Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Go Ahead, "Lean Forward." But Watch Your Back...and Don't Get Taken In.

The videos of the ill-fated OWS street action in Oakland the other day churned my stomach.

I mean, really. So many urgent questions, starting with, Who is training these activists?

Followed fast by, Will any cable TV political chat show hosts take responsibility for having ginned up the OWS-ers, for having worked them up to such a degree that they felt safe enough to face off with cops?

From what I have viewed of the recent Oakland situation, and the Wall Street, pepper-spray incidents of a few weeks ago, there are apparently more protestors concerned with turning cameras on cops than on getting the hell out of the way.

I chalk this up to youthful ignorance -- but also to the influence of partisan cheer-leading found on a multitude of news-ish sites on the Interwebs, and on the 24/7 cable TV news channels.

In particular, MSNBC's prime time programming is to be singled out for its egging on of the OWS-ers coast to coast.

"Lean Forward" is the cable network's marketing "house-ad" message-frame, and the spots (which air daily, across all the cable network's programming) feature hosts Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, and Ed Schultz, earnestly sharing their (liberal-tinged) thoughts about how America is in a battle between Good and Evil. I am a San Francisco Liberal, and media Old Head, which is to say that I appreciate the ads for their slick ability to convey clearly the high stakes bound up in our present political landscape.

Yet I do worry that the "Lean Forward" ad campaign -- accompanied by a weeknight prime time line up that is vociferously, unapolagetically Left-leaning -- is not serving well the American people. No, I am NOT going neo-con, and I am equally opposed to the Fox News Channel's equally one-sided (Conservative) political bent.

But the Liberal me lives within the same spirit, brain, memory, and body as my Journalist. And I am inherently -- well, from training and experience -- reluctant to let the Liberal in me drive the Journalist unquestioned.

The cops in SF, Oakland and Berkeley are widely known (among natives) for being militarized. This is not news....unless you don't know the history, or have the wherewithal to look it up...or don't care to report it.

The videos of the Oakland "Occupy" protest demonstrated to me foremost that even the best-intentioned among us -- including high-profile Liberal, "activists turned TV news people" -- are ignorant about key aspects of our recent American history. The folks we see in the recent Occupy Oakland videos are not mindless 'bots but I bet you dollars to donuts that they felt emboldened by what they view on MSNBC and what they have heard in the past two weeks on other liberal-leaning broadcasts. They did so at their own peril.

Has anyone in MSNBC's editorial braintrust at 30 Rock in New York watched the KRON TV footage showing how the cops responded during the multitude of protests in the '60s and '70s in the Bay Area? (KRON was the NBC affiliate in SF for many years.) How about footage of the cops' handling of the homeless camps that sprang up around San Francisco City Hall during the 1980s, anybody at MSNBC bother to watch those images? Probably not.

I ask because I know from those situations that cops will brutalize OWS activists; I know this because I have seen them brutalize homeless advocates, ACT-UP members, and the shaggy Food Not Bombs kids. So what I want to know is:

Why wouldn't a responsible "newscaster" in 2011, especially one who flies proudly the flag of "activist," not warn their viewers/followers of this, even as they gin them up with segments and reports clearly designed to spur street activism?

Sure, Frank Rich delivered a sweeping piece in the recent edition of New York magazine on a long-ago showdown between Real People fed up with being left out by the Fat Cats. Rich tells the story of the Bonus Army, those Depression-era, middle and working class Americans who thronged the District of Columbia in protest of income inequality and job losses in the bleak years following an orgy of excess from early corporate titans and Robber Barons.

Rich's piece is instructive, if thin on the role of media back then. The piece does mention a favorite touchstone figure of postmodern Liberal media columnists, Father Coughlin, a "populist" who railed against class inequality on a popular radio program during the '30s.

Well guess what? The speed, vehemence, and utter pervasiveness of media today is even more influential than in Father Coughlin's day, far outstripping what existed in the '30s or in the intervening years. And more acute, too, is the vast income gap that exists between those who hold media perches that have wide reach -- such as cable TV political show hosts, and top editors and writers at the NY Times and the Washington Post -- and the rest of Americans.

David Carr at The NY Times wrote a cute, timely column early this week suggesting that Journalists should consider an "Occupy the Newsroom" movement, spurred by the crazy lucrative exit packages and bonuses received by some media company executives even while their editorial operations are vanishing. I think Carr didn't go far enough: The experienced, trained, well-paid Journalists still hanging on in "legacy" news organizations should protest the disappearance of black, brown, and others from their ranks who are "non-traditional," aka, from working-class families.

Yes, I am pissed off. No, I don't give a crap if you think that All Black Women are Pissed Off. My professional profile is what it is, I am quite accomplished, thank you very much; I am capable of (and spoiling to, frankly) standing up on this. The alleged "thought-leaders" of media today -- whatever the delivery platform -- are either "vets" who helped screw up the old model or "digital natives" who are so clueless about life that they might just screw up whatever comes next.

Much as the Fox News "journalists" ginned up the Tea Partiers in the summer of '09 with their highly-partisan, ill-informed reports, the "journalists" at MSNBC have ginned up the OWS-ers who are now getting their asses kicked on the streets of our cities.

