Occupy Wall Street: Social Movement or Fleeting Moment?

Reading Summary:

Todd Gitlin, “The Whole World Is Watching”


Gitlin’s book is about the relationship between the mass media and social movements, specifically the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Gitlin sees the mass media as a core system for the distribution of ideology. In the late twentieth century, political movements rely on large-scale communications in order to “matter” and stay relevant; yet in order to be “newsworthy,” movements must submit to the rules of newsmaking by conforming to journalistic notions of what a “story” is, what an “event” is, and what a “protest” is. The processed image of a political movement then tends to become that movement for the publics and institutions that otherwise have no other sources of information about the movement. Likewise, by omitting to cover a political movement, mass media can deprive a movement of larger significance. Media also certify leaders within a movement, often converting leadership into “celebrity.” Different forms of media systematically frame news events in ways that can determine the movement’s fate.

When faced with social opposition, journalism’s regular approach is to process the disturbance, to control its image and to diffuse it at the same time, to absorb what can be absorbed into the dominant structures of definitions and images and to push the rest into the margins of social life.

To make the world beyond direct experience look natural, the media frames its subjects. Frames are principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters. Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual. Frames are necessary for journalists to process large amounts of information quickly and routinely—frames, therefore, are unavoidable.

Gitlin works from the assumption that the mass media are a significant social force in the forming and delimiting of ideology. Gitlin’s ideas take their influence from Gramsci’s theory of hegemony—the process through which those who rule the dominant institutions secure their power in large measure directly and indirectly, by impressing their definitions of the situation upon those they rule and, if not usurping the whole of ideological space, still significantly limiting what is thought throughout the society. Hegemony is done by the dominant and collaborated in by the dominated.

Ch. 1: Preliminaries

Gitlin states that the media treatment of the movement and the movement approach to the media were themselves situated within a historical context. Movements and media are not creatures of each other; they work on each other, but not in conditions of their own making.

The media and the movement needed each other; the media needed stories and the movement needed publicity for recruitment. Yet, in the early years of SDS the media paid little attention to them, and did not care to seek out media attention themselves. After the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the media discovered SDS, and SDS began to show an interest in large-scale organization and publicity. With the March on Washington on April 17, 1965, student war protests and the SDS in particular became big news. The media soon began to frame the movement through deprecatory frames, including: trivialization, polarization, emphasis on internal dissension, marginalization, disparagement by numbers, disparagement of the movement’s effectiveness, reliance on statements by government officials and other authorities, emphasis on the presence of Communists, emphasis on the carrying of “Viet Cong” flags, emphasis on violence in demonstrations, delegitimizing use of quotation marks, and considerable attention to right-wing opposition to the movement. Some of these framings can be attributed to traditional assumptions in news treatment: news concerns the event, not the underlying condition; conflict, not consensus; the fact that “advances the story,” not the one that explains it.

To combat the negative portrayal of their movement by the media, SDS attempted to use the unsought media attention to amplify the anti-war message. The media attention helped recruit new members and backers into SDS. Many of these new members differed from the original founders—they were less intellectual, more activist, and more deeply estranged from the dominant institutions.

Versions of SDS, Spring 1965

Because quick news pegs require significant events in short, direct terms, the unintended ideological effect is to undermine whatever efforts movements may make to present a general, coherent political opposition; the effect is to reinforce the image that reform movements focus, and in the nature of things ought to focus, on single grievances which the system, however reluctantly, can correct without altering fundamental social relations.

Throughout the sub-society of reporters, arrests certify protest events. Arrests are easily quantifiable and out-of-the-ordinary when they are voluntary. The approach to covering arrest stories comes from the police beat; this practice first gives newsmaking power to police, and then to activists who learn how to turn the tables by strategically getting arrested. Arrests allow for non-celebrities to become newsmakers—they are, in fact, one of the few mechanisms available for certifying a social issue.

Some frames become to prevail widely across media outlets and forms. This happens because when reporters are in unfamiliar social territory, and when enough of them are clustered in that unfamiliar territory to constitute a social group, they are liable to become a hermetic group, looking to each other for bearings, rather than outward. Stories, then, spread horizontally across news organizations as they spread vertically within organizations.

