EXCERPT -- OCCUPY: Why It Started. Who's Behind It. What's Next.
What follows is an excerpt from "OCCUPY: Why It Started. Who's Behind It. What's Next" by the Staff of The Huffington Post. The Occupy Wall Street movement started in early September in a small urban patch on Wall St. and soon the protests spread to other cities -- Los Angeles, Sacramento, Boston, Chicago. It's changed the national conversation, as reflected in the discourse of politics and media. It is perhaps the story of the year. In this excerpt, HuffPost's Michael Calderone takes a close look at how the media covered Occupy Wall Street.
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If classic Sci-fi movies have it right, little green men will someday land on Earth and one will emerge from the flying saucer's hatch with a simple request: "Take me to your leader." It's a logical reaction to finding oneself in a strange, alien environment and not too far off from how journalists reacted when first arriving at a tent city taking shape in Lower Manhattan.
But there was no leader to meet them or army of clipboard-wielding spokespeople providing canned quotes and a 10-point-plan. And the occupiers, wary of these new visitors, quickly had their worst suspicions confirmed with early mockery of the nascent movement from not only Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets like Fox News and the New York Post, but also CNN and the New York Times. Still, the tent city-dwellers weren't going away, thus prompting the national media to take a harder look at Occupy Wall Street try figuring out how they ended up in Zuccotti Park in the first place. Journalists soon discovered Adbusters' poster promoting the Sept. 17 convergence, which featured a ballerina gracefully poised atop Wall Street's iconic charging bull sculpture and the words "What is our one demand?" The inevitable, unanswerable question.
Occupy Wall Street's amorphous, seemingly leaderless, and non-partisan movement presented unique challenges for journalists experienced in covering protests with clear demands and cable talking heads accustomed to neatly categorizing dissent as either good or bad for one political party or the other. While one could argue that the occupation itself -- a community united by and speaking out against corruption in finance and politics -- was a goal, it's a bit more abstract than demonstrations organized to, say, protect employment benefits or rally against a proposed law.
Indeed, protests are nothing new to cover. Journalists have listened to bongo players and interviewed plenty of activists holding hand-scrawled signs on college campuses, outside city hall or on the steps of the Capitol. Tent cities have a precedent, too, including those that sprung up at student protests against apartheid in South Africa during the 1980's. And unfortunately, violent police crackdowns -- like those more recently in Oakland or New York City -- have taken place at demonstrations over the years.
But protests typically have a clear, galvanizing demand, like "Get Out Of Vietnam!" or, more recently, "Down with Mubarak!" Although occupiers likely share broad views -- like the outsized influence of corporations over the political process (and the media) -- individual activists may have quite different reasons for taking to the streets. Some want government to better regulate capitalism; others want to do away with the system altogether. Some offer eloquent critiques of the economic plight of the middle class that are seized upon by sympathetic pundits and columnists. Meanwhile, some in the conservative media are just as quick to amplify less-nuanced, more-nihilistic quotes in an attempt to knock down the movement.
Either way, it was clear from the start that the driving force of the movement wasn't simply to elect Democrats or kick out Republicans. And yet political pundits, clinging to the most recent historical example, routinely labeled Occupy Wall Street as a left-wing version of the Tea Party movement. But the conservative Tea Party movement -- with financial backing from major organizations like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, along with heavy promotion on Fox News -- long had goals of impacting the political system by electing more like-minded Republicans. And in the 2010 midterm elections, they did.
So far, Occupy Wall Street hasn't had any similar aspirations for shaking up electoral politics. If anything, the occupiers more closely resemble the "anti-globalization" movement of 1999/2000 -- a diverse group that was more likely to either not vote, as a protest against corporate influence over the two political parties, or pull the lever for an outsider like Ralph Nader. Similarly, occupiers flocking to summer political conventions in Charlotte and Tampa shouldn't be expected to wave signs in support of President Obama.
Although some occupiers have had gripes with the national media coverage -- especially in the early days -- many journalists have done admirable work covering the triumphs, fragmentation, and themes of the occupy movement, while personally facing arrest and harassment in the process. Issues like "income inequality" have gotten much more play in the media, while "the 99 percent" is now commonly discussed in print, online or on the air. Non-professional journalists, too, added much to mainstream coverage through contributions on social media, YouTube videos, and livestreams that allowed the public to view events in real-time.
As 2011 came to a close, Occupy Wall Street even found itself placed in the company of the dictator-toppling Arab Spring revolts and Europe's mass demonstrations when Time named "The Protester" as its "Person of the Year." Less than three months since converging at Zuccotti Park, with skeptical journalists not far behind, Time's annual cover -- a space reserved in the past for presidents, prime ministers, and popes -- was given over to an Occupy activist.
Michael Calderone is the senior media reporter for The Huffington Post Media Group.
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