To a large extent, the New York Times sets the news agenda for American journalism. Today’s Times backgrounder becomes tomorrow’s conventional wisdom throughout the broadcast media and the regional press. So we should take notice when Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor”, writes of Occupy Wall Street
An investigation into origins would lead to the identities of early leaders, at least, and the search for the broader leadership of the movement should continue from there. I polled a group of journalism educators on the question of how The Times should direct its coverage henceforth. Not all agreed on this, but most said it was important to understand who the leaders were and what demographics they represented.This brings me back in time, to the late 60s and early 70s, when another largely formless movement was making itself felt in America. On the ground, this radical upsurge was composed of affinity groups, underground newspapers, community storefront projects and streetcorner networks. It had a visceral distrust of leaders and authority, of having others speak for you.
Nevertheless, a pathological symbiosis developed between the media and a relatively small number of movement self-aggrandizers. The ambitious would-be leaders discovered that they would be anointed by the media as long as they adopted ever more outrageous postures and rhetoric, and the media found that by focusing on them they had a story they could cover in a convenient, template-satisfying way. Unfortunately, that was not all. Because the movements of the time had weak institutional structures, they ultimately depended on media coverage to attract new recruits and hang onto old ones. Thus, when “leaders” like the Weathermen and the Black Panther Party flamed out, they sucked the rest of us down with them.
But here’s the thing: neither I nor anyone I knew in this movement chose these “leaders”, nor did we feel represented by them in the slightest. Our story, whatever it was, had little to do with its representation in the media. We were seeking something completely different, but this quest was cut off and even our memory of it was gradually erased by years of repetitive, fixated discussion of our Promethean but, alas, flawed “leadership”.
Lessons? They are partly about the role of the media in refashioning social movements so they fit the standard journalistic model of who they are and how they should function. Even more, they are a warning to the movements themselves, that they have to give thought to their own self-defined structures that convey who they are, what they believe, who is permitted to represent them, and how new recruits can join in.