When does ‘news judgment’ become censorship?

LEXINGTON, Mass. — Driving home from work on Friday,  my wife Kathy heard a warning on NPR for motorists to avoid Boston’s Financial District.

The reason, she thought: Occupy Wall Street had come to Boston, beginning what are expected to be rolling protests.   The press release announcing the gathering in Dewey Square, near the Federal Reserve Bank’s Boston office,  at 6 p.m. read in part like this, according to a blog at Forbes (see link above):

Occupy Boston is the beginning of an ongoing discussion about the problems with America’s economic system and how it has damaged government and the fabric of society as a whole. ..

Through the use of direct democracy, Occupy Boston is working to define and solve the problems of: an opaque and exclusive government, a Wall Street without conscience, and a state struggling to guarantee basic human rights.

Though the movement, which began two weeks ago in Wall Street, is said to lack a focus or concrete goals, these words sounded rational enough to me.  So this morning, I opened up my Boston Globe to see what had actually taken place.  I found …. absolutely nothing. Zilch.

I looked a second time.  Deep inside the business section, on Page B-6, there was a brief story on the arrest of 24 at a protest outside Bank of America Corp. that organizers said drew “several thousand.” Perhaps this had been the NPR reference? That protest was over foreclosure policies.

But the story didn’t mention Occupy Boston or Occupy Wall Street, not even as a footnote to their related goals.  I found nothing else. What happened to the notion of context and connecting the dots of news? (Did the Bank of America protest really happen in a vacuum or is something bigger spreading across the country?)

Every editor, of course, has thousands of choices of what’s newsworthy on any given day. But clearly the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is quickly drawing the participation of local unions in New York City and spreading to cities across the country, has sounded a chord.  After an overzealous (brutal?} New York police commander pepper-sprayed several women there sitting on the ground, his actions reached the level of mainstream comedy with a schtick on the Daily Show.

Yet so far, mainstream news media are approaching the “Occupy” movement gingerly and semi-mockingly, leaving the news headlines about the movement to alternative media with a clear political agenda.

Compare two articles that I saw today.  In The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow, whose work I respect, penned a column about Occupy Wall Street under the whimsical headline, “Hippies and hipsters exhale.”  It poo-pooed the movement, albeit intelligently and contextually.  Wrote Blow:

But even with high levels of unhappiness and star power involved, there is something about Occupy Wall Street that feels like a spark set down on wet grass: It’s just hard to see how it truly catches fire.

Contrast that with an alternative media essay run prominently on the progressive web site OpEdNews.com by Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The New York Times turned college professor and think tank fellow.

His, under the headline, “The best among us; join the revolt on Wall Street or Stand on the Wrong Side of History,” reads something like a modern-day Tom Paine’s call to arms.  Here is how it started:

There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history. Either you obstruct, in the only form left to us, which is civil disobedience, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. Either you taste, feel and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. Either you are a rebel or a slave.

Wow. Two journalists with sharply differing perspectives on what’s going on out there.  I can’t tell you at this point who is right.  But as I wrote yesterday, to steal a verse from a Buffalo Springfield song, “There’s something happening here/what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

And emerging trends are exactly what the news media should be covering. So why has Occupy Wall Street largely been derided or ignored to date?  Is it because its young, computer-carrying participants are a bit scruffy and not terribly focused in their demands?  Is it because the news media have become so entrenched in the social structure that they no longer recognize grass roots news? Or is there some other reason?

[Postscript: My New York Times never arrived today and it turns out there’s a pretty interesting feature about the movement therein.]

I”m personally fascinated by this movement, the first semi-sustained peaceful protest movement I can recall for a good while (anti-Iraq War protests came and went in the march-up to the war and quickly fizzled after it began).

Its roots, its participants, its emerging goals and the push back against the demonstrators deserve sustained coverage, particularly in newspapers, which even in their diminished state have the space and staff to look at societal trends.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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4 Responses to When does ‘news judgment’ become censorship?

  1. Jerry – I think the Occupy Wall Street protests have something here, but the problem is that other people may march to a different “Occupy” idea. For example, “Occupy USAID” because their budget was just slashed for humanitarian assistance. Obviously you can’t copyright an idea but it makes the original premise – Occupy Wall Street because they are greedy and don’t support working people – muddled. The second thing is, now that Occupy Wall Street has some attention (albeit, not much) what are they going to do? What is the end goal here?

    • jerrylanson says:

      You’re second question is absolutely the key one. This movement can only sustain itself if it comes up with some kind of coherent list of goals. Does it seek further regulation of Wall Street? What specifically? Does it back higher taxes on the wealthy? In what form? Does it want to see limits on political contributions? Etc.

      • Jerry,

        I was watching CNN this morning and they had a few members from Occupy Atlanta in-studio. When anchor TJ Holmes asked them what they wanted: (i.e. “Do you want a meeting with the White House? With lawmakers? New laws?”) their response was, “We want the system to change.” That’s a very general statement. Without an end-goal their efforts, while well-meaning, will fizzle.

    • jerrylanson says:

      I’m not sure I agree James. Read the lead editorial in the NY Times today. Occupy has a clear message: “Stop ripping us off.” And in a country in which the top 1 percent hold 50 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to The Atlantic, that’s a powerful argument. Occupy has brightened the lens on the tremendous disparities in wealth and opportunity in this country. That in itself is drawing more interest from the populus and press. We’ll see where it evolves from there.

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