WWTPD? Are police and Homeland Security colluding to silence reporters covering Occupy?

Is Homeland Security coordinating crackdowns on journalists?

Images that police prefer to prevent

Wonkette reports that the U.S. Department of Justice let slip that Homeland Security coordinated the infamous conference call where mayors of cities with Occupy encampments coordinated their heavy-handed eviction efforts.

In The Guardian, Naomi Wolf says that the National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists are issuing FOIA requests to find out whether Homeland Security and local police also colluded on tactics aimed at preventing journalists from covering those police actions.

Wolf’s article notes that in New York City, police officers outside Zuccotti Park asked journalists to identify themselves. Those who did were then ushered away under threat of arrest.

The police, of course, always argue that their goal was to protect the reporters, while the real reason was to avoid anymore images of police brutality that have continued to stun the public. In numerous cities where police were emptying the Occupy encampments, “protecting” journalists often meant they were punched, kicked and otherwise abused. How about protection from the police?

Is this what press freedom has come to?

How can this happen?

Wolf extends blame beyond local officials to the federal government, beginning with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York who sits atop the Homeland Security subcommittee in Congress. King has been quoted in Huffington Post calling the Occupy Wall Street protesters a “ragtag mob” of “anarchists.” Wolf also wonders whether the Obama administration is giving tacit approval to press crackdowns, since Homeland Security is ultimately answerable to the president.

On the few occasions when President Obama has talked about #OWS, he has been somewhat supportive, but tentative. Progressives already disappointed with Obamas refusal to fight on civil rights issues are concerned that he will not speak up for journalists who appear to be targeted for retaliation.

It’s easy to see why many politicians are reluctant to tie themselves too closely to the Occupy movement, for fear of being tainted if a violent incident occurs and also because the protesters are critical of Republicans and Democrats alike. But if both Democrats and Republicans are colluding to keep reporters from covering the Occupy movement, the role of the citizen journalist becomes even more important. Protesters and observes armed with video cameras and cellphones are filling the gap when the mainstream press either fails to send reporters or those who try to cover events are denied their right to do so.

It is also worth noting that Wolf published her allegations The Guardian, which has been regularly outdoing the U.S. prestige press with its Occupy analysis.

Fighting for our rights

This YouTube labeled AMAZING video of a journalist not taking crap from NYPD raises as many questions as it purportedly answers about the relationship between the police and the press at Occupy events.

The title card “How To Successfully Resist Police Intimidation and Defend Your Rights” argues that the young man is a hero for persuading police to acknowledge his First Amendment right to video on a public sidewalk. Viewed from the police perspective, however, the video could be viewed as an example of a police officer flicking at a pesky mosquito. And, based on the experience of journalists at other Occupy events, the young man with the video camera was lucky that the confrontation ended peacefully.

But what are reporters’ rights in these situations? In our post-9/11 world, the National Press Photographers Association has been complaining that police are restricting photographers and videographers’ access more than ever. The article outlines the legal history that should guarantee journalists the right to video from sidewalks and other public thoroughfares.

The bottom line is that if a police officer asks you to move, the law says you must do so or risk arrest like anyone else. Journalists can always fight for their rights later in a courtroom, but that doesn’t get you the images you wanted to take at the site.

A huge question is whether the young man in the video is considered a journalist or a blogger. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that the law is still murky and confusing on this point, with journalists traditionally enjoying far more First Amendment protections than bloggers.

An example of an official press pass

The United States government does not license journalists as a number of other countries do. However, you hear the officer in the video asking to see the videographer’s press pass.

Police agencies often issue press passes that allow journalists to cross police lines when they are reporting on crimes and accidents. It isn’t a license per se, but official identification. Acquiring a press pass is again more of a privilege than a right, since the agencies set their own guidelines. In most cases, citizen journalists need not bother to apply.

Even with a press pass, police officers routinely deny reporters access for various reasons. But, as paid journalists disappear, we must pressure authorities to extend the pitifully few press protections afforded corporate media to citizen journalists as well.


