Sunday Late Night: #OccupyTheMedia
Last night, Portland television viewers were treated to wall-to-wall, all-local-channels, helicopters-hovering coverage of the approach — and uneventful passage — of Mayor Sam Adams’ three-day deadline of 12:01am to close the public parks where #OccupyPortland camped.
Our local media exhibited the lamest qualities of their national betters described by Glenn Greenwald: confusion (“what do these people want?”) and disdain (“people living in mud, filth and trash”) and dangerousness (“drug overdoses” and “molotov cocktails!”) but then the on-the-ground television correspondents, cheered on by their comfortable studio-bound anchors who passed the baton from one to another, devolved into a simple message in almost every sidewalk interview with Police Bureau representatives and #Occupy demonstrators: “WHY DON’T YOU & HIM FIGHT?!”
It was a sad example of vast local newscaster resources marshaled around an approaching deadline — three days ago, Mayor Sam Adams told #Occupy that the downtown parks would be closed at 12:01am Sunday morning. The broadcast news folks created as much tension as they could muster as the deadline approached: helicopters in the air providing overhead views of streets and the parks, on-the-street correspondents interviewing patient, calm and friendly Police Bureau spokesmen who described their core mission: keeping people safe while encouraging everyone to leave. There were shaky handheld camera pans across the — mostly empty — campgrounds, as well as shaky video of — not terribly scary — protesters hiding up in trees!
Luckily, this entire scene was well-lit, thanks to the Police Bureau having brought in huge lights that hung over the entire parks area.
The crowd outside the parks grew, as onlookers supportive of #Occupy came to witness what the media had promised would be yet another confrontation among many nationwide. They stood on sidewalks across the streets around the encampment, chanting and watching. Since the newscasters didn’t know who these people were, and didn’t interview them about their motives for showing up, they were presented as vaguely threatening and potentially impinging on the Police Bureau’s ability to “round up protesters” when the deadline approached. None of this reporting was based on evidence provided by police.
Then, amid breathless reports, the mayor’s 12:01 deadline came and went. Suddenly, the banners on the local coverage heralded “Deadline Expired — No Arrests Reported” as reporters begged police to describe their tactical plans: when would they go in to the parks? When would they confront the protesters? Why were people being allowed to go in and out of the parks, even though the deadline had passed? When would police make their move?
The crowds of onlookers swelled, Portland’s tall bicycle teams joined the traffic circling around the parks, and #Occupy spokespeople were interviewed: What was the next step? What were their plans? When would they confront the police? Who was coordinating this unlawful demonstration, now that The Deadline had passed? What would they do if the police came into the (mostly dismantled) camp? What did they want?
The television pictures, though, made the event look more and more like a fun midnight street festival, good-hearted people frolicking in Portland’s downtown celebrating the peaceful conclusion of a month-long demonstration about what’s wrong with America: dancing in the streets for peace and justice. One City Commissioner interviewed by phone spent a good deal of time talking about inequality, the dwindling federal and state resources for Portland’s homeless and addiction-challenged populations, while he was asked about “drug overdoses in the park” and “molotov cocktails.” He talked about working with City Housing outreach workers in the parks, and being very proud to see them connect about 50 homeless people with transitional housing, just today.
Then an #Occupy representative was interviewed, and explained that the person arrested for the molotov cocktail had only just arrived from California, while the two overdosed people had come to the #Occupy camp because they knew they could get help there when things went awry for them. A homeless couple was interviewed; they said they’d come to #Occupy from elsewhere in Portland because it was safest here, and they didn’t know where they could go next.
Everyone I saw interviewed by a correspondent from a local news stations was very clear: no one wanted a confrontation, no one had a plan to engage, the protesters hoped to stay in place but were prepared to be arrested, the police weren’t going to share their tactical plans with the media. No one wanted to antagonize anybody, and the only people who talked about “sides” were the television correspondents.
Then, after about 30 or 40 more minutes of trying desperately to gin up some kind of local-Emmy-winning conflict from their interviews, the local reporters simply started speculating:
“The people who were previously dancing around the Elk Statue in the middle of Main Street now are challenging the police.”
“The police are pushing back against the demonstrators. Will they be antagonized? How will police react?”
“If the crowds of onlookers were to charge across the street, these two crowds would join up to create a real problem for police.”
“If the police get antagonized by these crowds, things could get difficult.”
“Tensions are rising really quickly here.”
“Another lane of traffic has been shut down!”
“You can really feel the change in the attitude of the crowd here now. It’s suddenly very tense.”
“You wonder how long the police can stand patiently along the sidewalks.”
“You have to understand that those anarchists [viewer: what anarchists?] estimated to be 10% of this crowd of four or five thousand! — could emerge at any time and take this festive event into a different direction completely.”
The anchorpeople in the studios interviewed private security people overseeing office buildings far from the action, while the street correspondents speculated wildly about what might, could, happen. The bars closed, the onlookers swelled, the traffic petered out, the police encouraged people to leave.
The palpable frustration among the local newscasters — no local Emmy nominations were generated last night — helped me understand that from the very top of our broadcast media to the very lowest rungs, there is a fundamental conflict between the message of the demonstrators and the needs of the media. Media requires conflict. The demonstrators were peaceful. In the very best #Occupy cases, like in Portland, the communication and engagement of the local police was calm, patient, and trustworthy. Despite the media’s best efforts, news wasn’t made last night in Portland. But not for lack of trying.
And all that makes for very unexciting television. Which leads to absurd coverage like in Eureka, California, last week, as a local reporter desperately tries to make, not cover, the news. Invading the camp in front of the courthouse, poking her camera into peoples’ tents, she tries to get to the REAL story: ‘who pooped and peed on the bank.’ Because the real tragedy is human excrement on the steps of a building.
As the reporter says, quite un-self-aware, “that went too far.”
Why, oh why, can’t we have a real media in America?