Occupy Wall Street Vs. Erin Burnett: A Primer In Media Failure

Yesterday, Salon's Glenn Greenwald did a fairly masterful job filleting the myopic and condescending way CNN's new hire Erin Burnett chose to cover the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Greenwald is hardly alone in his criticism. The Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik did much the same, saying, "Two of the fundamental attributes of good journalism are curiosity and a respect for the people on whom you report. Burnett got an "F" on both those counts with her Occupy Wall Street piece." Yesterday, I pointed to Jay Rosen, who highlighted short-lived tweets from CNN's Alison Kosik, documenting the fact that the failings Zurawik notes appear to be systemic at CNN.

(New York Magazine's Sarah Frank made note of the fact that Burnett's most noteworthy segment is a fairly weak rip-off of a Saturday Night Live gag, but this probably says more about the fact that CNN is running out of ideas than it does about Burnett.)

Here's the part of Greenwald's piece that really jumped out at me:

I'd bet that these two CNN personalities...would genuinely find the suggestion that they are not objective to be baffling and offensive. That's because their world begins and ends with Jamie Dimon, Citigroup executives, and Columbus Circle corporate galas. To them, Truth is what is found in that world and nothing else. When someone like Kosik sneers at concerns over mass joblessness, hopeless debt, foreclosures, and oligarchical control of the political process, she's not being a conscious propagandist; she's just being honest. Those problems don't exist in their world except as abstractions.

True. That. This is something I've banged on about before -- the signature failing of the media, in the way they've deigned to cover the massive unemployment crisis in America, is that they treat the people who are actually unemployed as abstract concepts. The norm that the media constantly, redundantly enforces is that the unemployment crisis is an event that solely threatens the re-election hopes of politicians, to whom they crave access.

No one craves access to poor people! So they remain in the background, where they can be easily abused. You see this play out when those who are allowed to be newsmakers depict the unemployed as lazy, shiftless and living off government largesse. You need only spend ten minutes on Google to uncover enough material fact to obliterate this notion so utterly that you can objectively state these charges are wrong with a clear journalistic conscience. But you have to be nominally invested in ordinary human beings to do that. It's the desire to serve ordinary Americans with the truth that pushes you onto that task. Without it, the "unemployed are lazy" lie becomes just one more interesting point of view.

The difference between the journalism that makes an investment in the lives of ordinary people and the journalism that doesn't is staggering. When you talk to a journalist who is so invested, you hear someone who sounds like this. When you leave the confines of the Beltway to report on what health care is like for average Americans, you get stories like this. When you actually start talking to the people who are getting ground up in the economic downturn, it produces stories such as these. And if you visit the workplaces of Americans who are fortunate to have a job, you're likely to find a horror story.

Burnett, for one, doesn't fit into this journalistic milieu. Greenwald makes that evident when he points out that she "featured a video clip of herself explaining to one of the protesters that the U.S. Government made money from TARP, and then demanded to know if that changed his negative views of Wall Street."

Why on earth would that fact form the basis for having positive views of Wall Street? Let me kick this to the Daily Bail, who correctly notes that Burnett "didn't do her bailout research before she decided to ridicule protesters for not doing doing their bailout research."

According to the U.S. Treasury's own figures, available publicly to any reader, including pneumatic (we understand if you need a dictionary for that one, Erin) and arrogant CNN reporters, as of TODAY, taxpayers are still more than $95 BILLION IN THE RED on TARP. And that's including all interest and other income. There is still $122 BILLION of TARP funds that have NOT yet been paid back.

We understand that Burnett was excluding GM, but she somehow missed that AIG, alone, still owes over $50 BILLION.

Beyond that, Burnett surely knows that TARP formed a mere sliver of the taxpayer money that went toward bailing Wall Street bankers out of the jam they made for themselves. She's surely aware of the fact that as recently as August, the American taxpayers were still owed $1.5 trillion from those efforts.

And it defies credulity to think that Erin Burnett doesn't know that the deal she's touting, that allowed the "U.S. Government [to make] money from TARP," was nothing to write home about, unless the letter you're penning reads: "Dear Mom, did you hear about how badly taxpayers got hosed in the deal structure of TARP? Here's an article from Bloomberg's Mark Pittman explaining it. Here's another Bloomberg piece from Mark Fisher titled, 'How the U.S. Blew Trillion-Dollar Trade of Century.' Erin Burnett said what now?"

Since I'm generously assuming that Burnett has some passing familiarity with mainstream financial reporting and access to the same material facts as the rest of us, I suppose it raises the question, "Was Burnett trying to mislead that demonstrator?" Oddly enough, I don't think that's the case. You actually have to have an investment in someone to lie to them. Rather, I think that this is all part and parcel of the interaction between a condescending pundit and a human being they've decided to treat as an abstraction. It's Burnett saying, "This is all the explanation you deserve. This is all you're capable of understanding. This is all you're going to get."

In other words: "You don't merit my best work." And from what I've seen in terms of how the financial crisis' impact on ordinary Americans is covered, "You don't merit my best work" seems to be the guiding philosophy.

Ordinary Americans have found themselves dropped in a world of stark terms and desperate choices, and those who are lucky to be treading water or doing well are nevertheless just as likely to know someone very dear to them who are in the jaws of this crisis. Faced with this reality, what do you imagine actual people might do to try to cut through the veil and stop getting treated as abstractions? Well, for starters, they might take to the streets. The media is awash in confusion, even now, about what the Occupy Wall Street "agenda" is, and what the demonstrators are "demanding." I'd say their demands begin with "acknowledge our existence," and move on to "make a nominal investment to covering what is happening in our lives."

At a minimum, they've a right to demand that much. After all, the folks gathered in Zuccotti Park are probably keenly aware that some mass movements have been deemed deserving of corporate media sponsorship and co-branding.

Speaking of: Hey, CNN! When have you scheduled the Occupy Wall Street/CNN 2012 debate?

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