Sampedro’s analysis of the relationship between political power, media power, and social movements highlights some recent thoughts I’ve been having about the news coverage of Occupy Wall Street and the hacktivist actions of Anonymous and their various spinoffs. A week or so ago, I published an essay over on the Comparative Media Studies on the visual iconography of OWS (you can read the whole thing here), focusing on the Pepper Spray Cop Meme and the use of Guy Fawkes masks in public protest. The Pepper Spray Cop initial incident and meme (otherwise known as the Casually Pepper Spraying Everything Cop), taken in conjunction with other police-brutality incidents at Occupy camps nationwide, showcase a particularly pointed example of the journalistic maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.” While such news coverage (and the Pepper Spray Cop meme itself) brought much needed attention to the issue of police brutality at protests, that attention was not completely unproblematic.
Though such incidents brought media attention to the OWS movement, it was primarily reactive to the incidents in question, nor did it tarry long afterwards. Coverage of the goals, grievances, or strategies of the Occupy movement did not increase. In fact, it could be argued that such coverage distracted mainstream attention from the political and social goals of the Occupiers as the media flitted from one violent cop-against-protester incident to the next. The most popular narratives disproportionally showed violence against “defenseless women” and “defenseless students” (as articulated here in coverage of the UC Davis incident and here in a Seattle Weekly article headlined, “Seattle Police Pepper Spray 84-Year Old Woman, Pregnant Lady and Priest during Occupy March), leaving the stories of participants from other racial and socio-economic backgrounds relatively uncovered.
The widespread coverage of these incidents did lead to a condemnation of police crowd-control tactics across many journalistic outlets. Several mainstream news organizations, including the New York Times, Reuters, Forbes, the Huffington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly ran stories on the militarization of domestic police forces. Whether or not this attention will lead to systematic changes in the policing and crowd control policies in American cities and towns remains to be seen, however the attention in and of itself is significant.
The question of whether or not such reactive, violence-oriented coverage has been a boon to the OWS movement is a debatable one. I would believe that such coverage has shifted attention away from the core values and goals of the movement, though that’s not something I can conclusively prove. I think it’s likely that, without these focusing incidents, any mainstream media attention the movement might have attracted would have been brief. Sampedro notes that the news media is attracted to “sensationalistic information” for reasons of “efficiency and commercial imperatives.” He also nots that such sensationalistic coverage robs a social movement of its persuasive power and can trivialize the movement. Though the above concept refers to news media focusing on the “deviance of protesters” (which certainly occurred in coverage of OWS), I believe it also has bearing on the coverage of violence directed at protesters from without. This is perhaps most pointedly illustrated by the Fox News coverage of the UC Davis pepper spray incident and Megyn Kelly’s characterization of pepper spray as “a food product, essentially,” (which gave rise to its own meme).
Coverage of hacktivism has similarly focused on the digital version of blood on the streets (in this case, downed websites, defacements and nebulous threats of apocalyptic cyberwar) to the near exclusion of serious discussion of the goals and tactics of hacktivism and other forms of digital activism. This phenomenon can be seen in reverse in the techno-utopianist rhetoric that accompanies considerations of the role of Facebook and Twitter in events like the Arab Spring.