Rachel Maddow, Lawrence, O'Donnell, Bill Maher, and their kin at FOX, ABC, and NBC have not, to my knowledge, ever been street reporters.

They claim to be "truth-tellers," yet the 50-thousand foot altitude of much of their rhetoric is absent a crucial element known to any Old School Journalist who has covered large-scale domestic disturbances in the US during the past half-century: Verify and report. Yes, people, Cops in many cities nationwide are militarized. They have been militarized since the street actions of the '60s.

It doesn't matter if you are politically opposed to this admittedly unfortunate reality. If you are a "news anchor," what matters is that you refrain from presenting reports that are wholly designed to inflame your (politically partisan) viewers to engage in confrontations with these local armies....without letting them also know that the local cops will fuck them up.

The decimation of the ranks of qualified, trained journalists of color is not discussed by Maddow and others, likely because they are the beneficiaries of this development. While we were learning the ways of Corporate Journalism -- whitewashing, downplaying, masking, the grit and resolve that led us to become Journalists in the first place -- these late-coming arrivistes were hanging out in their parents' homes, or attending college or knocking around in activist or entertainment, or corporate environments.

And when the winds of corporate media turned away from "objective, Just the Facts Ma'am" reporting that had been the standard for more than a century, toward a product that is infused with entertainment, the gatekeepers looked not for black and brown trained journalists -- many of whom also have "agendas" -- but to academics and activists who were telegenic, and "familiar," if highly partisan.

If you care about the process of verification (which is what Journalism IS, people, not a big mystery, but not easy to carry out faithfully, day after day), you might ask yourself this:

What will it mean in the future if everyone in the US who calls herself a "Journalist" is really not interested in verifying anything more than what they already think they know?

"Lean Forward," indeed, Dear Viewer.

Just be sure to verify, as much as you trust. And do your best not to blindly fall in.


  1. Thanks Amy, that was a great piece to wake up to and read over a steaming hot cup of coffee this morning. You have a great clarity of voice.
    I have to admit that I am a guilty watcher of Maddow, though I am not blind to her excessive bias. I'm sure it helps that I share most of that bias! One thing that I feel she does very effectively is provide historical context, such as during the reporting of the most recent BP oil spill, where the less then savory history of BP oil in all its former incarnations was brought to light. As a Canadian, I also appreciated the way in which she defined the difference between big 'C' and little 'c' conservatives. Nonetheless, I have not watched her in a couple of months and it seems she has not provided the necessary context of the militarization of american city police.
    A part of me still feels that her very liberal-minded show fills a necessary evil in our current media society, by providing a counterpoint to FOX News and its rantings. Sadly, people today don't seem to want to listen to "just the facts, ma'am," reporting. North American society is so immersed in a culture of perpetual entertainment and shock value, perhaps we have become inured a more balanced and thoughtful approach to reporting.

    Thanks again Amy. You got me thinking.

  2. Amy,

    I appreciate the thought you’ve given this, but, if I understand your reasoning, I think I disagree.

    The militarization of the police took place a long time ago, as you suggest. Actually, that’s always been the case. In fact, it’s not as bad as it used to be. But it’s bad.

    If people followed your suggestion to not move into zones that might become dangerous. all of the major protests and acts of resistance that caused the most important changes in society never would have happened. I think we should not think of today’s protesters as children who either 1) don’t know they might face danger or 2) are pawns of liberal journalists who push them to engage in protests they otherwise would not participate in.

    I also think your criticism of the folks at MSNBC regarding these demonstrations is unfair. They are primarily commentators, not journalists out covering events. Sometimes they do reporting that exceeds the quantity and quality of reporting by most reporters – I think primarily here of Rachel Maddow, whose research and analysis can be amazing. They are providing an analysis that demonstrators in the civil rights movement, women’s movement and antiwar movement never had but would have welcomed warmly. These commentators are not pushing children into danger. They are voicing strong support that, increasingly, to my great surprise, turn out at the moment to reflect the opinion of the public. It might be true that the combination of the demonstrators’ actions coupled with the commentators’ support is moving the country.

    I agree that these new commentary programs, right and left, are pitifully white and lacking in sensitivity to the need to diversify. That is true of every “new” media: with few exceptions they are operating as white new boy networks that are more like the white old boy networks of the 1950s than they are like the newspaper leadership of the last two decades. But, I would separate that from their unique coverage/commentary of Occupy. When I transplant your comments to the movements of the 1960s, I hear parents/teachers/other thoughtful people warning young people not to get to get in trouble, to trust leaders to do what’s best, to be more patient.

    Perhaps most important: this is an evolving thing. It is very difficult to understand where it is going, what it is going to mean. It is speaking to the heart and gut of millions of people. Nothing has done that for a very long time in regard to the most important issues of the day. The idea that there now are commentators who support this movement is, I think, something to be welcomed and embraced. Imagine if Martin Luther King had been endorsed by a series of commentators on a major network. Or, if antiwar voices had felt that support. Rights might have been recognized much sooner. Fewer black people would have been sacrificed, and fewer millions of Vietnamese people would have been killed.

    With great respect,