Occupy Wall Street and media ethics

By Felix Salmon
October 31, 2011

Occupy Wall Street seems to be throwing up much more than its fair share of media-ethics questions — from a news-organization perspective, it’s a movement which seems to be very easy to respond to badly, and very difficult to respond to well.

That’s partly because OWS is a leaderless organization lacking an official spokesperson or a clearly-defined political goal. So journalists wander down to Zuccotti Park and can credibly file anything they like. One notorious story in the NYT, for instance, declared in its opening sentence that OWS “had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka”; the New York Post, going one better, decided the whole thing was rife with anti-semitism. Journalists want to be able to explain OWS; to declare exactly what it stands for, ideally in terms which can place the movement neatly on a left-right spectrum.

The best coverage of OWS, I think, has come from the media organizations which embrace its distributed nature, and let the stories simply flow — by creating Tumblrs telling the stories of the 99%, for instance, or setting up a live webcam where protestors can speak directly without intermediation. When journalists and editors start putting together stories themselves, I like the results which have a narrow focus, or at the very least the ones which are explicit about the difficulty of pinning such a broad movement down.

And some of the stories are very narrow — for instance the ones which Xeni Jardin, Conor Friedersdorf , and I wrote about the Abacus sign. What none of us ever dreamed when we were writing those stories, however, was that the woman holding the sign in the air — Caitlin Curran — would get fired for doing so, by “inconsolably angry” public-radio producer Mark Effron. He was backed up by WNYC spokesperson Jennifer Houlihan, who told the Atlantic Wire that “when Ms. Curran made the decision to participate in the protest and make herself part of the story, she violated our editorial standards”.

This is, frankly, bonkers. Here’s what the sign said, in full:

It’s wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn’t aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.

It’s possible, in the vast expanse of the internet, to find someone willing to quibble with that sentiment — but it’s not easy. And even he thinks that the decision to fire Curran is “philosophically indefensible”. There’s a crazy double standard here: you can go down to OWS wearing your journalistic hat and write anything you like. That’s fine, you won’t get fired. On the other hand, if you just want to express dismay at an action which was found illegal and for which Goldman Sachs paid a record-breaking fine of more than half a billion dollars, well, that’s a firing offense.

Now it’s possible for a journalist to become part of the OWS story in a bad way; I was peripherally involved in one recent example like that; it involves Greg Palast, Democracy Now, and my beloved Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union. (Blink and you’ll miss it, but my name appears underneath that of Goldman Sachs, at about the 3:29 point in the video.)

Palast is a very smart and unabashedly partisan reporter. He’s also happy to deliberately mislead if doing so will further his political ends. Amy Goodman frames the story at the beginning: “Did Goldman Sachs actually use US taxpayer bailout money to attack Occupy Wall Street’s not-for-profit community bank?” The answer to the question is a vehement no: there was no bailout money involved, even by Palast’s tortured definition of what constitutes bailout money, and in any case Goldman didn’t attack anybody.

I’m not going to get into the details of this story, which was covered much more fairly last week by Robert Frank. But in no conceivable sense is it true that “Goldman Sachs has declared war” on LESPFCU, as Palast says at the top of his piece. He also knows it’s not true, as he’s about as well-sourced at LESPFCU as it’s possible to get. His ex-wife is the CEO, after all.

It’s also not true that Goldman’s donation to the credit union was required under the Community Reinvestment Act, or even that Goldman was donating CRA funds to the gala event in question. And Palast’s statement that “it’s not Goldman’s money, it’s our money”, along with his idea that CRA money is the same as TARP money (which, in any event, has of course been fully repaid), is also simply false.

There are important and interesting articles to be written about the linkages between OWS, the credit union movement, and the Move Your Money campaign. One good place to start is the Alternative Banking group at OWS, which has some pretty important members and is moving in very interesting directions. There are also, always, great articles to be written about individual credit unions, including LESFCU, which do wonderful things for their low-income membership and which are an intriguing alternative to banking with a too-big-to-fail institution.

But the fact is that accessible community banking — much like OWS itself — is a cause which cuts across party lines. One of the reasons that America has so many banks is that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expended a lot of effort in making sure that small banks can compete effectively against the big guys.

So let’s celebrate the diversity of OWS, and let’s appreciate that a lot of what it stands for is wholly uncontroversial. Small-enough-to-fail banks are good things. The Abacus deal was wrong. The Great Recession was caused in large part by the misadventures of huge financial institutions which then got bailed out. The top 1% have become spectacularly wealthy in recent years, even as the rest of the country has struggled. Saying these things is not grounds for being fired as a journalist — saying these things is journalism. And if you say one of these things in a way which goes viral on the internet, that’s good journalism.

There’s too much real conflict in the Occupy movement, but it’s largely confined to the conflict between the protestors and the police. It’s very hard to find anybody who will come out against OWS — even the likes of Vikram Pandit are expressing sympathy with the protestors and saying that he’d be “happy to talk to them anytime”.

Journalists love conflict, of course, and so when they cover OWS there’s a tendency to try to gin up the story with imaginary beefs — OWS hates the Jews! Goldman has declared war on OWS’s bankers! Etc. This is not helpful. So let’s celebrate, rather than fire, the people who successfully get the message out. We need to save that ire for the practitioners of all the shoddy OWS journalism out there.

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