Panicky Punning in Place of Journalism: Paging The New York Times!

The New York Times ran a ridiculous article last Friday concerning the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests occurring downtown.

The headline reads “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim” (get it?), which would seem to establish author Gina Bellafante’s opinion of the events she’s covering right off the bat. The strange thing is that this is no op-ed, it’s positioned as a straight news story, in one of the most reputable newspapers in the country. Gina Bellafante is, for the purposes of her “Gunning for Wall Street” article, at least, a journalist, and not the gonzo kind. She is not on the opinion page. She is not a blogger like me, who makes no claim of being a journalist at all, let alone remotely objective; I’m here to bring you my opinion and analysis, not news. The Mystery Diary is not a newspaper. The Times is. And it’s a newspaper with which I grew up. I have a lot of affection for it. It can be a fantastic source of information. It can also be a disturbing dispenser of subtle or blatant propaganda, the latter being what we have here today.

For all the right wing whining about The Times supposed progressivism (if only!), they know which side of their bread is buttered: the one with money. Recognizing this, it’s somewhat encouraging that the Occupy Wall Street movement is apparently threatening enough to merit such a toxic smear job. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what The Times has delivered after a week of protests and grassroots media activism finally persuaded them to devote some serious inches to the story. This is a textbook example of attempted delegitimization of the type faced by every forward-thinking radical movement. I say “radical” meaning “to the root”, not “extreme”. There’s nothing extremist about wanting one’s country to prioritize the needs of the overwhelming majority (the “99%” that Occupy Wall Street claims to represent) over the greed of a tiny elite who are fucking things up for everyone else.

I have had no involvement with Occupy Wall Street beyond following the events in my city from afar and tweeting related links I find interesting. I have little opinion about particulars of how the protests have been and are being organized, beyond my admiration and appreciation for the fact that they’ve successfully pulled off a 10-day “occupation” that is drawing attention to crucial issues while energizing and focusing increasing numbers of righteous discontents internal to the US. I’m sure I could find valid reasons to nitpick if I wanted to, but in desperate times I have even less tolerance than usual for armchair activist quarterbacking (which is very different from constructive criticism, an essential component of any viable movement.) As I read some grown adults opinions on Occupy Wall Street’s supposed failings (most of which were entirely speculative) I was ironically reminded of Louie CK’s routine about entitled, opinionated 20-year-olds who contribute nothing to the world they so smugly judge:

Now: I’m sure there are some people down on Wall Street with the same misguided sense of narcissistic grandeur that Louie CK skewers in the clip above. So what. There will be at any gathering of this size. At least just by physically being there, they may be doing some good, however annoying it may be to stand next to them.

Which brings us back to The Times article and why it’s a sorry excuse for journalism. Bellafante’s report from Wall Street depicts a rag tag crew of annoying people who supposedly lack any clear agenda. While Occupy Wall Street does lack central leadership (an organizational choice some of us see as a potential strength rather than weakness) they did issue a communique on September 22 that lays out a list of demands. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the agenda, or likes or abhors the rhetorical device employed in the communique, the demands themselves are clear as day. There is no mention of this document in Bellafante’s piece. She either intentionally omitted it, or was unaware that it existed. The latter may be less malicious, but indicates that she had no business covering a story for which she would not do the minimum level of investigative journalism (say, googling the group you are writing about) that Times readers should be able to expect.

Instead of journalism, Bellafante panders to elements of The Times readership who may have sincere, limited issues with domestic economic policy and want an excuse to dismiss those calling for deeper systemic change. Towards this end, she employs the same diversion tactics that corporate media have used to smear protestors for a very long time. In her demeaning portrait of know-nothing misfits run amok, she all but calls the demonstrators dope-smoking freaks. She allows that some may mean well, but these weirdos are out of touch. She describes the mass as silly rather than threatening, opting for ridicule over another time-worn favorite: scare tactics. This is heartening in that it indicates less likelihood that the NYPD will receive support for more violent intervention (there have been documented incidents of police violence already, but things could theoretically get much, much worse.) The fact that Bellafante portrays the demonstrators as a combination of opportunist and wack-job elders mixed with confused kids makes sense: a lot of the kids there are probably the children of Times readers, who don’t see their offspring as potential terrorists, even if they are going through an annoying social justice phase.

