Hystericist Keith Olbermann was a pioneer in the media coverage of the media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests. Just days into that ongoing event, Olbermann was attacking the New York Times, attacking the New York Observer, attacking the entire industry:
“This rhetorical question is perhaps self-answering: A protest, called Occupy Wall Street, trying to underscore and gum up the financial industry’s influence on who’s rich and who’s not — why wouldn’t that get extensive news coverage? In our third story, after five straight days of sit-ins, marches and shouting and some arrests, actual North American newspaper coverage of this, even by those who have thought it ‘farce’ or a ‘failure,’ has been limited to one blurb in a free newspaper in Manhattan and a column in the Toronto Star.” (emphasis added for the purpose of destroying Olbermann for selective and irresponsible wording here in furtherance of his own rhetoric, a point that’ll be conveyed in an asterisked* footnote.)
Olbermann’s invective merged with conspiracy talk about the media’s “blackout” of the protests. Even the most charitable accounts chided the press for being slow to the story. And now that outlets are descending on the activities, there is some chatter about playing catch up.
Complaints about a sluggish media response come with harsh judgments attached. No one appears to be saying that the media has been slow because it has lots of other stories to cover. Or that it no longer has the resources that it once had. It’s more significant, more telling than that. As Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News told Olbermann:
The word disconnect . . . is a very good because a lot of people in newsrooms still are not in touch with the real pain and real suffering of 25 million Americans who are unemployed and underemployed.
An empty statement. A lot of people in many professions are out of touch. But given what’s happened to newsrooms in the past decade, the ground-level familiarity with un- and underemployment among reporters could well be at a postwar high.
The bigger point is that the media should ignore protests in their earlier phases. As Jack Shafer of Reuters (sounds so weird, no?) wrote yesterday, protests happen all the time. They’re boring and predictable.
What’s the downside if your reporters and camera crews are a couple of days late to the OWS movement? Will the protesters have forgotten their talking points? Will you miss the arrests, the arrests that are all over YouTube as filmed by the protesters themselves?
The OWS protests started small (or at least smaller) and have grown in density and geography. The media coverage has mirrored that expansion, an indication that things are proceeding in a healthy and responsible fashion. A protest movement needs to show that it can generate its own heat and light; then the cameras can swarm in.
There’s no intrinsic obligation incumbent on the media to cover any particular movement. Protestations by Olbermann and others appear based on the notion that there’s something noble about these demonstrations, that their content and motivations per se deserve lots of attention. And depending on your worldview, they may well. Yet there are too many great protest causes out there. Waiting to see which ones snowball is unimpeachable mediaing.
A challenge: Make the argument that the somewhat sparse media coverage of OWS in its initial days made short shrift of the public good.
*Asterisked footnote: Olbermann is welcome to argue that the news coverage in the first four or five days of OWS was light. However you want to characterize it, though, the scarcity got the exaggerative treatment at the hands of the Current TV host. The standard that Olbermann seems to have set is “newspaper” coverage, meaning stories that made it into print.
That would have been a fine standard if OWS had occurred during the Reagan recession. The print-only criterion allowed Olbermann to claim a media blackout during the protest’s early days when, in fact, there was a decent selection of stories on the matter online from CBS, the New York Times, the Guardian (not a North American outlet, but who really cares?), the New York Observer, Bloomberg News, Huffington Post, Fox News, CBS and the New York Daily News.. All these links are available on the Observer’s very helpful OWS media page.
And all those links expose just how hard it is these days to draw broad-brush conclusions of any sort about the nation’s news media. Just when you think you’ve caught “the media” in some coordinated campaign to stifle some subversive story, you conduct a search. What pops up is an exception here, an exception there, and another one over there. Soon enough, the conspiracy is collapsing under the weight of a Google search algorithm. Media-coverage conspiracy theories almost never bear out.