From Andy Zipser, former editor of the Guild Reporter:
Yes, the rise of the internet and social media played a significant role in debilitating an inquisitive, socially conscious press. But decades of newspaper ownership that resembled a game of Monopoly, emphasizing profit over purpose, has depleted the ranks of reporters, shrunk news holes and made publishers hyper-sensitive to anything that might further limit the flow of advertising dollars. Having failed to meet the internet challenge when its coffers were overflowing with 25% and 30% profit margins, the industry was incapable of anything resembling an innovative response when the roof caved in and the money went away.
Moreover, the industry as a whole has been driven by the same forces that have pushed the country ever further rightward. As cogently argued in a recent essay in New York magazine by David Frum, a conservative apostate: “The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much.”
No surprise, then, that when the OWS phenomenon bloomed, the first reaction of the corporate press—its ranks depleted, its legitimacy fading—was to ignore it. OWS was an attack on the corporatist status quo, and the skeleton crews left to staff most newsrooms no longer had the resources, vision or nerve to act on their once fondly touted credo of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Yet days turned into weeks, and the initial encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York metastasized into dozens of similar occupations all over the U.S. and then abroad. And when the pepper-spray started flying, ignoring what was happening was no longer an option.
But by then, of course, the rules of the game had changed completely.
The privileged position that newspaper reporters had occupied suddenly vanished. OWS protesters weren’t always receptive to press coverage, with its simplistic questions and fleeting attention span—and all too often, the horse-race kind of attention they got justified their apprehension. “We’re fighting a system, and this media is part of the system,” complained Patrick Bruner, an organizer for OWS in New York, whose repeated efforts to educate the media about the protesters’ issues had been ignored. Or as Alicia Shepard, a former NPR ombudsman, told the New York Times, most OWS coverage “hasn’t been about the issues, it’s been about who’s up and who’s down.”
At the same time, the police and many city officials demonstrated that they, too, have little regard for reporters, at times physically attacking, forcibly restraining and arresting journalists with or without official credentials. In one notable incident, New York police asked all credentialed reporters to raise their hands—then hustled them off to a “safe zone” too far away to see anything.
Yet to some extent, the effort to shape media perceptions was fruitless because the press was no longer the primary chronicler of events: that role fell to the social media, and most particularly to Twitter, as OWS protesters, bystanders and press reporters themselves all turned to 140-character tweets and cell phone videos to describe what was occurring. The paramount example cited in several accounts was that of Josh Harkinson from Mother Jones magazine, live-tweeting as police dragged him out of Zuccotti Park, but there were numerous similar instances.
The reliance on social media by mainstream reporters was, however, a two-edged sword. When an Associated Press reporter and a photographer were arrested at Zuccotti Park and one or both of them tweeted about it to a personal account, the wire service quickly issued a memo chastising employees for tweeting about a newsworthy event “before the material was on the wire.” The rebuke drew derisive responses from both corporate press pundits and electronic media mavens. Brian Stelter at the New York Times suggested that if tweets are beating the wire then maybe the wire should speed up. And as Mathew Ingram at GigaOm noted, “if a 140-character post or two by one of your reporters on Twitter is a threat to your news service, then you have a problem that can’t be fixed by simply enforcing your social-media policies more stringently.”
AP was simply attempting to prevent the commodification of news, but that horse had already bolted the barn. More than 5,000 people watched the Oakland police raid on that city’s OWS site via local resident Spencer Mills’ smartphone uploads to @OakFoSho, and at one point Al-Jazeera English was also simulcasting his broadcast. The Other 99 drew 20,000 viewers over 16 hours as it covered the Nov. 15 police action at Zuccotti Park. @Blogdiva, run by blogger Liza Sabater, became an RSS feed for occupations nationwide as well as for the ongoing protest in Egypt.
Even as corporate media like the Associated Press are fighting a rear-guard battle against the blurring of journalistic roles, so too is the establishment that is being challenged by OWS. “Imagine my surprise,” wrote Stu Loeser, an aide to New York Mayor Bloomberg, “when we found that only five of the 26 arrested reporters actually have valid NYPD-issued press credentials”—the implication being, of course, that reporters without credentials aren’t the real thing. Worse yet, the inevitable corollary of Loeser’s formulation is that only officialdom can determine who is and who is not a journalist.
That didn’t go down well with the establishment press, which soon hit back on a couple of levels. The New York Press Club announced that it was forming “The Coalition for the First Amendment,” along with other local media groups, “to monitor police actions”—something one might have presumed the press was already doing. Separately, a coalition of various media outlets and press advocacy groups wrote a letter seeking a meeting with police and city officials to complain about actions that “clearly violate NYPD policies and procedures as concerns the media.” Alas, the letter also griped that previous letters of complaint had been ignored—over a period of several months—adding a certain forlorn tone to the demand.
In the end, it may be that individual reporters will just have to decide for themselves how to make sense of a rapidly changing world in which all institutions are being challenged. The Newspaper Guild is attempting to help that process with a new Facebook page, “Occupied Journalists,” to serve as a forum for media workers to share anecdotes and survival strategies. “The Occupy movement is about justice,” explained TNG-CWA President Bernie Lunzer. “Our effort is to ensure just treatment for all journalists and media workers as they cover this story that’s playing out in the streets.”
But at least some of those journalists are already drawing their own conclusions about what it means to be a reporter—even if it means shedding a corporate strait-jacket that has twisted a once noble calling into something fundamentally dishonest. As reported by Natasha Lennard in a piece for Salon titled “Why I quit the mainstream media”: “[I]f the mainstream media prides itself on reporting the facts, I have found too many problems with what does or does not get to be a fact—or what rises to the level of a fact they believe to be worth reporting—to be part of such a machine. Going forward, I want to take responsibility for my voice and the facts that I choose and relay.”
And so Occupy Wall Street, whatever its ultimate outcome, succeeds in creating one more incremental change.