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Big Media Afraid to Take Wall Street Protest Seriously

That's how it appears, given the thin, dismissive coverage of Occupy Wall Street so far.

By Katrina Orlowski 26 Sep 2011 |

Katrina Orlowski is a writer and filmmaker in Vancouver.

It's been over a week now of protests, meetings, and confrontations with police on Wall Street, and yet mainstream North American media outlets, who have provided us with daily updates on uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Spain, to name a few, have given either thin or dismissive notice to what is happening on Manhattan. Known as the Occupy Wall Street campaign, it started on September 17 with thousands marching into New York's financial district, waving slogans such as "Wall Street is Our Street" and "We are the 99%." Cops were waiting for the crowds on Wall Street, so they set up camp a block away and have been there ever since, day and night.

Fueling these protests is the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else, which continues to grow because of rising unemployment and mortgage foreclosures. In other words, this is a much different kind of movement from the tax-cut loving Tea Party protests that the media eagerly covers. This might make more sense when one considers that the Tea Party protests are funded by the ultra-right billionaire Koch Brothers, and treated as a grassroots mega-story by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.

The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal has run a handful of stories on Occupy Wall Street, seeming to take a close interest only when protesters began being arrested.

On the day the protest launched, CNN filed the story not as general interest news about a developing social movement, but as a business item. The story was published on CNNMoney, which advertises itself as "A service of CNN, Fortune and Money."

The New York Times tucked its September 23 story into its regional section (as if this weren't a story of significance beyond New York) and topped the supposed news piece with a dismissively biased headline: Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim. In case readers didn't get the point, the writer's snide asides included describing Occupy Wall Street as "a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater."

Indeed, this tone of patronizing distancing from the supposedly naïve and therefore irrelevant protesters saturates much coverage of the protest. The Associated Press account that the Wall Street Journal and others published four days ago led this way: "In a small granite plaza a block from the New York Stock Exchange, a group of 20-somethings in flannel pajama pants and tie-dyed T-shirts are plotting the demise of Wall Street as we know it." Aren't news reporters taught to adopt a fair and objective voice? Would that not include simply relaying the actions and ideas of the protesters without first making fun of them?

Violence sells

Only when violence broke out at the protests this weekend did ABC News break ranks from other big television broadcasters and begin treating the protest as a real story -- but now the frame was on the clash between police and citizens rather than the ideas those citizens sought to bring to public attention.

Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street protesters ought to count themselves lucky that they are allowed to publicly protest at all. If the right to freedom of speech is a sign of a healthy democracy, though, then why hasn't the media proclaimed with effervescence that here, at least, is proof of the strength of our North American democracies? Many commentators speak of our waning democracies, yet there is almost complete silence on a very important aspect of a healthy democracy, namely, non-violent social movements attempting to be heard.

As even the news this week affirms, America and other western nations are grappling with one financial crisis after another. Could it be that the physical presence of these protesters claiming to represent the "99 per cent" of us who have not benefitted from the corporate bail-out packages makes that one per cent squirm? Perhaps the media moguls in charge of newsrooms across the continent are feeling the sway of this uncomfortable squirming from the economic elites.

Certainly the New York police were uncomfortable from the start with this peaceful yet persistent crowd. For two days, protesters sported Guy Fawkes masks, after the legendary British rebel from yesteryear, as a proclamation of their association with the nebulous group Anonymous. Last Monday, the NYPD responded by deciding it was high time to enact a law that prohibits concealing masks in public. One clever protester mused on Twitter that it would be interesting to see what the city's police decide to do on Halloween. When, last week, protesters began to be arrested, there was virtually nothing in the mainstream media about any of this. Saturday, the number arrested had grown to 80, some maced and thrown to the ground by police.

Signs of a growing movement -- and story

Those engaging in the Manhattan protest remain adamant that they represent hundreds of thousands of others far from the site of action. Spreading the word largely through Twitter, protesters associated with Anonymous -- the elusory group known best for their Internet hacking schemes -- continually devise strategies to get more and more of the "99 per cent" involved. The other day operation #BankerBlackFax was introduced, in which templates for taunting messages were posted, along with the fax numbers of various Wall Street-related stock companies. Anonymous and the Occupy Wall Street protesters pride themselves on being a leaderless collective -- as the group's slogan states: We Are All Anonymous.

For more than a week now, these protesters claiming to be voicing grievances on our behalf have maintained their ground in Manhattan and proclaimed their strength over the Internet despite a near media blackout. Anonymous and the Occupy Wall Street protesters may seem a world away for those of us living in a country that continues to maintain a facade at least of sailing through the global financial tidal waves. Perhaps the ongoing occupation of Wall Street is not so far away, though, in the least because Vancouver-based Adbusters is one of the movement's original proponents.

What will come of mass movements such as the occupation of Wall Street, or the many that have and continue to take place around the globe this year, remains to be seen. For now, however, we can content ourselves in knowing that there are those among us who still believe in the power of democracy, who feel that the current financial instability needs more voices heard than simply our elected political representatives, bank CEOs, and media pundits. They continue to protest in spite of the mainstream media's failure to alert the rest of us.

[See more Tyee rights and justice coverage.]  [Tyee]

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