Wherever you see a demonstration, journalism has failed

Wherever you see a demonstration, journalism has failed.

I know that this might sound harsh to some readers, but people don’t take to the streets to support a cause that’s getting wall-to-wall news coverage. They take to the streets when they feel their voices aren’t being heard – and won’t be, unless they make a public demonstration.

Dahlia Lithwick nailed it in Slate this week:

We are the most media-saturated 24-hour-cable-soaked culture in the world, and yet around the country, on Facebook and at protests, people are holding up cardboard signs, the way protesters in ancient Sumeria might have done when demonstrating against a rise in the price of figs. And why is that? Because they very wisely don’t trust television cameras and microphones to get it right anymore. Because a media constructed around the illusion of false equivalencies, screaming pundits, and manufactured crises fails to capture who we are and what we value.

It’s not just Occupy Wall Street. Journalists missed the story behind the early Tea Party rallies, too, not to mention the stories that drove hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in support of immigrants’ rights and against the Iraq war, earlier in the past decade.

One year ago, I suggested the five most important beats for a local newspaper or website. One of those was labor. That’s because the business desk at most news publications and channels is devoted to covering the business news of what Occupy protesters call “the one percent” – the top one percent highest-income individuals in the country. Business news coverage obsesses over the management class – daily swings in the stock market and personnel moves among high-level executives. The business desk typically looks at public policy from the perspective of owners and rentiers – too rarely from the point of view of labor, renters or borrowers. I suggested that start-up news publishers establish a labor beat to counter this imbalance and to meet a need for storytelling within their communities that isn’t being met by traditional news organizations.

The early Tea Party rallies tapped into the same frustration among working-class Americans that their voices weren’t being heard in the aftermath of the nation’s near-economic collapse. Many critics have dismissed the Tea Party using caricatures of the right-wing – racist, semi-literate opponents of a new black President. Subsequent polling has found that those who remain Tea Party advocates are simply the conservative wing of the Republican Party, with a different label. But in the early days of the movement, when tens of thousands came to the National Mall, they weren’t simply motivated by partisan zeal. Almost all of the Tea Party advocates I knew then were people who’d been left holding the bag when the housing bubble collapsed. They were real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and yes, more than a few flippers, but they were the ones left to take huge personal losses when the banks that financed their deals – and often pressured them to lie on mortgage applications to make those deals happen – got bailed out by the federal government instead. They took the fall instead, and they were mad that the banks didn’t have to.

One shouldn’t write about the development of the Tea Party without noting the role of the Fox News Channel in introducing, promoting and sustaining that movement. This wasn’t a grassroots movement, but a television production. But it wouldn’t have attracted the support it did if it had not hit upon a feeling shared by millions of Americans that their frustrations weren’t being acknowledged, much less heard and addressed, among national media and political elites. That Fox tried to manipulate that pain for partisan advantage doesn’t diminish the fact those pains were (and are) real.

Even as journalism as an industry under-covers stories that motivate people to protest, it’s usually individual publications and broadcasters who take leading roles in making protests happen. I’ve already acknowledged Fox News’ role in the Tea Party protests, but let’s not forget that it was Canadian magazine AdBusters that promoted the initial Occupy Wall Street effort. The huge immigration rights rallies that in Los Angeles that brought immigrants’ voices back into news budgets across the country several years ago happened because of the work of Spanish-language deejays in LA in promoting the event.

I want to see journalists do more to give voice to the voiceless, so that people with real grievances aren’t ignored, or exploited. We shouldn’t have to wait for people to take to the street in protests before noticing their stories. But when that happens, we should always ask ourselves “what’s the story that we’ve missed?” Sometimes that story isn’t always apparent on the signs that the protestors carry or the words they chant. But if you talk with people, and try to listen to their pain and their needs instead of mocking them, you’ll find the underlying motivation driving the protest.

And if journalists can’t be bothered to do that, well, we should ask why there’s a story that they’re so unwilling to tell.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.