I guess Zuni Tikka, the 37-year-old woman Bellafante profiles at the start of her piece, falls into the wack-job elder category, despite being described as the “default ambassador” of this “fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people” (emphasis mine). I’m not sure when 37-year-olds became the new “young people”, but I guess I should be glad–I’m not as old as I thought! Apparently, I still can comfortably speak for The Kids! I had no idea, I thought I was a boring grown up now, awes! Anyway, Bellafante opens her piece with an offensive bit of editorializing about Ms. Tikka dancing around in her underwear, as if this one action by one individual was emblematic of the protests:

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…Tourists stopped to take pictures; cops smiled, and the insidiously favorable tax treatment of private equity and hedge-fund managers was looking as though it would endure.

Let’s step away from the almost unendurable smarm and focus on what I see as the most insidious piece of opinion posing as journalism: “a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968”. 1968. That’s when real protests happened, you posers. Sorry you missed the boat. That was a very special time and we don’t do that anymore. Stop trying, you just look stupid. Because we say so. Because we need you to.

First: despite the longstanding tradition of revisionist US history in which the power structure eventually tries to co-opt such radical ’60s figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and even Malcolm X as important parts of our country’s somehow inevitable march towards greater and greater justice, corporate media mostly didn’t like any of those people until well after they were dead. If you told anyone in 1968 that Malcolm X would someday be on a postage stamp, they likely would have found the concept absurd, unless we had a revolution coming (spoiler: we didn’t.) Protestors in the 60s were not embraced as righteous agitators leading their country to change, they were ridiculed or demonized (and/or jailed and murdered, depending largely on how effective they were and their race.) This is also what happened to those who actively opposed Reagan’s imperialist and economically suicidal regime in the 80s, the US faction of the anti-globalization movement around the turn of the millenium, pretty much any protest movement ever. It is never a good time to be a protestor.

Second: The tactic of annihilation-by-ridicule employed by Bellafante, ensconced in the media throne of The Times, is tantamount to bullying. It’s pathetic, tacky, and mean. It is not journalism. It is, however, a form of propaganda.

Bellafante’s indictment of Occupy Wall Street is specious at best. She focuses on supposedly dwindling numbers of participants (after a solid week of demonstrations, a rare feat she does not acknowledge as an accomplishment), the fact that many media outlets have estimated the number of participants as lower than the figures given by organizers (which is true of every demonstration ever, unless it’s a tea party event being covered by Fox News), and the fact many participants came from out of town (…and?) She does not recount any substantive-seeming interviews, choosing instead to serve up a selection of wacky quotes. “I want to create spectacles” may sound like an inane reason to demonstrate devoid of context, but is not necessarily a vapid response to whatever exactly Bellafante asked. If she found no one with a more detailed line of logic, she was trying to avoid them. The fact that she didn’t contrast an intelligent-sounding protestor with the supposed majority of morons makes the picture she paints all the more suspect. She doesn’t talk about arrests (why did they happen if this is just a bunch of silly kids having a drum circle?) She doesn’t discuss the march in protest of Troy Davis’ execution that joined up with Occupy Wall Street last week. She doesn’t mention anything that’s actually happened, other than confusion and underwear-dancing.

So, damningly, some attendees were unclear on what “corporate personhood” means while that concept was an important point of opposition for others: shocking! Some attendees were inarticulate and seemed under-informed: no way! There was a Libertarian! Obviously this project is a pitiable disaster. Discussing arrests and quoting statements of substance is no fun, let’s mock their street theater!

I’ve often mocked the street theater at protests myself (I’ve seen transcendant examples of the same as well, of course.) But I did that while I was participating in something. Last night I saw the legendary hip hop act The Coup perform. Frontman Boots Riley at one point saw an audience member holding up an “Occupy Wall Street” sign and acknowledged him, saying that he endorsed the protests. At another point he spoke eloquently between songs about how there’s always a reason not to participate in justice struggles–there are always issues with actions, reasons why a given event or organization isn’t right for you. He urged the audience to engage, despite the flaws of any movement. He pointed out that if we wait until the perfect moment, we will never do shit. Which is exactly what a lot of people in positions of power would like us to do.

You can watch an ongoing, unedited live stream of the demonstrations here.


About Nicole Witte

I write and make movies.
This entry was posted in activism, Media, Nicole Solomon, politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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