The MSM mostly ignored news of the more than 100,000 people who marched to protest WI Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to dismantle collective bargaining

As a Sixties leftover, I can attest that mainstream media back then was actually more likely to give protesters a voice than the corporate-controlled news organizations of today.

When Abby Hoffman and his Yippies rained dollar bills down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, to highlight the greed as traders scrambled to pick up the money, reporters from major networks were there to capture the manufactured action.

In contrast today, mainstream broadcast news organizations studiously ignored the protest in Madison, Wisconsin, last March when more than 100,000 people showed up at the Capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to dismantle collective bargaining.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is WWTPD? – Wat Would Thomas Paine Do? His incendiary brand of pamphleteering has more in common with today’s bloggers than “objective” journalists who risk being fired if they express any particular political point of view.

Thomas Paine did not need a press pass to write “Common Sense,” and the First Amendment was not written to guarantee media companies a steady stream of images of Ashton Kutcher caught cheating on his soon-to-be-ex-wife. The Tea Party’s reverence for “our founding fathers” borders on the cultish, but I would hope we can find common ground in fighting to ensure our right to a truly free press, whether or not the journalism in question is practiced for a profit or not.

In an interconnected world where we are facing complex issues ranging from imminent economic collapse to climate change, we need all the information we can get, from as many sources as possible. The mainstream media still has resources that citizen journalists can only dream about. Citizen journalists often have the time, the commitment and the access that professionals may not. As Paine would say, these are times that try men’s souls, and “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”


Traditional media FAIL in covering Occupy

Yesterday’s post criticized the mainstream media for its predictably narrow reporting on the police brutality clearly visible in the video of the peaceful protesters being attacked at the University of California at Davis. A quick tour of some alternative media sites shows that these “new new new” journalists do a far better job of covering these complex and important stories.

In less than 24 hours, more than 75,000 people have already seen the video of UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi posted on lhfang86’s YouTube channel. The video shows Katehi walking through a crowd of students sitting in protest in stony silence. By refusing to chant or shout, the students created a stunning tableau beyond what words could convey.

Mainstream media often find themselves hamstrung by their rules in knowing what to do with such news. Many news organizations resist showing “amateur” video from YouTube, while alternative media embrace such first-person accounts.

The AP news story on the incident only included quotes from “officials” – couldn’t they find a protester to talk to or didn’t AP consider them worth quoting?

Meanwhile BoingBoing partner Xeni Jardin posted a great article that included an interview with a student who was pepper sprayed. A student identified only as W recounted what he and his fellow protesters suffered.

BoingBoing also reported that the large canister of pepper spray used by the campus police was military grade, which is not to be used on people within 15 feet, a prohibition the officers at UC-Davis clearly violated. Wikipedia, much maligned by the mainstream media, reports pepper spray’s dubious history, including the two-month prison stint served by the FBI agent who falsified the testing that authorized the use of this dangerous chemical by domestic police agencies. Of particular concern are reports that pepper spray could be lethal to people with various medical conditions such as asthma.

The Anonymous-themed 99% Legion Is Awakening site on Tumblr gives visitors contact information on one of the officers seen spraying students in the video, as well as for the UC-Davis chancellor and police chief among other officials. While the site urges people to “[p]lease be respectful in your condemnation of this act of brutality,” I think it’s a safe bet that Lt. John Pike, Chancellor Katehi and Police Chief Spicuzza found themselves fielding a few blistering phone messages.

Mainstream media set up to FAIL

Traditional news reporting techniques are proving inadequate to the task of covering a quicksilver movement that is evolving so quickly. The mind-numbing formula of sprinkling ‘he said/she said’ quotes from people with “standing” (experts, officials, academics, community leaders) leaves readers confused about what to believe and unsatisfied that news account fail to tell them what is really happening.

The leaderless Occupy movement poses a particular problem to traditional reporters because there is no “official” or “expert” authorized to speak for the group. Other than an occasional “man on the street” interview, the mainstream media devalue accounts from citizen participants, victims and witnesses, because of the rationale is that such people often have an axe to grind.

What the MSM fails to acknowledge is that their “experts” often spin events based on the desire to please their bosses or colleagues, or to sell a book, win an election or get a grant. A reporter friend who worked with torture victims in Europe was frustrated that editors were often reluctant to publish their accounts, while the torturers or the officials who protected them were quoted freely because of their credentials.

