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Covering the coverage: What’s behind the media’s depiction of Occupy protesters?

Media interviews Occupy organizers in New York (Photo taken October 6, Day 21 by David Shankbone)

Media interviews Occupy organizers in New York (Photo taken October 6, Day 21 by David Shankbone)

(MintPress)- One of the many issues the Occupy movement has thrust into the spotlight recently is media coverage. The issue of how the Occupy movement has been covered by members of the media has raised some important and interesting questions. A recent article in the New york Times points out, “Newspapers and television networks have been rebuked by media critics for treating the movement as if it were a political campaign or a sideshow — by many liberals for treating the protesters dismissively, and by conservatives, conversely, for taking the protesters too seriously.”


Examples of unfair coverage


Many are charging that the medias portrayals of the movement as anarchists and rapists is unfair, and inaccurate.

One does not need to do much digging to uncover such reports. Dozens popped up under a simple Google search for the words “occupy rape and anarchy”. But, further examination of some of the reports reveals an alarming trend of linking incidents of violence to a movement which has remained largely peaceful in its protesting.

Citing one example, in November, a 23 year-old woman was raped by a 50 year-old man near an Occupy camp in Philadelphia. A media report on the incident read, “Sexual assaults and other violent incidents have been reported at a number of Occupy Wall Street camps around the country, though Philadelphia’s has been fairly peaceful, according to WPVI. The movement has been criticized for its response to sexual assaults, particularly at Occupy Baltimore…” That particular report did not include information or interviews from any spokespersons at the camp, which is a key feature of Occupy groups. The fact that the movement has been “peaceful” was only mentioned briefly in the story.

In response to this type of reporting, some are calling into question the media’s coverage of such issues, asking why the Occupy movement is perhaps being demonized by media outlets.


Why the bias?

In December, Delano B. Purscell wrote a piece published by the Bucks County Courier Times, a daily paper in Philadelphia, noting a, “ gratuitously inflammatory regarding the New York Occupiers. “ … tented slums that are attracting homeless people and criminals — if not rats” is propaganda and not opinion or news. You should have pointed out the Wall Street financial criminals who committed real crimes and have yet to be arrested.”

Purscell wondered why there was not as much negative coverage of many of those on Wall Street responsible for the recent financial crisis in the US, further noting of the paper’s coverage of Occupy, “It was an untrue depiction of a serious movement. This nation’s current problems are no joke. Tea partiers and Occupiers have perfectly valid and sometimes parallel objectives. Generationaly, one can’t expect their methods to be the same. The retaking of our government is important to us all. While some want less and some want more government, both viewpoints require effective government. Most of your readers are somewhere in the 99 percent.”

Purscell also questioned why the paper published  a cartoon depicting an average Occupy protester as “the unshaven and bearded communist who lives with mom in her basement, is unemployed, commits rapes and murders”.

In another incident garnering media attention in Ohio in October, a young woman reported being raped by a man whom she said she was assigned by “rally personnel” to share a tent with at an Occupy camp. Organizers were interviewed by the media in this incident, and they said they were cooperating fully with police after being told of the allegations, and took the allegations “very seriously”, however they also stressed, “tent assignments” are not made and that no one is familiar with the victim or the alleged perpetrator,” according to media reports.

Erin McCardle, a spokesperson for Occupy Cleveland spoke to local media on the incident clarifying, ”We do not tent people by direction. Everyone chooses who to tent with,” she said. “We provide the tents donated by the community.”

Another Organizer Rebecca Hawkins also spoke out on the same incident at Occupy Cleveland. ”We are a community group, we do not have leaders, we are a leaderless movement,” Hawkins said. “So your [tent] assignment would be your own choice of what you wanted to do.”

In this situation, the media reports of the incident seem to reveal that Occupy may have been unfairly targeted, in associating the movement, which has remained peaceful in its protests, to incidents of alleged violence, such as rape.

So, why does the mainstream media in the US insist on painting a different picture?

In late 2011, popular comic book author Frank Miller (hardly an expert on social movements, but certainly someone recognized and admired by many for his work) wrote a blog post on the Occupy movement, in which he says to members of the movement, “Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism. And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently — must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh — out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.”

The post garnered national media attention, with other comics and fans writing in. A report in the New York Daily News records one fan responding to Miller, “I used to be your biggest fan. You’re dead to me now.”

Miller’s not the first, however, to mention Occupy and the Middle East in the same sentence. Many have drawn parallels between the occupy movement and the Arab Spring protests which took place throughout 2010 and 2011, with demonstrations resulting in the toppling of corrupt governments in several countries throughout the Arab world. One blogger writes, “They’re disorganized. Unfocused. Kids who feel entitled. Where have we heard this from before? During the Arab Spring state government-run television sought to criminalize the youth who had taken to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They were portrayed as being rowdy youth who had been supposedly ‘Americanized’ and ‘traitors’ for protesting their government, as if they were disloyal members of society. The state-run media showed only the car burning, stone-throwing, petty violence of the Arab youth in hopes to destroy the entire image of the revolution. They were more engaged in rioting and bringing instability to the country instead of producing a real solution. Well, we all know now that, that wasn’t the real image of the Arab Spring. They were all united for a cause: To fight social injustice.”

Internationally, the media abroad seems to be taking a much more measured approach, comparing the Occupiers to the Arab spring protesters.

An article in The Atlantic outlines, “First, there’s a strong tendency in certain national presses to see Occupy Wall Street as part of a global protest trend. Much of the language of the Occupy Wall Street protests, of course, has encouraged this, and protesters might be pleased to note that the movement’s invocation of the Arab Spring.” The article also notes that Al-Arabiya covered 2011 protests  in the US with a headline reading “Wall Street Spring.”


“Conflict drives the news”

So, why does the media seem to be portraying the movement in such a polarizing light, and seem to play up stories of controversy and violence? As Danny Schecter, who covers Occupy for AlJazeera writes on his blog, “In the same way that political sound-bites went from nearly 30 seconds to five, or that MTV style editing soon invaded the newsrooms with quick cutting and razzle-dazzle effects — ‘covering’ news while making it difficult to concentrate on it, much less to comprehend the fast-paced presentation techniques. When asked by researchers, audiences could barely tell you what they had just seen, much less what it meant.”

Schecter, with years of journalism experience under his belt, is critical of the direction the media has been heading in, and how complex issues are being covered by corporate media.

He continues, “We saw this in Iraq when, during the invasion, it was war all the time, literally around the clock — but when you looked closely, it wasn’t about Iraq or Iraqis, it was about a narrative of U.S. slaying the bad guys, cowboys versus Indians, good guys versus bad guys. There was no other news, but what there was AAU — All About US. Now, with Occupy Wall Street, the pattern is similar. The issues largely don’t exist — if they require any explanation or analysis. Knowledge about Wall Street and the economy is assumed. Conflict drives the news.”