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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Their anger is misguided – it should be towardsd Obama and the White House, their message is confusing, their faith in God is wanting, their work ethic sucks (my 11 year-old works harder), and their desire is anarchy. They need to go back home to their parents basement.

Posted by AreYouKidding55 | Report as abusive

“It’s very hard to find anybody who will come out against OWS”

Posted by alea | Report as abusive

“It’s possible, in the vast expanse of the internet, to find someone willing to quibble with that sentiment — but it’s not easy. ”

Well, given that, as John H points , there were no loans involved in Abacus that’s not really a quibble.

Precisely *because* it was entirely a synthetic then there absolutely had to be someone going short on it.

Financial journalism should point these things out, no?

Posted by TimWorstall | Report as abusive

Fear of getting fired is one of the reasons why people don’t protest more.

Posted by silliness | Report as abusive

“you can go down to OWS wearing your journalistic hat and write anything you like.”

Interesting point. How is writing an article different than holding up a sign? Both are broadcasting.

Posted by Nowa | Report as abusive

Thanks for pointing this out. I was particularly troubled by the approach of The Economist, which wishes to trivialize OWS as “anti-capitalist.”

Posted by bob5525 | Report as abusive

I find it tough to muster much sympathy for the fired NPR journalist. Their ethics code makes it very clear that protesting is forbidden. If she wanted to protest, she should have tried to clear it w/ NPR first.

Posted by jpe12 | Report as abusive

The media have many writers who don’t get it at all. Much of the public don’t get it. I’ve read several stories that put their personal perspective into the story and their eyes only see one narrowly conceived idea. Somewhere in that intellect though there is something that says “I want to be a part of this because somebody needs to protest the insane greed that is destroying real democracy”.

Posted by zolardis | Report as abusive

To those not understanding the demographics of this movement:
I’m 57. I’ve served two apprenticeships: I’m an Unlimited Able Seaman, qualified to steer a ship of any tonnage in any waters; I’m a Dol certified Journeyman Carpenter, and I specialize in heavy industrial construction (power-plants, dams, grid, etc.) I was Boatswain (deck dept supervisor) on the UST Pacific, the largest moving object ever built in the US. I’m qualified to run an OSHA compliance program in any size construction company, and I’ve run my own OSHA safety compliance sub-contracting company. I’m a certified crane operator, and a certified master rigger. I have medals from the DoD, and I’ve never been a member of the military.
I’m an organizer with the campaign to occupy Wall Street, and you are very misinformed.

Posted by Csapo | Report as abusive

“it should be towardsd Obama and the White House”
Right. Bring back Bush. Everything was perfect while he was President. And he talked to God – and God talked to him.
Congress are completely innocent. They only do what their funders tell them to do. It’s not their fault that they are told to do totally stupid things, poor creatures.

Posted by Sling | Report as abusive

Do you really believe that an EX-wife is a good source for a reporter?

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

An excellent and timely article, considering the increasing confusion over what constitutes a “journalist” in our era; and over what constitutes “journalism”. These issues are most vitally important in countries where the difference between being a journalist and a protester can be life and death, or might determine freedom or imprisonment. The United States needs to set a good example here!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Felix, why was it easy for me to find their doctrine? Maybe I should become a reporter as I can easily find and understand what they are about. Here’s their number one goal…
Corporations should be highly limited in their ability to contribute to political campaigns no matter what the election and no matter what the form of media. This is to ensure that the politicians that are elected are loyal to the people and not to their corporate buyers.

Posted by minipaws | Report as abusive

My friends and I on both sides of the Pacific can’t help but think that a lot of the criticism waged against OWS, and a lot of the aggression coming from OWS, is just a distraction from one basic problem; that of increasing income disparity. Here’s a chart from a blog with info from the Congressional Budget Office that demonstrates the widening gap for the past thirty years: http://bit.ly/sCXVN4

Posted by RFTZ | Report as abusive