Organizational Crisis, 1965

The standard social-psychological literature is agreed that mass communications are most influential with respect to new issues, to issues on which opinions have not already formed, and to issues which are ambiguous and/or highly charged emotionally. Because few Americans had experience with antiwar movements, early coverage of SDS was highly influential. By surrounding the movement with a distracting frame (violence, Viet Cong flags, etc.) and by minimizing their account of the movement’s rational arguments against the war, the media might have helped insulate the growing movement. It is conceivable that by 1965 the media were helping to polarize the public by broadcasting provocative symbols toward which audiences could hardly maintain neutrality.

 Certifying Leaders and Converting Leadership to Celebrity

As the movement grew in notoriety, the lure and pressure of celebrity began to put pressure on the movement. On one hand, celebrity could be used as a means toward political ends. On the other hand it could corrupt the intentions of some ambitious leaders. The cultural apparatus has a structured need for celebrity, and the news media often interprets events as a drama, with individuals driving the events. In modern times, the need for a “human interest” is intensified with news media’s representations of the individual humans. On top of this, journalistic codes of objectivity and balance decree a search for a “spokesperson.” One key to the antiwar leaders’ claim to be celebrities was that they did bring with them certain radical credential: it was their relation not to diffuse communities but to movements that gave them a plausible claim to newsworthiness by the media’s own lights. The media promoted these celebrities selectively and thereby conferred on them “bona fides” extending far beyond the borders of the movement. These leader-celebrities developed two polar responses: they could pyramid celebrity (“investing” media recognition to accumulate more of the same, believing that they were turning the celebrity role to political advantage) or flee celebrity altogether.

Contracting Time and Eclipsing Context

While the media did not invent radical movements or demonstrations, one thing that is modern is a new sense of time, a new velocity of experience, a new “vertigo.” The synthetic timetables and images of the modern world suffuse and throw into question our knowledge of the real. The mass media routinize this “missing” and then not only propound meaning for experience but actually help constitute it. Capitalist production and its extension into the realm of images has made the experience of onrushing change a constant. The built-in irony of the capitalist economy and the development of the forms of news within it is that the stability of the system is predicated on the institutionalization of change and speed. Because of this, a strategically minded political movement cannot afford to substitute the commodity process of news, fashion, and image for a grasp of its own situation, a suitable organizational form, and a working knowledge of social conditions, structures, and interests.


This week we switched things up and had our discussion at the beginning of class. (Ah, change!) In this discussion, we caught up on some terms and readings that we have done throughout the semester. So let’s begin with this review:

We began by mentioning Occupy Wall Street, our case study of the week. Could it be defined as more of a subculture or a social movement? We decided the latter after defining a social movement as an unauthorized, un-institutional movement of power that are seeking to change the world (Note: not only their world, the world. They desire to make lasting change.) So what was Occupy’s desired change? This is somewhat difficult to define and we as a class argued that this was a major problem of the movement. Here are the ideas that we could come up with:

  1. Have people pay more attention to what’s going on in economy/ politics
  2. More equal distribution of wealth.
  3. Corporations having less power.

Occupy appeared like a demonstration to proclaim “we’re fed up,” but it quickly became a catalyst for others to act upon their goals, almost like a brand. It led to demonstrations on college campuses and public spaces. So, though a lack of clear, defined goals, it enabled others to act just through their being.

We also discussed how Occupy had no clear leader so thus, the media focused on the outlandish ideas of the movement, the ones that are easy to report and are interesting. Because of this horizontal structure, it also had no leader for the media to contact. News outlets could go to any nut-job, call them an authority, and let them speak for the movement.

Now let’s get into those readings and terms. First, we talked about the idea of how actions invoke change. T.V. Reed wrote that repeated actions define movements. And change is brought about because of these repeated actions, thus, causing institutional change. Then, the idea of how meaning relies on difference was discussed. Stuart Hall argues that in language, concepts only make sense to us when there’s an opposite or one that differs. So, society can only understand movements in that they are different from mainstream society. Subcultures and movements are defined through what they aren’t. Compare Occupy to mainstream society and boom, you have your definition of OWS. These differences are thus how they are seen and represented. The tools of representation are called codes. We talked about the example of the punk movement and its codes: spitting, swearing, and wearing garbage.

