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Dirty, filthy, nasty: The media’s OWS bias

You’ve heard about those Occupy Wall Street protesters. They’re filthy, lazy freeloaders. They’re openly using drugs and relieving themselves in public. They’re disrespectful of 9/11. Neighbors are fed up with them.

Sounds pretty bad. Except none of that is true.

As a resident of the Financial District, I’d like to share a few examples of slanted news coverage of Occupy Wall Street, some of my own firsthand observations, and my take on why so much of the news media is getting this story so wrong.

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First, some examples of news coverage.

* In the U.K., The Daily Mail ran a photo of a man defecating on a police car and declared, “These are the shocking scenes that have led some people to accuse the Occupy Wall Street protesters living rough in New York’s financial district of creating unsanitary and filthy conditions.” The Daily Mail doesn’t say how the photographer knew the man was an Occupy Wall Street protester, and as far as I know no other news outlet has verified the anecdote or reported anything similar.

* Fox Nation (a user-generated content site run by Fox News) ran a front-page headline yesterday saying the Occupy Wall Street protesters are “parasites” who defaced a 9/11 memorial statue (which was, um, installed in 1982…).

* The New York Post has been taking jabs at the protest almost since it began. The day after the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, it ran a cover with the headline “$#!t Hits The Span.”

Later, the Post ran a story (also published by Fox stations and other News Corp properties) saying, “The Occupy Wall Street protest has drawn an unwelcome crowd of freeloaders who joined the movement for the sex, drugs and free food — and they are blending right in.”

On its opinion pages, the Post published a column describing the protest as “a mountain of tarpaulins, sleeping bags and human refuse I would not touch with a Hazmat suit.” Post editorials have sarcastically called Zuccotti Park encampment a “landfill” and a “garbage dump.”

* Metro, a free commuter tabloid, has been using its New York edition to hammer the protest.

Among the most slanted Metro coverage was a cover story teased with the headline “Sex, Drugs and Occupy.” It refers to a short story headlined, “Is Occupy Wall Street out of control?,” which quotes one named person saying he’s annoyed with the marijuana use in the park, and another named person saying “it happens,” when asked about sex in the park. If the reporter herself witnessed any of this activity, she doesn’t say so.

* The idea that the protesters are dirty, having entered the conversation in the mainstream press, was quickly seized upon by conservative opinion media. Fox News aired an interview with Ann Coulter in which she called Occupy Wall Street a “mob uprising” and said the protestors “are openly embracing their demonic aspects, and of course you see the results of that in the arrests, the defecating on police cars, the blocking of traffic, the blocking of pedestrians. You can tell it is just on the edge of violence.” During the interview, Fox split the screen between Coulter and b-roll of chaotic arrest scenes.

* Rush Limbaugh, as part of his argument against Occupy Wall Street, has said things like: “This bunch, there aren’t any Port-A-Potties, are there? They weren’t for a while. The place is a pigsty.” and “What’s the exit strategy? When they get tired. When they get tired, you know, when the free drugs run out, when the free tobacco runs out, when the free sex runs out, when they get bored they’ll move on to something else.”

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And now, some observations of my own:

  • Incredible as it seems for a camp with hundreds of people in it, the park is pretty clean, because protesters take care of it. Last Thursday, I watched a brigade of volunteers scrub the park with soapy brooms (photo above).
  • The protesters respect this neighborhood. In September, I watched a noisy, clanging, thumping Occupy Wall Street protest come to a complete stop at the 9/11 Memorial for a moment of silent respect. (Photo below.)


  • Most of the news photos purporting to show unsanitary conditions at Occupy Wall Street are things you might see around New York City any day. It’s a messy city. To someone unfamiliar with New York, piles of trash bags on the sidewalk might seem extraordinary, but they are a common sight. Here’s a heap of random Financial District garbage, photographed this morning, that has nothing to do with the Occupy Wall Street:

  • New Yorkers love to complain. When I talk to my friends and neighbors, I hear a lot of grumbling about Occupy Wall Street. But most people aren’t mad at the protesters, who are generally regarded as scrappy, interesting, and dedicated to a cause, if perhaps naïve and inarticulate. Instead, people complain about the heavy police presence. Everyone is sick of the NYPD barricades, which have been choking the sidewalks since September 17. But few people consider the protesters bad neighbors. A recent poll showed a whopping 87% of New Yorkers think the protest is OK.

