Eye on the News

Harry Stein
No Longer Joseph Pulitzer’s School
A Columbia panel on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party doesn’t even pretend to be objective.
10 October 2012

According to the most recent Gallup poll, distrust of the mainstream media is at an all-time high, “with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Anyone still wondering why might look into a symposium held last week at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, long the nation’s most prestigious media training ground. Titled “Covering Occupy and the Tea Party,” the panel was organized and moderated by Todd Gitlin, a full professor at Columbia and chair of its Ph.D. program who also happens to be a veteran activist on the left, going back to his days as a founder and early president of Students for a Democratic Society.

To be sure, the media’s handling, or mishandling, of the Occupy phenomenon and the Tea Party is a legitimate subject for academic inquiry. Media coverage of these movements—both at the heart of the nation’s ideological divide—has unquestionably shaped public perceptions, and participants in both movements have complained about unfair press treatment. Yet the media have hardly approached the two stories with equal skepticism. Occupy veterans now insist that it was largely the media’s shift in focus from the protest against income inequality to the behavior of the movement’s more disruptive elements that undermined public support; but it was also the media’s enthusiasm for Occupy that put the movement on the map in the first place. By contrast, the media derided the spontaneous demonstrations across America in 2009 that kicked off the Tea Party movement as “Astroturf”—that is, a phony grass-roots movement. As the movement showed its muscle, leading to smashing electoral triumphs in 2010, the media regularly characterized its adherents as mean-spirited, xenophobic, and racist—on precious little evidence.

So media self-scrutiny is very much in order, and the nation’s premier journalism school would seem to be the place to begin. But of course that’s not what the symposium delivered last week. The deck was stacked from the start by Gitlin’s choice of participants. They included:

Chris Faraone, a writer for the left-of-center Boston Phoenix and author of the pro-Occupy book, 99 Nights with the 99 Percent. Faraone’s byline recently appeared over a story headlined WALL STREET ÜBER ALLES: THE FULL STORY OF HOW A BOSTON JOURNALIST GOT ARRESTED ON SOME BULLSHIT AT THE ANNIVERSARY OF OCCUPY WALL STREET.

Miranda Leitsinger of NBC News Digital, who introduces herself on her Facebook page with: “Hello, I’m a reporter at NBC News covering the LGBT community, income inequality protests and other social issues!” In fact, she covers the “LGBT community” as a straightforward advocate for gay rights, and in her coverage of Occupy, like so many other starry-eyed journalists, she assiduously sought out the most sympathetic Occupiers. “As soon as 62-year-old William Johnsen finished his intravenous drip,” begins one typical report, “he waited for the nurse to apply a Band-Aid, said goodbye to the other patients and then left the veteran’s hospital for the spot where he has been spending his days for the last 3-and-a-half weeks — the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest.”

Michael Greenberg, of the (left-of-center) New York Review of Books, whose early enthusiasm for the Occupy movement is nearly matched by his distress at how things turned out.

Gitlin himself, author of the recently published Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. If the book’s title is not already a dead giveaway, Gitlin makes no secret of his feelings in a New York Times op-ed in which he terms the movement “a shot across the bow of the wealthiest 1 percent of the country, which includes the financial predators and confidence gamers who crashed the global economy with impunity.”

Those invited to discuss the Tea Party were Vanessa Williamson, a Ph.D. candidate from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Kate Zernike of the New York Times, both authors of books on the subject. While less overtly ideological, both are avowedly liberal, and both dwell on what they perceive to be the subtle racism of many in the movement. Indeed, the only participant who seemed not to have come to his subject with an agenda was a New York Times Magazine contributor, Jonathan Mahler, included on the basis of a single piece he’d done on Oakland’s over-the-top-radical Occupy movement.

