How to cover a demonstration. Or not.

October 5, 2011

In an earlier incarnation as the editor of a weekly newspaper, I did everything in my power to prevent my reporters from covering demonstrations like the Occupy Wall Street protest now clotting the news.

It’s not that I opposed the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. It’s just that my newspaper was published in Washington, D.C., where the list of scheduled demonstrations, picket lines, and budding riots would scroll off your page if you loaded it in your browser.

The agony of familiarity that deterred me from allowing my people to cover the Free Tibet protesters at the Chinese embassy or the abortion rights rally on the Mall or the Justice for Janitors drum-bangers outside a downtown office building didn’t sit well with my staff. In their eyes, my blanket disqualification made as much sense as banning coverage of new films, books, and records in the review sections,  or prohibiting stories about political speeches. The book publisher—like the political demonstrator—wants publicity for his message. Why, my staff asked, should you let the publishers in every week and exclude the demonstrators?

Because even awful books are more compelling than your generic Washington demonstration, I would say, banging my ax on the floor. Having reviewed too many awful books since making that statement, I should probably refine the point, but you get my drift.

One of the appeals of covering a demonstration: it’s easy work. On many stories, the subjects don’t really want to talk to a reporter, or if they do, they spend their time and yours saying nothing. But walk into your average demo with a reporter’s notebook and the masses will fill its pages within minutes; the only problem you’ll have filing a story is deciding which characters or scenes to leave out. Nobody ever suffered writer’s block after attending a demo. Video journalists will tell you the same: It’s a cinch to shoot brilliant footage of a boulevard teeming with chanting, marching protesters.

Further encouragement to ignore Washington demonstrations came from the local dailies and the TV stations, which obediently played the roles of news-organizations-of-record and covered them. The only time I got interested was when the protesters broke a few windows, the cops broke a few heads, and the president broke a sweat.

Likewise, I was always more interested in covering a demonstration if the protesters promised civil disobedience. How could you not cover the lunch-counter sit-ins in the South? Or Norman Mailer attempting to levitate the Pentagon? Or AIDS activists shutting down the Food and Drug Administration? If nothing else, readers and viewers want to know why their commute or civil liberties have been interrupted. My imperfect policy was this: If a demonstration created other news, I might be convinced to assign a story. But covering a demonstration just to cover a demonstration appeals less to me than turning my editorial pages over to a public service announcement about the opening of a spay clinic.

How misguided was my categorical opposition to covering demonstrations? Not very. The elitist in me—if someone who graduated from a land-grant diploma mill can be considered an elitist—believed that my editorial judgment was superior to whatever the demonstrators had painted on their signs. What I probably underestimated was the reader interest in the voices of the protesters. Back in the dark days of the pre-Internet, organizing a demo was one of the few options outside of a letter-to-the-editor campaign or the support of a political candidate that individuals had for their voice to be heard. Because running a newspaper is an exercise in free speech, maybe I should have made common cause with protesters of all stripes if only because they were in the same free-speech racket!

The organizers of Occupy Wall Street (or non-organizers, as they would prefer it) have shown real media savvy by staging their demo where the network cameras and the New York Times are. Anything that happens in New York (especially Brooklyn!) is considered by New York media operations to be 100 times more interesting than anything that happens anywhere on the other side of the Hudson River. So what if the Occupy Wall Street message is muddled? The OWS pictures and energy are fresh, mostly because a mass, ongoing demo in New York is a relative novelty. How else to explain the New York Daily News‘ fevered blog coverage today: “Here’s the scene at Zuccotti Park. It is packed. There are about 3,000 people here.” No kidding?! 3,000?! That’s like the attendance at a Midwest high school football championship game!

The press corps would probably be doing more toe-dipping than immersion in its Occupy Wall Street coverage if not for the way it underestimated the rise of the Tea Party over the past couple of years. Just because a group’s message skews toward the inchoate and the emotional doesn’t mean that it doesn’t represent a worthy point of view. The non-organizers of the Occupy Wall Street have deliberately embraced this thought. As long as cameras are counting bodies and recording slogans, the harder work of defining the message can be postponed. The more important task is to introduce people who share frustrations to one another. One measure of OWS’s successful strategy is that labor unions are now joining the “movement.”

With Occupy Wall Street franchises opening in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta, and new outlets scheduled to pop up in Austin, Portland, New Orleans, Houston, San Diego, Baltimore, and Indianapolis, it’s logical that the movement is taking root in that demo theme park, Washington, D.C., where on Friday night there will be a “Occupy State Department” sleep-in to protest the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

If the spirit moves you, I encourage you to go. I won’t be able to make it.


My weekly was Washington City Paper. Wise men still seek it. Send your elitist and populist views, preferably on a placard, to Occupy my Twitter feed at your own risk. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: A demonstrator holds play money while dressed as a “corporate zombie” as he walks with others taking part in an Occupy Wall Street protest in lower Manhattan in New York, October 3, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar


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Hack Shafer.

Posted by AlDorman | Report as abusive

Thank you for another voice from the 1%. The rest of us will continue as before.

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