The media likes to highlight these differences and actively work to do this. It creates a process of other-ing, as in creating the comparison of mainstream society versus the subculture. And at this point, the class discussion got started on the media. (I mean, it’s impossible to talk about any form of culture without the media’s involvement.) Gitlin speaks extensively about the news media’s coverage of oppositional movements. Media organizations used such tactics as media frames, which allows for the selection of what is to be shown. The media chooses what to put in a picture and the angle that it approaches. These frames are unavoidable because news has to narrow down reality because one can’t be everywhere at once. So how does one fit into these frames? Make a spectacle! Bring publicity to one’s self!

And lastly, let’s talk about hegemony. It is the definition of reality that gets advanced as the one that makes the most sense. It is the systematic engineering of mass consent. By seeing these same pictures of reality over and over again, we believe, they make sense to us. News stories are always 90 seconds long and thus, reality has to fit in this format. What often makes it in? Violence! It’s easy to tell in a short amount of time; viewers like to see it; and there’s always new content in this genre.

And before introducing the OWS panel, we briefly talked about the question of once a story gets news coverage, what happens to the movement? Independent actions may change because now the media is watching. This obviously affects the group. Also, the more press you have, the more followers you get (yay!) but some of those may be there because it’s the place to be, not because of the movement.

Occupy Wall Street Panel:

Next we had the privilege of being able to interview and listen to a panel discussion with several OWS activists. The panelists were involved with OWS in a diverse number of ways. Some contributed to the movement by writing, creating zines, some by organizing marches, others by organizing public square style assemblies. Most of them never camped in Zucotti Park, yet all of them identified with the movement in their own ways.

The panelists shared their perspectives on how OWS was portrayed in the media and how they experienced the movement. OWS is often criticized as a failure partly because it did not bring about any form of institutionalized change that people could point to and say OWS was directly responsible for. However, they were very successful in bringing issues like inequality and corporate corruption into the public view and sparking discussion and debate. Terms like “the one percent” and “the ninety-nine percent” are now part of the average American’ vernacular and were even used during the 2012 presidential debates. The OWS protests that began in NYC spread to other continents and served as a template for other movements months after OWS protesters had been cleared out of Zucoitti Park.

Still though, the movement is often looked back upon with belittlement and criticism. The narrative that is often recounted is one that frames OWS as an abandoned cause. But that narrative ignores the fact that OWS faced massive police repression and although this was top news at the time that the arrests, pepper spraying, and violent incidents were occurring, the retrospective view that mainstream media gives of OWS tends to ignore this repression and frames the OWS as one that “fizzled” or “burned out” due to lack of organization and potency showing how media creates hegemony between mainstream beliefs and it’s opposition.

Another thing OSW accomplished that has gone somewhat ignored is that it created templates for self organizing in communities where they had not previously existed, or were not as well-engrained. The effects of OWS on NYC communities ability to self-organize became particularly apparent after Hurricane Sandy when groups of people used the Occupy ethos to organize Occupy Sandy and summon other helpers to provide relief to those affected by the storm.

Perhaps the most important impact OSW movement had is that it radicalized large groups of people for the first time in a very long time. It evoked passions, emotions, frustrations, and feelings of hope in large numbers of people The media tends to brush these less empirical effects of the movement off because they’re not as easily observed or quantified, but they can still be extremely powerful for invoking change. Many of the panelists could remember a time in each of their lives when they first because getting into activism and mentioned how this was important in influencing their decision to get involved when a new movement, OWS, came along. The biggest implication this has is that sentiments from past movements can be renewed and reawakened in new contexts. This is important when you consider how social movements evolve over time. Social movements, like subcultures, evolve out of existing cultural contexts. In many ways, OWS can been seen as an extension of the Global Justice movement that began in the late 80s and 90s. Although we may view them as two totally separate events, there may be a time we look back on them and consider them part of the same movement.


Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World Is Watching. Los Angeles, California: University of California, 2003. Print.

Hall, Stuart. The Work of Representation. London: SAGE Publications, 1997. Print.

