What If Occupy Wall Street Had A Cable News Sponsor?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Closing in on its second week of ongoing protests, Occupy Wall Street continues to raise hackles in downtown Manhattan as street-bound activists rally to end joblessness, stop political corruption, curb health profiteering and to bring an end to wars.

Despite a successful and persistent vigil, the absence of mainstream news coverage over the last ten days has been striking, particularly since the protest are unfolding in the media capital of the world. And particularly since a grassroots uprising on the political right in 2009 was instantly rewarded with endless new coverage. Indeed, Fox News virtually sponsored the entire Tea Party movement.

So far, Occupy Wall Street has had no such luck.

A quick check of Nexis indicates that between September 17-27, Occupy Wall Street was reported on just two dozen times by the cable news channels. That averages out to less than one report each day by each of the 24-hour news outlets. (Note: Nexis does not track MSNBC or Fox News daytime programming.)

Other media have been equally uninterested. The three major network news organizations have done their best to boycott the protest story, each airing just a single report over the same ten-day span. Meanwhile, one hometown New York Times columnist dismissed the Wall Street activists as trying to "pantomime progressivism rather than practicing it knowledgeably."

As The New York Observer observed, "Occupy Wall Street's first media problem was that there was no media." Mark Jurkowitz from Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism confirmed "the story thus far hasn't seemed to gain any real traction in the mainstream media." And Current TV's Keith Olbermann argued persuasively that if Tea Party activists camped out on Wall Street protesting Ben Bernanke, that would be the lead story every night on the network news.

So why the media blank stares for Occupy Wall Street? A news executive at NPR explained that the network hadn't covered the protests during the first ten days because they did not "involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective." (NPR's relented this week; "All things Considered" finally reported on Occupy Wall Street.)

Question: Doesn't NPR's description of Occupy Wall Street almost perfectly capture the early days of the Tea Party when conservative activists had little trouble getting journalists to cover ant-Obama rallies?

Yet NPR's not-impressed editorial outlook seemed to mirror much of the media's reaction. That, despite the fact there's deep supports for cracking down on Wall Street.

As blogger Michael Zackman pointed out:

After all, polls show that many Americans would be interested in the marchers' arguments. A Pew Research Center poll shows that "nearly half of Americans — 47 percent — say Wall Street hurts the nation's economy more than it helps." According to a Bloomberg poll, a whopping "70 percent of Americans say big bonuses should be banned this year at Wall Street firms that took taxpayer bailouts." In another poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, 77 percent of respondents approved of tougher rules for Wall Street.

So it's not as if Wall Street protesters represent the radical fringe of American politics. In fact, you could argue the protests are tapping into populist rage simmering nationwide.

Sort of like the Tea Party (we're told) tapped into populism.

And that's why I can't help wondering what the Wall Street protests would look like today if it had been covered nationally, in-depth, over and over again, on a daily basis by key news outlets. I'm wondering what Occupy Wall Street would look like if a major all-news channel took over sponsorship of the event and aggressively marketed the movement on behalf of liberals.

In other words, what would the Occupy Wall Street protests look like if they were embraced the way cable news embraced the protest-based Tea Party? Keep in mind, during a key ten-day span of activity between April 9-19, 2009, the cable news channels reported more than 100 times about the fledgling Tea Party. That's four times the amount of attention they've given to Occupy Wall Street this month.

Recall that the Tea Party movement was (theoretically) born on CNBC, when reporter Rick Santelli started ranting about Obama on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange, warning viewers the new Democratic president was steering the country towards a Castro-like Cuban economy. CNBC then hyped the clip incessantly ("Shot Heard Around The Word"/"Santelli's Manifesto"), while NBC led the evening news that night with the cable clip from its sister station, announcing Santelli's rant to struck a "populist" chord. (In fact, polling at the time suggested a strong majority of Americans supported the Obama plan to stem foreclosures; the plan Santelli had railed against.)

Fox News then quickly claimed ownership of the anti-Obama movement, providing free publicly and advertising for the right-wing rallies.

As MSNBC's Rachel Maddow noted in 2009, Fox News was "officially promoting" the movement, which was putting it mildly. Fox News didn't just promote the Tea Party, Fox News became its turnkey marketing and publicity machine. Fox News, with its millions of dollars in production value and tens of millions of dollars in free airtime, took a grassroots anti-Obama movement and injected it with cable TV steroids.

Media Matters noted at the time:

Specifically, Fox News has in dozens of instances provided attendance and organizing information for future protests, such as protest dates, locations and website URLs. Fox News websites have also posted information and publicity material for protests. …Tea-party organizers have used the planned attendance of the Fox News hosts to promote their protests. Fox News has also aired numerous interviews with protest organizers.


-A Fox producer urged protesters to cheer louder just before live remote shots.

-Its host offered to tape his TV program at an Tea Party event, charge admission to the taping, and then donate all the proceeds to far-right activists. (After significant outrage, Fox executives were forced to cancel that plan.)

-Fox News aired so much effusive footage that Tea Party organizers gushed to supporters about the "great television news coverage" the protests had received.

--The channel boosted rally attendance by dispatching hosts to appear in-person in front of Tea Party crowds.

--Declaring ownership, Fox unveiled "FNC Tax Day Tea Parties" label.

--It urged viewers to send in their protest videos to be posted online.

Fast forward to just this month and CNN, in an odd piece of branding (pandering?), joined forces with the Tea Party to sponsor a Republican debate. Yet today, an emerging grassroots rebellion on Wall Street remains largely ignored by the same cable outlets.

Imagine what Occupy Wall Street would look like if it not only received its fair share of media coverage, but if a national cable TV channel stepped up and sponsored the political uprisings.

Occupy Wall Street would look very different today.

Fox News Channel, CNN
Rick Santelli
Occupy Wall Street
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