* * * *

Why has so much of the news media gotten Occupy Wall Street so wrong?

Some people have identified the problem as one of visuals, including the front page of Saturday’s Washington Post, seen above. Producers and editors are running dramatic pictures of confrontation, even though most of the Occupy activity has been peaceful. I think that’s too simple of an explanation. News outlets have to compete for people’s attention, and audiences are drawn to conflict. (Case in point: My YouTube videos of peaceful protests have 1,000 and 3,000 views, while similar ones I shot with arrests have 14,000 and 136,000 views.) It’s not a great state of affairs, but it’s easy to understand the reasons for it.

To me, a much more interesting argument is one of language and framing, and how it can be used to dismiss and minimize people. You can call someone dirty because they’re participating in an outdoor protest. In the world of slick professional politicians in TV makeup, dirty people’s ideas are less valid.

This kind of bias is built into our news infrastructure. Businesspeople who run media companies hire publishers and general managers, who hire producers, editors and reporters. Most of the time, all of these interests support a free press and editorial autonomy. But they also support a traditional approach to writing and news coverage—one that’s tried, tested, expected, advertiser-friendly, and easy to budget for.

And so news reporters are given latitude about who they cover and what stories they write, as long as they communicate in the expected professional language. They look for policy proposals and legislation that affects real people. They identify winners and losers. They follow the money.

That’s all valuable, but none of it maps well to covering a vague group of angry people who are frustrated with an entire financial system and have no leader or list of demands.

The result? Plenty of people are getting their Occupy Wall Street news from a press that lacks the vocabulary to articulate the ideas and emotions of the protesters.

Rather than struggle to report a new kind of news, newspapers print photos of trash bags and call people filthy. Journalists heap on an extra helping of skepticism, because this demonstration doesn’t fit the narrative. It’s just too weird to be real.

It’s easy to spend a minute saying the protesters are dirty. It’s hard to spend a minute explaining what they stand for.

* * * *

Some day we might see a shift toward a new kind of journalism, one presented by an empathetic but honest observer, willing to balance the need for breaking updates with the time to mull over complex, ambiguous ideas. (Kind of like what I and a lot of other bloggers, as well as some print/online magazine hybrids, are trying to do.) Until then, we can at least hope the establishment press will find ways to take what they’re good at and make it useful. One way the press could help audiences understand Occupy Wall Street is by providing solid historical research and context.

Here are some questions I’d like to see explored:

  • How did our universities and our student loan system become so badly broken that Americans with college degrees are burried in debt and struggling to find work?
  • Why hasn’t there been any apparent progress in solving the mortgage crisis that blew up three years ago?
  • Does Occupy Wall Street represent the birth of a new kind of decentralized leadership and group decision-making? If so, what else can we do with it?
  • When else in American history have large numbers of lower-paid, underemployed American workers stood united IN FAVOR of allowing more immigrants into the country?

I don’t really care how clean or dirty the protesters are. I want to hear their ideas.

* * * *

Related post: Top 5 lazy Occupy Wall Street story ideas

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Politics


  1. norman says:

    The media is owned by the very same banksters and corporations that OWS is protesting. Do you see the conflict of interest. We have not had a free press for years but the Awakening is only happening now. Look to Rt to get a more fair view of OWS

  2. CC says:

    It’s hard to get good news these days. Your choices are limited. You really have to shop around for objective news. I get most of my news from the NY Times, Aljazeera, and the BBC and from reputable internet sources. I rarely watch tv news. You have to look at who owns the news stations. They’re all owned by conglomerates i.e. the 1%. They are not interested in reporting actual news. They want to distort it. That’s where the bias comes in with OWS and other occupations. The 1% fear an uprising so they want to discredit the movement as much as possible. The best way to shut up the liars is to boycott them. Don’t give them any credit…

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