Wednesday, September 28, 2011

OccupyWallStreet: Why are the New York Times and Mayor Bloomberg Dissing OWS? In a Word: Fear.

All we have to fear is fear itself (none visible here).

[Sep 28, updated through Oct 2.] Let's begin with a paragraph from the front page of today's New York Times: "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge around the Globe":
    MADRID — Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.
It's gone global. New York Times front page .
OK, so it's happening, all of it triggered by the immolation last December of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street fruit vendor whom history will one day remember as the Rosa Parks of the Arab Spring of 2011. As a fine CBS 60 Minutes segment showed last February, it was Bouazizi's death (and life) that triggered the Arab Spring. And now, the Arab Spring is a Global Spring, as Peter Coy foresaw in his BloombergBusinessweek cover story of last February. 

But. Wonder of wonders. Even as the Times covers the Arab Spring in its global aspect, it belittles the occurrence of this phenomenon in its own back yard. Times coverage to date has consisted of dismissive stories like this and this, "Gunning for Wall Street with Faulty Aim" (9/23), by Gina Bellafonte, whose interviews with a few occupiers convince her that the "cause [of the occupation] . . . in specific terms, was virtually impossible to decipher."

Photo accompanying the 9/27 Times OWS story
Ms. Bellafonte might have chosen her interview subjects with more care. Or she might have Googled OccupyWallStreet, which would have led her to the OWS motto: "One Citizen. One dollar. One Vote." And this motto, when you think of it, is actually a constructive version of the negative "Scorn for the Vote" that the Times chose for its headline today. So what's going on here? Why would the Times, as America's newspaper of record downplay and even disparage the local instance of the global story it frontpages as a pure news story? Is the paper beholden to Wall Street? Is it trying to protect New York from riots like those that hit London last August? The latter possibility certainly concerns New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: 
"You have a lot of kids graduating college, can't find jobs. That's what happened in Cairo. That's what happened in Madrid. You don't want those kinds of riots here."
Hosni Mubarak didn't want riots either. But he got them, as Peter Coy's story makes clear, because Egypt's ruling classes had created a nation where young people had no future. Mayor Bloomberg's riot-averse assertion is clearly informed by Coy's BloombergBusinessWeek story of last February, and Bloomberg, as founder of the Bloomberg financial news juggernaut that owns the magazine for which Coy writes, had certainly read it. Yet Bloomberg's assertion is problematic because it prohibits public protest while acknowledging the underlying fact of youth joblessness. Bloomberg concedes that young people have cause to be demonstrating. And he sees that OWS is part of a global phenomenon. The man is both defiant and afraid. Just so, the New York Times. Example: this 9/29 Times OWS story is told not from the perspective of occupiers, but from that of police. See the (bored) cop in the photo above. This Times bias can verified in the paper itself. Visit the Times' City Room section and, as of 10/1, you'll see far more OWS coverage in its Crime and Public Safety category than its Government and Politics category. 

The paper, like the Mayor, is afraid. 

9/30: OSJ in the NYT: the hippie image
Not surprisingly, as the OWS gains credibility and force, the Times' negative attitude towards OWS shows signs of shifting. Granted, its front-page Sep 30 story foregrounds OWS' "hippie" aspect. Yet it also shows a little respect to the OWS "demonstrators". Here's a quote: "Not all of them can articulate exactly why they are here or what they want. Yet there is a conviction rippling through them that however the global economy works, it does not work for them." What's more, the Times' online edition has this video of occupiers: more articulate by far than those quoted by Ms Bellafonte.

That said, the Old Gray Lady is still covering OWS, old-media style, as a local physical demonstration [not an occupation] in Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan. But we live in a new media age. Public space is virtual, not just physical. Designed to use both kinds of space, OWS is getting major media coverage, national news coverage and global news coverage (Google News counts some 200 new stories daily). OWS is also generating hundreds of social networking sites and is triggering support demonstrations in 30 American cities alone. Time is running out on the Times' head-in-the-sand approach. Here's a sample of who's leaving the Time's in the dust:
figures show that employment among young adults is now at a dismal 55.3 percent, down from 67.3 percent in 2000 and the lowest since World War II. Nearly 1 in 5 of these young adults is at risk of living in poverty.
More to come. I think the Times will now start shifting to catch-up mode. With dispatch.

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