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Some Breaks in the Blackout of Wall Street Protests

September 30, 2011

This article is re-posted from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

After a FAIR Action Alert (9/23/11) criticized the virtual media blackout of the Occupy Wall Street protests, corporate news coverage has increased–sparked largely by the escalating police brutality at the ongoing demonstration. (See FAIR Blog, 9/23/11, for a sample of the messages sent by FAIR activists to the network nightly news shows.)

On ABC World News Sunday (9/25/11), anchor David Muir read this short item while playing footage of cops assaulting protesters:

And here in New York, protests continued against the big banks and the bailout that helped the banks, Wall Street, they say, not Main Street. It turned ugly this weekend when protesters marching through Lower Manhattan clashed with police. One man right there brought down forcefully by an officer. About 80 people were arrested, in fact. The protesters posted this video on the Internet.

NBC Nightly News aired a somewhat longer report the next day (9/26/11), with correspondent Ron Allen actually traveling downtown to the protest encampment in Liberty Plaza. His report included this “he said, she said”: “The protesters charge that the police used excessive force. The police say that anyone who resists arrest can expect to encounter some level of force, but nothing excessive.” The following morning’s Today show (9/27/11) briefly aired footage of a police official pepper-spraying nonviolent demonstrators in the face, noting that “the NYPD calls the officer’s actions appropriate.”

Some journalists seemed strikingly reluctant to take videotaped evidence of police violence at face value. CNN anchor Ali Velshi (9/26/11) introduced footage of a police assault by dismissively saying that protesters were “now screaming abuse after they were arrested over the weekend.” After the footage of a cop violently subduing a protester, co-anchor Carol Costello noted, “Of course, what you can’t see is what came before the fight”–a disclaimer that could be made of every single piece of videotape that CNN runs.

A September 27 New York Times piece (FAIR Blog, 9/28/11) seemed to defend the police force’s brutal response, with reporter Joseph Goldstein depicting a police department concerned about “terrorism” and the “destruction and violence” that supposedly accompany “anticapitalist demonstrations.” Such police worries, according to Goldstein, “came up against a perhaps milder reality on Saturday, when their efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated”–an oddly passive way to introduce the use of pepper spray and body slams against nonviolent demonstrators.

“Even as the members of Occupy Wall Street seem unorganized and, at times, uninformed, their continued presence creates a vexing problem for the Police Department,” Goldstein wrote–though his acceptance of media myths about violent demonstrators (Extra!, 1-2/00, 3-4/00; FAIR Action Alert, 7/25/00) makes the reporter seem less informed than the protesters he patronizes.

Similar condescension was on display in another New York Times piece (“Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim,” 9/25/11), with reporter Ginia Bellafonte deriding the “intellectual vacuum” of the protests, with “its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it.” Bellafante described one protester as a “half-naked woman… with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968.”

The Times did, however, print a column by Jim Dwyer (9/28/11) that grappled seriously with the police brutality on display in the videos of the march. “If a nightstick were substituted for pepper spray, a conventional weapon instead of an exotic one, the events on 12th Street would bear a strong resemblance to simple assault,” Dwyer noted straightforwardly.

Perhaps the harshest critic of police violence in corporate media was MSNBC‘s Lawrence O’Donnell, who devoted a remarkable segment to the issue on September 26. Pointing to footage of police tackling a person carrying a video camera, O’Donnell noted:

The reason that man is being assaulted by the police is because of what he has in his hand. He’s holding a professional grade video camera. Since the Rodney King beating was caught on an amateur video camera, American police officers have known video cameras are their worst enemy. They will do anything they can to stop you from legally videotaping how they handle their responsibility to serve and protect you.

Another outstanding moment in corporate media coverage was filmmaker Michael Moore’s appearance on CNN (9/26/11). Host Piers Morgan gave Moore a rare opportunity to actually articulate some of the grievances that have prompted the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in the first place:

The main thing is, number one, is that the rich are getting away with a huge crime. Nobody has been arrested on Wall Street for the crash of 2008. They’re not paying their fair share of the taxes. And now with the Citizens United case of the Supreme Court, they get to buy politicians up out in the open….

It all points to, are we going to live in a democracy that’s run by the majority of the people, or are we going to be living in a kleptocracy, where the kleptomaniacs down on Wall Street, who have stolen people’s pension funds, they’ve wrecked people’s lives, millions have been thrown out of their homes, millions are without health insurance, millions have lost their jobs?

Still, as late as this week, some in the media establishment were continuing to debate whether the Occupy Wall Street protests were worth covering at all. NPR ombud Edward Schumacher-Matos devoted a column (9/26/11) to the network’s decision not to air any reports on the demonstration:

We asked the newsroom to explain their editorial decision. Executive editor for news Dick Meyer came back: “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.”

The next day, the previously unimportant non-news was worth covering after all, as Schumacher-Matos wrote (9/27/11):

The Occupy Wall Street protests have persisted into this week, so the newsroom has decided to include a segment on tonight’s All Things Considered.

FAIR thanks all media activists who wrote to news outlets and helped to change their minds about the newsworthiness of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. There’s still a long way to go.

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