The Media and the Five Stages of Grief Over Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street is a nascent phenomenon, whose future relevance to American politics, if any, is unknown. But it's already served as a useful window into the psychology of much of our gatekeeper media.
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Occupy Wall Street is a nascent phenomenon, whose future relevance to American politics, if any, is unknown. But it's already served as a useful window into the psychology of much of our gatekeeper media. In a better world, our leading media outlets would act as gadflies to the powerful. In the world in which we live, unfortunately, they are more inclined to serve as gadflies to the powerless. Hence their collective discomfiture at the emergence of a genuinely spontaneous reaction to what Simon Johnson has called the "Quiet Coup" -- the capture of our political and policy processes by a narrow elite and the extraordinary abuses of power and concentrations of wealth that follow from that capture.

A couple of caveats: a number of elite media pundits, including Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman and Lawrence O'Donnell have expressed clear support for OWS. And as the movement continues to grow and spread, media outlets are giving it more serious attention. But it remains the case that a broad swath of our gatekeeper media are evincing a kind of psychological trauma over the mirror that is being held up to their complacency about the awful turn this country has taken. This trauma is following a now well-worn progression:

Denial -- When OWS first emerged a few weeks ago, it was met by general media silence. Many commentators have pointed out the stark contrast in the initial treatment of OWS compared with the copious media coverage afforded the Tea Party in its earliest days. Nine days after the protests began and after there had already been mass arrests and reports of police brutality, NPR's executive editor for political news Dick Meyer insisted that the absence of coverage was warranted because the events were not newsworthy and did not "involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective." As Nieman Watchdog's John Hanrahan pointed out, this was wrong on all counts. Furthermore, by such criteria, the Tea Party would not have received the lavish coverage that it has enjoyed since its inception.

Eric Boehlert wondered whether what OWS was missing was the equivalent of FOX news -- a major media outlet that would devote enormous time and effort to amplifying the Tea Party's actions and demands. Of course, the Tea Party began its life with a well-staged rant by an established media figure -- CNBC's Rick Santelli who, in February 2009, fulminated on air and in front of cheering commodities traders that the "losers" who couldn't pay their mortgages shouldn't be bailed out by America's taxpayers. Mark Sumner of Daily Kos put it more pointedly, arguing that the Tea Party didn't just get good media coverage. Instead, the Tea Party was the media. In any event, in the beginning was a media blackout of OWS, a refusal to acknowledge that those protesters gathering near Wall Street represented a phenomenon worth covering at all. The bias of major media toward the presumptively authentic expression right-wing populism, in comparison with its general disdain for left-wing protest movements, certainly influenced the initial disparate levels of coverage. It should be noted that those elements of the Tea Party that have articulated a critique of Wall Street and bank bailouts -- as opposed to a generally know-nothing rant about an imminent socialist takeover -- have also generally been ignored by mainstream media.

Anger -- That the GOP establishment and its state-run television over at FOX news would treat the protesters with a mixture of dismissal, scorn and fear all at once is unsurprising. But other media outlets have also piled on. The initial refusal to cover OWS has given way as the protests persisted on Wall Street and then spread to other cities. In this second phase, a typical media angle on the protests has been to mock the dress and other cultural habits of the protesters. CNN's Alison Kosik characteristically suggested that they mainly wanted to play bongo drums and smoke marijuana. Other media outlets have commented that OWS participants are "letting their freak flags fly" and are "aligned with Lenin." When former Congressman Alan Grayson explained -- quite cogently -- what the OWS protesters stood for, the sniveling and frivolous P. J. O'Rourke retorted that Grayson should "get your shoes off, get a bongo drum, forget where to go the bathroom, it's yours..." The New York Times' Gina Bellafante kicked off her generally snide piece with a mocking vignette about a supposedly "default ambassador" for the movement -- "a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka. A blonde 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, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park..."

Alongside this new dismissive phase of coverage has been a parallel attempt to discredit the protesters, in the form of a third stage of grief -- bargaining.

Bargaining -- Perhaps the most popular media meme, consistent with what media critic Jay Rosen calls the "church of the savvy," is that the protesters lack a clear, coherent message or the broader political and organizational chops necessary to form a serious movement. Yes, one can find a variety of complaints among the various demonstrators, but their main beef is pretty clear. As Congressman Grayson put it:

"They're complaining that Wall Street wrecked the economy three years ago and nobody's held responsible for that. Not a single person's been indicted or convicted for destroying twenty percent of our national net worth accumulated over two centuries. They're upset about the fact that Wall Street has iron control over the economic policies of this country, and that one party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street, and the other party caters to them as well."

This, more or less, has been the clear and consistent message of the protesters, whatever other items might secondarily be on their agenda. But such clarity hasn't stopped a range of media ninnies from harping on the protesters' supposedly confused messaging. Some pundits, like Nicholas Kristof in the Times, seem genuinely sympathetic in writing about the protests and in providing what they believe to be constructive advice. Others, however, are plainly interested only demonstrating their own hard-headed realism and cool, while lecturing about the futility of protest and the need to work within the system. (And Greenwald has an excellent analysis of just how off-base some of these criticisms are).

As Kevin Gostzola has said, these criticisms demonstrate, more than anything, gatekeeper media's self-understanding as managers of democracy first, and citizens second.

Depression -- So far, the dire warnings about where these protests are headed have emanated primarily from FOX news and the GOP leadership, which sees the growing "mobs" as a threat to our democracy or to capitalism itself. One can assume, though, that if the protests do manage to sustain themselves and to grow, that many non-FOX gatekeeper media will become more and more agitated by the threat that OWS represents to their way of life. After all, keeping sustained attention on the most serious issues facing this country -- inequality, corruption, abuse of power and the capture of the political process by an undemocratic elite -- is really antithetical to the gatekeeper media's modus operandi. That M.O. -- a steady drumbeat of frivolities dressed up as real news and a mocking disdain for anyone who wants to focus on root causes of current problems as "unserious."

Acceptance -- Political dissent in America these days, particularly from the left, is ultimately only valid in if it can be reconciled with the constraints of the two-party system. To the extent that Democratic Party officials pay at least lip service to the goals of OWS, such support might provide a patina of respectability to the protests, prompting some increasing acceptance from gatekeeper media. I wouldn't hold my breath, however, about serious, sustained coverage of the movement's broad goals, particularly if it resists co-optation by Democrats. After all, the movement has emerged in no small part because the gatekeeper media has so clearly failed to keep the spotlight focused on the most significant problems facing this country, including the incapacity of ordinary politics to represent the interests of ordinary folks and to stem the growing concentration of wealth and power that is increasingly becoming an American trademark. Which returns us to the beginning of the process -- denial.

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