People crave analysis and context

Mainstream news organizations are struggling with the realization that breaking news is the low-hanging news fruit where fierce competition makes it hard to generate much revenue. Everyone has the same story, so it is hard to drive traffic to your site so that you can profit from page-views and click-through. By rejecting analysis as bias, the traditional press puts itself at an intellectual and economic disadvantage.

In a digital world, people absorb that news almost by osmosis. After a big new story breaks, I often ask my students where they learned the news, and most credit social media.

A trusted friend posts a headline link in a tweet or on Facebook, and my students pick up the news on their cellphone or laptop. Most don’t bother to click on the link back to the story because the headline tells them enough or because their experience tells them they will rest of the story will be mostly empty calories. For real nourishment, they go to non-traditional sites they trust, or they go straight to the source at the acknowledged Occupy Wall Street site or Occupy Headlines.

This is a generation that turns to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and not Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News to learn more. For young digital natives to follow a link back to your story, you must offer them better analysis, new insights, a thoughtful point of view, satirical humor, multimedia or interactivity that allows them to feel they are making a difference.

The mainstream press also exhibits a bias against open expressions of emotion, as if feelings taint rationality. Yet don’t we all struggle to figure out how to fell about the news we hear?

Part of this bias may stem from the fact that males still dominate the decision-making at most traditional news organizations, and competitive, highly educated men are often more uncomfortable with feelings than their female counterparts. In his book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen notes that it is a mistake to think that rationality is a superior form of decision-making. He argues that males in particular succumb to savagery in places like Darfur or Abu Ghraib if they are freed from a conscience that requires feeling emotions such as horror, compassion or remorse to make the right decision.

The mainstream media instead tries to lure young people on the basis of their hard-won reputation for objectivity, credibility and trust. To which, I can only reply – really?

The New York Times epic fails of Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and Judith Miller’s weapons of mass destruction/mushroom cloud debacle undermine the argument that the mainstream gatekeepers deserve our uncritical trust. If even the “best” news organization in the country gets it so terribly wrong, why not give BoingBoing a try?

It wasn’t a blogger who helped propel us into the Iraq War that has cost us 4,480 US troops killed and more than 32,000 wounded, as well as $800 billion of our tax dollars. (Yes, there is obvious irony in linking to statistics on the Christian Monitor site, but perhaps that simply underscores why news consumers need a spectrum of news sources to choose from.)

The problem with objectivity is that it all too often turns reporters and editors into mere stenographers. When the top-ranking GOP presidential candidate, currently Newt Gingrich, says that Occupy young people who go get a job – after they take a bath – the news organization that repeats such garbage as if it offers balance loses rather than gains credibility.

In the latest issue of Adbusters magazine, the Culture Jammers who launched the Occupy meme, an article on “postcool” says that young people have moved beyond the pose of irony and individualism to an intense commitment to building grassroots solutions. Finding ways to report on these new initiatives will pose problems for traditional reporters without ties to those new communities and whose editors would view serving their needs as taking sides.

My apologies in advance for showing my Sixties roots, but the Occupy movement is forcing the media to decide whether it will be part of the solution or remain part of the problem.

How should journalists deal with UC-Davis’ spin about the pepper spray attack?

A police officer pepper sprays non-violent student protesters

Call it the Rodney King conundrum. Citizen video goes viral showing police out of control. Anyone with a functioning pair of eyes immediately understands the horror of what they are witnessing.

Then cut to the “official” pronouncements and the resulting media coverage, which ask you to ignore your lying eyes.

There was a time when we applauded a watchdog press that stood up for the little guy. But now instead we have a generation of news consumers who think reporters are “biased” if they use terms like “police brutality” and “torture” instead of some PR flack’s sanitized version of events.

Below is the full statement issued by Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of the university:

This link takes you to the L.A. Times’ article that offers nothing beyond some quotes from the chancellor’s press release issued today, though it does provide video of the police attack.

