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Newspapers Should Celebrate Protests, Not Mock Them

by on October 07, 2011 6:43 AM

I wish the New York Times would stop rolling its eyes at political protests like the one taking place in lower Manhattan.

Protesters began laying peaceful siege to the Wall Street area three weeks ago. The Times keeps saying the protesters' message is murky, but why they're there is clear enough: People are looking at the unemployment numbers, the rate at which the rich are taxed, the bonuses paid to executives whose companies were bailed out by taxpayers' money, and the disparity between what top executives are paid and what the rank-and-file are paid, and concluding that the system is rigged in favor of the rich. Electing Barack Obama hasn't seemed to have made much of a difference and so they're exercising their right to peaceably assemble and express their views. Good for them.

Yet the dominant tone of the Times's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protest has been dismissive, as if political protest were some tired and ineffectual tactic from the '60s and participants are latter-day hippies who needn't be taken seriously.

Again and again, the Times reporters are drawn to those with funny outfits and funny names. Consider the lead paragraph from Ginia Bellafante's Sept. 25 column:

"By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in 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, facing Liberty Street, just west of Broadway. 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."

Further down, Bellafante described a guy bedecked in "a knee-length burlap vest, fur hat, ski goggles and tiny plastic baby dolls applied to the tips of his fingers."

Having been a reporter myself, I totally get that reporters are drawn to the unusual. If you wear khakis and a button-down shirt, I'm probably not going to interview you or even notice you. Wear something outlandish or clownish, and I'm right there, notebook open and pen uncapped.

When I stopped by Zuccotti Park last weekend to have a look, I was tempted to approach one of the more outlandishly dressed occupiers and suggest he change clothes. Yes, you're drawing attention, I would have said, but it's the kind of attention that marginalizes you. The message that emerges is that these people are not mainstream and this event is little more than a freak show.

When I thought about it some more, though, I said, why should the protesters ratify the dominant culture by adapting its fashion standards? The problem, I decided, lies not with how the protesters dress, but with reporters who don't bother to see beyond the costumes.

A news story published a few days later began thus:

"A man named Hero was here. So was Germ. There was the waitress from the dim sum restaurant in Evanston, Ill. And the liquor store worker. The Google consultant. The circus performer. The Brooklyn nanny."

In other words, no one we have to take seriously.

What most baffles me about the Times coverage is that the writers seem to think protests are supposed to be orderly and coherent. That ideal doesn't fit any protest I've ever seen. Demonstrations always attract people eager to promote their pet cause, however tangential it may be to what the organizers envision. They're always carnivalesque – which is a good thing, because if they were deadly serious, they wouldn't draw or sustain enough of a critical mass. To succeed, a protest has to be fun, has to inspire a sense of community. That is happening in Zuccotti Park.

And as for coherence, given that you practically have to be a tax lawyer, an MBA and an economist, not to mention a news junkie, to even begin to grasp the current global economic mess, it's perfectly understandable that no unitary message along the lines of "End the War" has emerged.

Give it time, I say. The protests have just begun. They seem to be spreading.

A recent Times story about the rise of protest movements around the world was headlined "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe." The headline probably drew on a quote from a young Spaniard who said: "We're the first generation to say that voting is worthless."

But the headline is misleading. The story offers plenty of evidence that citizens feel abandoned by the political system. But nowhere in the story does anyone say that they had abandoned the political system in turn.

Indeed, The Times has it exactly wrong: Protest isn't a sign of political disengagement. It's a sign of engagement. As defenders of the First Amendment, newspapers should never belittle those who take the streets to make their voices heard.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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