Like most other people who are keyed into the left/progressive activist milieu, I had been following the Occupy Wall Street events since before the occupation began, mostly via Twitter but also through other sources on the web and a few professional colleagues. I’ve been paying attention to actions like these for a long time as part of my scholarship–I’ve spent the past 5 years or so studying and writing about anarchist activists–so I was expecting Occupy Wall Street to be another in a long line of interesting but not-too-remarkable events. Indeed, as the first several days of the occupation passed, things seemed par for the course. The mainstream media outlets weren’t paying attention, but I had never really expected them to. (One exception was a New York Times “article” which was so blatantly biased against the protesters that I barely paid attention to it, assuming it must be someone’s blog post that got misfiled in the serious journalism section.) When the protests finally became “newsworthy” this past weekend, I was again unsurprised. Unsurprised that what made people pay attention was violent conflict between police and protesters. Thoroughly unsurprised that, though it seems all the violence was *by* police *against* peaceful protesters, organizations like ABC News chose headlines like “Protests Turn Violent,” implying that protests lead to violence just as naturally as clouds lead to rain. Still, par for the course.
It was only when I sat down to write my lectures for this week that I realized I could probably use the coverage as an excellent case study in one of my courses. I’m currently teaching two sections of Introduction to Media Criticism at NYU’s Steinhardt School, in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. My students have spent the last four weeks learning basic critical theories of culture. I’m teaching theorists so familiar to me by now they feel like old friends–Marx, Gramsci, Adorno, Hall. We’ve talked about the ruling classes and the ruling ideas, media’s function in winning the consent of the governed to dominant ideologies, the standardization and pseudo-individualism of the culture industries, the way our understandings of reality are filtered through the maps of meaning offered to us by cultural institutions like television. Standard Media Studies stuff. Tuesday’s class was to focus on television news programming, in particular the ways hegemonic values are subtly encoded in televisual journalistic conventions (think for instance of how “reporter on the scene” clips reinforce the widely accepted myth that news reports are authentic representations of reality, stabilized and confirmed for us by the emotionally detached anchor in the studio). I always like to show my students a timely, relatable example after dropping abstract ideas on them, so they can practice applying theory for themselves. Of course, the mainstream coverage of Occupy Wall Street came to mind. NYU’s campus is just a short subway ride from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, so I figured all of the students would have heard plenty about the occupation, and maybe some of them would have even been down there personally or know people who had been. I found a few clips to show (the ABC news one linked above, and this one from NBC) and felt confident we’d have a productive discussion on Tuesday, before moving on to other topics on Thursday.
Tuesday morning I woke up, checked Twitter on my phone as usual, and after seeing all the #occupywallstreet tweets in my feed, it hit me. We had to go downtown and see Occupy Wall Street for ourselves. What better way to demonstrate the ideological filtering at work in television news than to let students develop their *own* eye-witness accounts and compare with mediated representations of the same events? I jumped out of bed and fired off an email to my department to make sure the field trip was ok (it was) and whipped up an assignment description to hand out in class:
For this activity, you are to compare news coverage with your own observation of “newsworthy” events. The first step is to spend at least 30 minutes observing the Occupy Wall Street protests downtown. You should actually go to Zuccotti Park (or another location where protesters have converged) and spend time observing the protesters, police, and journalists who are on the scene. Please do not engage in illegal activity or anything else that might put you in harm’s way! The second step is to compare your observations with mainstream news coverage of the events. You will write up your comparison in a reflection (minimum 1 page). You may also choose to include alternative news coverage via Indymedia or other independent news sources in your reflection.
In Tuesday’s class, I announced that Thursday’s lecture would be cancelled. Students seemed genuinely excited about getting out of the classroom for a field trip. I was surprised to find that a few of them had not even heard of Occupy Wall Street; I was less surprised that none of them could articulate the purpose of the protest or the beliefs of the protesters. This can be attributed on one hand to the decentralized, autonomous politics of the protesters themselves: they don’t actually *have* a singular goal and that’s entirely intentional. But mainstream media must shoulder a great deal of blame for neither grasping this aspect of the protest, nor bothering to investigate and clearly represent any of the multiple aims held by individuals camped out at the occupation, beyond what can be expressed in a 10-second soundbite. Mainstream outlets have chosen instead to talk about arrests and pepper spray, representing the fundamental political economic critiques behind the occupation as mere excuses for marches and mayhem. Even those outlets who seemed to be on the side of the victims of police violence devoted all their coverage to that violence, rather than illuminating the systemic violence that spurred the occupation in the first place. Who could blame some of my students for accepting the idea that the protesters are a bunch of misguided whiners, if undeserving of police brutality? I have enough experience with activists (and people in general) to know that there certainly are misguided whiners out there. But I also have enough experience with media discourse to know that this is an extremely convenient frame through which to represent people who pose serious doubts about systemic imbalances of power.
My hope was, of course, that if given the chance to actually observe and talk to the occupiers, my students would get a different picture of the protest than what they had been offered by media accounts. Even if they didn’t find themselves on the side of the protesters, at least they would see something that diverged significantly from what they were seeing on the news. Ultimately, my job as a teacher of this course is to train students in the methods and theories of media critique, not to win them to any particular ideological position. I told students they were free to do their observation whenever they wished, but asked if anyone would be interested in going together as a group during class time. It turned out a lot of them liked that idea, so that became our plan. (For the record, I did not absolutely require students to participate in the field trip – I offered an alternative assignment to anyone who wanted one. I had no takers.) In an email I sent to the class to reiterate the assignment and field trip plan, I included a link to a well-reported article published in the blog NYU Local, both to give them and idea of what to expect at the occupation site, and to see how their own school was covering it.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about our experience of visiting the occupation today. In Part 3 I’ll discuss the write-ups that students will turn in next week, reflecting on their observations and their comparisons with mainstream news coverage. With my students’ permission, I will try to post some of their writing, as well as the photos and videos they took of the occupation. In Part 4, I hope to offer my own reflection on this assignment and the pedagogical value I believe it holds.