CJR piece on whether Occupy Wall Street should be considered a social movement

There has been a bit of a discussion on Twitter and around the internet regarding whether or not the Occupy Wall Street protests have received ‘sufficient’ news coverage. Here is a good piece by Joe Pompeo where he crunches some numbers. Erika Fry at the Columbia Journalism Review has published a piece of meta-journalism also questioning the sufficiency of the press coverage. She should be lauded for attempting to bring an analytical frame to the discussion. She draws on the work of celebrated sociologist Charles Tilly in an attempt to ascertain whether the Occupy Wall Street protest should be considered a social movement or not. Fry writes:

They [sic] press coverage indicates that most journalists have found Occupy Wall Street a movement not significant to give much coverage. If Tilly were around today, given his criteria, he’d likely agree.

Unfortunately, Tilly is certainly not the most useful academic source to draw on in this circumstance. For Tilly, social movements should be thought of as attempts by a politically engaged population to effect change to a nation’s political apparatus. Is that what is happening here? I don’t want to get into too much political or media theory, but ‘Wall Street’ is an event in part constituted by everything signified by ‘Wall Street’. Does Fry understand this? The Occupy Wall Street protests are not protesting a building or even an actual street. The protests on the actual street called Wall Street serve as a resource for counter images, the locus for the production of counter-narratives and so on. They are not protesting against a physical location; the physical location is simply a locus of action. Just as ‘Wall Street’ itself is distributed across the social body in repeated and yet different ways. Fry writes:

For a perhaps concurring perspective from the world of social science, consider the canonical work of American sociologist and political scientist Charles Tilly (he died in 2008) who developed widely-accepted criteria of what constitutes a ‘social movement.’ Yes, the media is not academia—there is of course a place for things that are timely, newsworthy, and important—the police’s questionable use of pepper spray on protesters for example—but in deciding the extent to cover a nascent protest movement, to which national media attention is oxygen, it is worth considering his criteria.

Its been pointed out that Fry’s logic is circular (nascent social movement needs national media coverage — its ‘oxygen’ — but won’t get it because it is not a social movement). But that is relatively unimportant compared to correcting the misunderstanding regarding Tilly’s work. Firstly, if Tilly was ‘canonical’ at one point, his work has shifted in status to ‘seminal’. The difference is that a ‘canon’ is a political artifact within knowledge economies, its importance is sustained by agents who are invested in its importance (imagine scholarly ‘Tilly experts’ who want Tilly to remain important). A work becomes ‘seminal’ when it has real influence in a field because it inspires other scholars to produce critical work that engages with its arguments or points in a thorough manner.

Tilly’s seminal work has inspired other scholars such as Jeroen Van Laer & Peter Van Aelst who have published a paper that is particularly relevant: “Internet and Social Movement Action Repertoires: Opportunities and Limitations” (2010). Laer and Aelst draw on Tilly’s framework without necessarily agreeing with his arguments and present their own more nuanced perspectives. This is the real scholarly influence of ‘seminal’ work. How many times Tilly’s work is set as required reading, for example, would indicate its canonical status. This indicates that it is important but not why.

Laer and Aelst offer a nuanced perspective of social movements that are entirely or partially organised around internet-based opportunities for political action. Fry seems to miss the obvious point (and, well, it is obvious, surely??) that the Occupy Wall Street protests have developed in such a way so the offline protest provides ‘oxygen’ for the online protest. Fry is not stupid, she seems to admit this point, but without sufficiently engaging with its importance:

The group has many grievances, but what they want to do about them or achieve by occupying Wall Street is much less clear—both in those “unfair” media reports and the content churned out by OWS’s own media machine.

So the Occupy Wallstreet Protest organisational group has its own ‘media machine’, ok… this is not newsworthy? Maybe not yet?

It’s just not the kind of coverage the protest group—which produces a lot of media in its own right—was hoping for.

Fry admits that the protest group is producing a large amount of its own media content through its ‘media machine’. Does Fry ask if this is different from other social movement protests? Or what the protest group hopes to achieve by producing a large amount of its own media content? No, she does not.

They have also built a sophisticated social media infrastructure and communicate on Twitter. Yet, just by looking at the pictures or a livestream of events, aside from the presence of technology (lots of Macs), it’s so far hard to distinguish OWS from any other liberal protest.

They’ve also ‘built a sophisticated social media infrastructure’! So aside from the presence of ‘technology’ — you know, technology that can be used to produce your own media coverage of an event, and indeed produce a planned ‘media event’ of the protest, for which the offline protest serves as a resource — Fry finds it hard to distinguish the Occupy Wall Street protests from any other ‘liberal’ protest. Ok, this isn’t news. It isn’t even meta-news produced by a meta-journalist (a ‘journalist’ covering other journalists) from the CJR. I am not sure why Fry believes that her own inability to distinguish between liberal protests is news or even media commentary. That is why journalists should go speak to experts, instead of relying on Wikipedia definitions of useful scholarly research such as Tilly’s definition of primarily 20th century social movements. Hence, we arrive at Fry’s money shot — the line in any work of online news-based media content (I won’t call it journalism) which is designed to function as ‘link bait’. Trollumnists (columnists who function as internet trolls) will organise their columns around such examples of ‘link bait’. Fry’s link bait trollumnist money shot is that the Occupy Wall Street protests are ‘all hype’:

Tilly explains this can come from participant demeanor and an air of seriousness. OWS seems to project by it’s worthiness by its own media machine, shrewdly developed in advance of the protests to steer the narrative and call attention to itself — the rather sophisticated websites, Twitter feeds, livestream technology, and thought that has gone into documentation and projecting an image online is impressive. OWS’s PR machine has not been matched by on-the-ground reality. OWS is all hype.

Occupy Wallstreet is all hype. Clearly. Fry says so based on evidence derived from Tilly’s Wikipedia page and her own inability to distinguish between protest movements as defined by her robust analytical journalistic mind. Why not ask a related question based on Tilly’s own understanding of internet-based social movements, one that is far more interesting and, dare I say it, newsworthy? Let’s frame it in a way that would be relevant for a meta-journalist such as Fry working at CJR:

Charles Tilly argued that internet-based social movements do not have strong enough social ties to constitute a viable social movement, does this observation apply to the Occupy Wall Street protests? If not, then how should journalists approach internet-based social movements? Are there any ethical or professional issues attempting to cover a social group that is producing their own media narratives that compete with the media narratives in the so-called ‘mainstream media’?

You see how that would produce actual news? It transcends the political divide not because it asks for representative opinions from various ‘sides’ of the protest (“he said, she said” journalism), but because it asks a question that anyone interested in the protests from any side of politics will actually want to know.

I hope there are not too many typos in the above, I’ve had to hammer it out before a three and ahalf hour drive to Sydney!!

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