The story did not make the home pages of the New York Times or Washington Post but both sites ran a version of the Associated Press article (click here for Washpo and here for the NYT version).

The AP account summarizes the chancellor’s statement in a way that makes her look more sympathetic than the full press release does. The only other quotes come from Annette Spicuzza, the police chief at UC-Davis. The Sacramento Bee is credited with capturing her lame explanation that the pepper spray attack was justified because her officers felt so threatened.

“There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.” – Chief Spicuzza

Really? If those burly officers clad in riot gear and armed with batons and pepper spray were intimidated by some friendly college students, why should anyone trust them to defend citizens against rapists and murderers?

The bottom line, of course, is that the students who are left out of these articles are the ones who are paying the tuition that is used to pay for the police chief and the brutal officer wielding the can of pepper spray, as well as the mealymouthed chancellor. A task force report in 90 days? That’s it?

I suppose in this era when PR spin is portrayed as an example “civility” and “polite discourse,” we should be happy that Ms. Katehi (or her PR flack) at least used the words “chilling” and “sadness.”

Holding journalists to an outmoded standard of “objectivity” is dangerous in an era when out-of-control police nationwide conducted violent crackdowns among peaceful protesters. The mainstream media will end up looking like part of the problem and not the solution until or unless they can find a way to be more than stenographers waiting for “officials” to issue more unmitigated bs for them to pass along without analysis or comment.

Making online headlines – the good, the bad and the truly ugly

The Good – This image demonstrates how easily the Occupy meme can be “attached” to almost anything. Artist Mark Read and his friends used a projection unit to paint messages such as “Occupy Earth” and “Mic Check” on the NYC building colloquially known as the Verizon Building, visible to everyone on the Brooklyn Bridge. A creative and eloquent way to say that you cannot evict an idea, Occupy is literally and figuratively in the air all around us.

The BadMotherBoard reports that the police confiscated computer gear at Zuccotti Park, including the free wifi setup owned by Isaac Wilder of the Free Network Foundation. The police apparently dumped all the gear at a site on East 57th Street, open to the air, the elements and cats with full bladders passing and pissing by. Wilder, a 21-year-old from Kansas, was part of OWS’ Signal Corps. Groups such as his demonstrate how much the OWS accomplished during its two-month tenure in the park to demonstrate how people can organize for the common good when the focus is on community not corporate profits.

The Truly Ugly – In the first 30 seconds of the video, a police officer at the University of California at Davis unleashes a huge swath of pepper spray in the faces of peaceful protesters, as the crowd begins chanting “shame on you.”

The mainstream media seems to be losing interest in the Occupy movement despite the escalating police violence. Thinking back to the media coverage lavished on the corporate-sponsored Tea Party, it seems surprising that anyone would argue liberal media bias anymore. Yet for the digital generation, validation by the mainstream press may be less valuable to the cause than these images that rip through the social media universe at warp speed. A graduate student at Davis may have said it best, “We are the drum—the harder you beat us, the louder we’ll get.”

Radicalizing reporters one by one

OWS protesters before the police struck

The conservative website Daily Caller reports that two of its journalists were attacked by police during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City on the movement’s second anniversary.

DC reporter Michelle Fields and videographer Direna Cousins are quoted as saying that the protesters were being beaten with batons by police, as were the two reporters and journalists from other news organizations. Both Fields and Cousins said they were struck, but neither required medical treatment. Fields also noted that protesters quickly came to their aid:

The protesters came up to me right away and asked if I needed any medical assistance. They were actually very kind and helpful. It was the police officers who were very aggressive.

If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. And a liberal is a conservative who has spent time in prison. Then what, pray tell, are two conservative journalists who have been beaten by police while doing nothing wrong? Still Tea Party followers?

Kudos to Casey Neistat, citizen journalist extraordinaire

The raid on zuccotti park from Casey Neistat on Vimeo.

On his Vimeo page, Casey posts:

My office isn’t far from Zuccotti Park and when I heard it was being cleared I went down with my camera. I ended up filming for 18 hours until the Park was reopened at 6pm on November 15, 2011. The police presence was overwhelming, more than I’ve ever seen – more than during the blackout, more than the days after September 11th.