Little wonder that the event went exactly as expected. This is not to say that there were bald declarations of support for Occupy or straightforward denunciations of the Tea Party; MSNBC zealotry aside, that’s not how the media mainstream operates. The conversation was reasonable-sounding and often good-humored, laced with anecdotes drawn from the speakers’ front-line experience. Yet what would strike many outsiders as stunning is what Gitlin, his panelists, and most everyone in the audience—composed largely of journalism students—seemingly take for granted: that the Occupy movement, its occasional excesses and counterproductive tactics aside, is at its core good, decent, and noble; while the Tea Party, for all its successes, is fundamentally malign. In the real world, such assumptions are, to put it mildly, matters of fierce contention, with millions of thoughtful Americans holding exactly the contrary view—that Occupy is anarchic and deeply destructive, and that the Tea Party is part of a long tradition of democratic engagement. Throughout the two-hour session, this inconvenient fact received not so much as a passing nod. And so, obviously, the question that should be at the center of such a discussion—to what extent does ideology distort media coverage of contentious issues?—was not even on the radar.

In the friendly confines of the J-School’s Pulitzer Building, the panelists made little attempt to hide their sympathies. Encouraged by Gitlin, those who covered Occupy seemed almost to compete in their enthusiasm for the movement. “I was extremely impressed by the intelligence, the engagement of the people I talked to from the first day I was there,” said Greenberg. “We had a lot of professionals, disenchanted, lost in their work lives, a sense of purposelessness had settled upon them. . . . So many of them were really extraordinary—architects, lawyers, financial people, a surprising number, who felt the system was out of control, the country was self-destructing.”

Faraone described hop-scotching the country—Chicago, D.C., Portland, Austin, Seattle, Oakland, Baltimore—and finding in every Occupy encampment committed, inspiring souls, from “social media wizards to the homeless no one was talking about. I wrote about an underground group of police, called Occupy Police, that were supportive of the movement and doing what they could through social media. . . I met seniors, who were inspired by Occupy and are doing a lot of foreclosure prevention in their communities. Getting arrested with their walkers. I was blown away!”

For her part, Leitsinger insisted that many have written off Occupy prematurely. She recounted how just in the last few days, she’d heard from several Occupiers who were continuing on, “building communities” and “doing organic farming. A lot of them are still living on, still doing their thing. A lot of them are organizing and trying to build a grassroots political movement.”

Needless to say, no one was inspired by the Tea Partiers. While the two women who’d written on the movement generally discussed it with dispassion and went out of their way to note that they’d found some of those they interviewed personally likeable, they readily endorsed the left/liberal narrative on who, deep down, the Tea Party protesters really are. “It’s very tricky,” observed the Times’s Zernike. “Pollsters just don’t ask ‘Are you racist?’” (laughter). “So they sort’ve come up with ways to ask. Like asking, for instance, ‘Do you think some people you know might not be willing to vote for a black candidate?’ ‘Do you think too much has been made of the problems of the poor, of black people?’ And, indeed, disproportionately large numbers of Tea Partiers say yes.” She added that most “really don’t see themselves as racist,” and are “tremendously” defensive on the race question. “They say, ‘Look, I like Allen West, therefore I’m not a racist’—along those very simplistic lines.”

Another question that never gets asked: might there be a reason that they’re defensive?

It’s a travesty that such uniformity passes for free inquiry at a leading university, especially at a school aimed at educating young journalists—and the perpetrators of this mis-education are clearly unaware that there’s anything wrong with it. Gitlin, for one, rejects the notion that his panel might be biased, heatedly defending his choices as “serious people” with no ideological agenda. His attitude is summed up by the title of Bernie Goldberg’s splendid follow-up to his best-selling Bias, wherein he examined the mentality of today’s journalistic elites: Arrogance. “These people only talk to one another,” observes Goldberg. “They really don’t care about a Gallup poll, because they don’t care what the American people think. They only care about what their buddies in the media think.”

As it happens, a few days after the symposium, I received a fundraising pitch letter from the J-school (I’m an alum) over the signature of its dean, Nicholas Lemann. “This is still very much Joseph Pulitzer’s school,” it began. “One hundred years after its founding, students learn the craft and the values that he wanted the school to impart, and they fan out all over his city (and, more and more, the rest of the world) to do their own reporting under the supervision of a first-rate faculty.”

Still Joseph Pulitzer’s school? I don’t think so. Mr. Pulitzer, meet Professor Gitlin.

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