloomberg LP probably has more than 100,000 terminals on the trading floors of the New York City metro area and about 400,000 worldwide.
Do the math.
The Bloomberg terminals generate $600 million of monthly revenue. That's 7.2 billion reasons a year for Michael Bloomberg to oppose OWS.
So, why is Bloomberg getting a free ride from the media, while OWS is being battered on all sides?
The city's billionaire-mayor has dozens of public relations professionals working for him. They hold the prospect of increased and reduced access to Bloomberg and his team over reporters' heads, wielding it as both a carrot and a stick.
OWS just has the truth.