Occupy Wall Street: Media Bias Won't Stop Budding Protest

Last Updated Oct 5, 2011 5:20 PM EDT

As usual with such media happenings, the story of Occupy Wall Street is splintering into "narratives." One -- the least interesting and relevant -- is the media's uneven coverage of the protests.

For instance, CNN business reporter Alison Kosik hung her vapidity out for all to see yesterday, tweeting that the movement is nothing more than a chance to "bang on the bongos" and "smoke weed" (only to delete these musings when others called her out on them). Not wishing to bogart that meme, her CNN colleague Erin Burnett tried to refute OWS's cause by triumphantly noting that most banks have repaid U.S. taxpayers for the money they borrowed during the financial crisis. Whenever Wall Street needs a $2.5 trillion loan, in other words, we know bankers are good for the money. Let the good times roll.

Elsewhere around the echo chamber, pundits still furrow their brows and wonder what it's all about. Others fixate on the precise number of protesters in Zuccotti Park -- 100 or is it closer to 200? -- as if guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar (I could be wrong here, but I'm pretty sure there's no prize for being right). And while there is something to be gleaned from such estimates, social movements in the age of social media -- the power lines of discord these days -- can't be measured strictly according to the number of boots on the ground in Liberty Plaza.

Some who get it
If some journos are bemused by these events, others are crystal clear. Here is Jeff Madrick's summation:

Occupying Wall Street is about the failure of Washington to do the right things regarding Wall Street. The bailouts... did not force the banks to lend, did not deal with all of these people who lost their homes and are underwater, all of those things they had to. Let's not oversimplify too much. We needed those bailouts to unfreeze markets, but they were just not executed well.
To extend the thought, a well-executed bailout would have eliminated the necessity for future rescues.

Outside the media looking-glass, events are already overtaking their interpretation. A coalition of unions, including heavyweights such as the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers and United Federation of Teachers, and community activists will lend their voices (and perhaps their bongs) this afternoon to OWS.

This is a natural alliance. One of the protesters' "whines," as Kosik calls them, concerns the harm the financial crisis did to employee pensions. Another is the three-decade-long stagnation in workers' wages and growing concentration of wealth at the top of the income ladder. You don't have to be 10 miles high to see the link.

You also don't have to squint too hard to see the potential impact of a broader fusion of interests between organized labor and the merry pranksters of OWS. While their agendas don't align precisely (they never do), the camps do share one overarching goal -- economic fairness. Opinions differ on exactly what that means. Yet millions of Americans across the political spectrum agree that fairness, however it's defined, is in diminishing supply.

Eventually, of course, parochial interests have a way of overriding the fragile sense of unity that fuels mass protest. But not so long as those interests, in locking hands, are successfully pushing the opposition around the field.

Virtuous youth
Something else to consider. Mass movements, if they ever rise to that level, unfold over years, not news cycles. That's why the media is often slow to cotton on that something important is afoot. Sparks are easily struck, but it takes time for water to boil.

That is both a help and hindrance to the sort of deep structural socioeconomic changes OWS advocates. On the minus side, it's hard to sustain momentum in the face of intense institutional resistance (of which journalists like Kosik and Burnett are a part, whether they know it or not). On the plus, the young people driving today's protests are the same folks who will shape tomorrow's politics.

However odd or funky-smelling OWS might seem for now, in other words, its tactics and above all its goals may in time command much broader popular appeal. Writes University of Maryland political economist Gar Alperovitz in commenting on how America's youth may respond to the clarion call for economic equity:

A non-statist, community-building, institution-changing, democratizing strategy might well capture their imagination and channel their desire to heal the world. It is surely a positive direction to pursue. Just possibly, it could open the way to an era of true progressive renewal, even one day perhaps step-by-step systemic change or the kind of unexpected, explosive, movement-building power evidenced in the "Arab Spring" and, historically, in our own civil rights, feminist, and other great movements.
A related reason why Occupy Wall Street may emerge as a force for change: Whatever the media spin, this uprising isn't a story or narrative at all. The headlines and sound bites are merely short-hand. OWS is something that is truly happening, independent of its characterization in the press. The gap between perception and reality may be narrowing, but it's still there, occasionally tapping us on the eyelid as a reminder to glance beyond the screen into the real world.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Thumbnail by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0; interior image from We Are the 99 Percent
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    Alain Sherter covers business and economic affairs for CBSNews.com.