Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal, a paper widely respected for speaking with authority on economic issues, dispatched a team of reporters to five American cities to try to figure out what to make of the people coalescing in urban spaces under the banner Occupy Wall Street.
"Who are the protesters and what do they want?" the resulting story asked, before delivering the results of its conversations with "more than 100" of them -- a supposedly dispassionate journalistic inquiry.
"The picture that emerged is a motley conglomeration of people with widely varying goals -- and some with no clear-cut goals at all other than to denounce greed," the story declared. "The movement is centered on unemployed or underemployed college students and college dropouts whose refrain is that their American inheritance has been squandered and their prospects are bleak. But there also is a tolerance -- and sometimes, sympathy -- for causes well outside the mainstream."
Oh, the horror! Did these poor Journal reporters come back traumatized by their exposure to too many nose rings and vegan sandwiches? The rest of the piece dropped words like "extremist" and "anarchist" to describe this menacing riffraff, while -- in a discernible nod to restraint -- holding back from "pinko," "terrorist-lover" and "satanic."
This sort of reportage has been legion in the nation's most respected newspapers of late, with condescension, snark and cynicism employed as the favored tools among the scribbling tribe. The biggest casualty has been recognition of one key fact known well to anyone not scrambling to book a place in St. Barts for the holidays: The protesters are very much in the mainstream. Even if most of them don't look like the sorts of people you expect to encounter in the frozen food section of your nearest supermarket, the things they are complaining about are the same things that most Americans are complaining about.
Yes, many are young and unemployed. (No loneliness in that station, by the way.) Their sartorial choices generally do not spring from J. Crew or Brooks Brothers. They are, at least so far, not particularly racially diverse, which they acknowledge is a problem. But the issues they are expounding on could not be more mainstream. They are angry that an American economic system that used to allow people to work for a living has broken down, functioning instead like a casino in which the richest people get to be the house.
You can figure this out for yourself by assembling facts from the journalism buffet, on this day a poll from The New York Times that tells us that "almost half of the public thinks the sentiment at the root of the Occupy movement generally reflects the views of most Americans." Almost everyone worries that the economy is set to weaken further, while "two-thirds of the public said that wealth should be distributed more evenly in the country."
Another Times report focuses prominently on a new Congressional Budget Office report that affirms what academic economists have been saying for years: Over the last three decades, those enjoying incomes in the top 1 percent better than doubled the share of national income, far outpacing everyone else.
The Times reported those two stories forcefully as important news that helps explain the dissatisfaction that fairly seethes from the populace -- much of this offered in the context of the presidential election (which often seems like the only context my colleagues are inclined to treat seriously on a sustained basis).
But contrast this reporting with the feature the same paper served up earlier this month, in which it invited bankers to anonymously attack the Occupy Wall Street protesters. "In Private, Wall Street Bankers Dismiss Protesters As Unsophisticated," read the headline stripped across most of the top of the Business Section. (I'm guessing some killjoy on the news desk put the kibosh on the obvious alternative: "At Le Bernardin, Bankers Say Protesters Totally Clueless About The Wine List.")
Unsophisticated? For real? This from the people whose supposed financial genius saw them forget to set aside actual cash money to reserve against the "sophisticated" idea that real estate values are like some magic potion in a children's fairytale? But forget that. The first two quotes describing the protest movement are pretty much all you need to know about this story: "Most people view it as a ragtag group looking for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," an anonymous "top hedge fund manager," told the Times. "It's not a middle-class uprising," said someone described as a "veteran bank executive."
The people who run The New York Times have earned their credentials as some of the smartest, most dedicated journalists around. But they also strain credibility in asking us to subscribe to the threadbare idea that they are engaged in a fully objective inquiry in which personal values and experiences are irrelevant and do not color the substance of their report. Read this would-be homage to the Onion and try to maintain a straight face and the notion of objectivity at the same time. Ask yourself whose side the Times is on -- the poor, misunderstood bankers whose good intentions never get recognized, or the degenerate, unemployable, loutish, hippy freaks urinating and fornicating in public? If you struggle with this test, you have officially earned entry into remedial English.
This sort of reporting tickles the stereotypes of the well-heeled people who read the Times and the Journal -- the last remaining newspapers that can be considered great -- but it deprives readers of the insights they need to make sense of events that aren't all that hard to grasp: banks loot real economy; people lose jobs and homes; people angry.
The problem for the Times and the Journal is the same for most newsrooms: Those of us paid to write and edit are part of the white collar professional class, far more likely to mix with bankers and lobbyists on the Acela train than the people whose homes we zip past while trying to persuade the Times app not to crash our iPads. Yes, journalists have learned the joys of hearing the human resources people outline our severance packages. We, too, have encountered stagnating wages and insecurity. But reporters needing to reach editors on summer weekdays must still often make themselves acquainted with the area codes for the Hamptons and Nantucket.
The result is a natural affinity for the people we are used to talking to, people who work in offices that have departments set up to field our calls and give us data to put in our stories, along with a gut-level tendency to ridicule as mentally deficient the people who are standing in the street shouting and waving signs.
My colleague Jason Linkins has already done justice to the unfortunate interview the CNN television personality Erin Burnett imposed on protesters at Zuccotti Park, in which she mocked them for supposedly not understanding that the taxpayer made money off the financial system bailouts. As Linkins lays out, Burnett was in fact was dispensing false propaganda spewed by major banks: The bailouts have made money for the taxpayer in the same sense that members of Congress are beloved by the nation. That is, provided you don't bother to count the 90 percent or so who would like to see all of Congress placed naked inside a fenced area with ravenous, rabid squirrels.
But give Burnett a break. We expect entertainment and immediacy from television, not accuracy and depth. Anyone who thinks Burnett is on television because of her financial acumen and prowess at parsing Federal Reserve actions definitely needs to get their mute button unstuck.
The remaining titans of newspapers hold themselves to a higher standard, and they continue to invite us to buy into the idea that they trade only in verifiable truths while showing no fear or favor to anyone. They are making themselves look silly while they strain to make the protesters look silly.