Reed, T.V. The Art of Protest. Univ Of Minnesota, 2005. Print.

#OWS Twitter.com. 22 October 2013. <https://twitter.com/search?q=%23repsub13&src=hash&f=realtime>

#repub13. Twitter.com. 22 October 2013. <https://twitter.com/search?q=%23repsub13&src=hash&f=realtime>

10 thoughts on “Occupy Wall Street: Social Movement or Fleeting Moment?

  1. vdickens513

    “Once a story gets news coverage, what happens to the movement? Independent actions may change because now the media is watching.”
    I want to briefly discuss this statement, as I agree with it, but want to push it a bit further. Once a social movement achieves a certain level of media coverage, how does it maintain that coverage? The biggest misrepresentation, according to the panel, was television news. So I wonder, what attributed to this movement losing its “fire”? Did they “sell out” as other members of some subcultures do, did the media decide to stop covering them, and therefore lost those valuable extra members because it was no longer the “hot topic” to be involved with? Or did the movement in and of itself just fizzle? One woman said the police literally beat them down, and they were too exhausted to go on. If that was the case, that was not exactly what the media said. To go back to the quote, do the actions change because the media is watching, and if the media is watching, can they somehow instigate how long a movement can last?
    (sorry this post is a little long)

    1. imaniribadeneyra

      OWS – Arbitrariness of Truth – Imani Ribadeneyra
      I think this blog post brings about a really great point we discussed in the panel, that often social movements or subcultures are very hard to comprehend or quantify in the ‘now’ or the moment they are taking place, yet we can often understand them better retrospectively. Going further the post brings up a very valid point that although OWS may have been framed as a failure, because OWS brought major ideas to the forefront and will act as a catalyst for future activists. It’s important to consider how major social movements evolve over time, and in retrospect that we might consider several seemingly unrelated movements as part of one connected movement in the future. With that I think another reading that would be really useful in identifying this change in perception would be the Hall “The Work of Representation”. We could bring about the idea of arbitrariness of truth as described by Foucault. With truth comes a specific cultural and historical context, that context can be altered and changed at anytime, thus our perception of ‘truth’ of an event like OWS can be changed at anytime. I think in writing a history of social movements for the future we need to recognize that our truths and authenticities concerning the movements are so inevitably affected by our historical and cultural contexts. If we acknowledge these contexts we might be able to paint a better picture in the distant future of what movements really were, what they achieved, and what effects they caused.

  2. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street - Representing Subcultures & Social Movements | Occupy Wall Street InfoOccupy Wall Street Info

  3. ejr313

    As someone who was not an avid supporter of OWS, never participated in any demonstrations, or even saw Zucoitti Park during the protests, I had no idea what to expect when interviewing our OWS panel. I agree with all of your statements above- their biggest success was raising awareness and sparking discussion and debate. It will definitely take a while to see the impacts of the movement- after all, it has only been two years. I think a unique aspect of OWS is that there was no single face of the movement, it was more about a mass of people (the 99%) all fighting for equality. I was intrigued when one of our panelists told us that in one media representation, her face was the symbol of the movement. I truly think that this is a beautiful thing. People were united under common beliefs, not under a single person or idea. This gives all members of the movement a voice.

    1. rpr249

      I would like to comment on ejr313’s response, in particular regarding these two statements: “It will definitely take a while to see the impacts of the movement” and “a unique aspect of OWS is that there was no single face of the movement, it was more about a mass of people (the 99%) all fighting for equality.” Firstly I would like to argue that yes time is necessary in order for us to comprehend the magnitude of OWS, or any other social movement, however some impacts of the movements can already be seen today. First of all we saw the importance of social media such as Twitter in raising awareness, attracting new people to the streets, and the ability to share unbiased videos of the movement that opposed that of the news media. Furthermore, OWS created an iconic slogan “We are the 99 percent” slogan, which also served as a “shorthand code” for discussing issues related to politics and inequality. The second point I would like to make is that the horizontal structure of the movement was not a unique aspect of OWS as such structure has been seen in demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and so on. It seems like recent social movements have all been fighting together horizontally, for a specific ideology, without a specific leader.

  4. cec424

    While Occupy Wall Street ignited feverish responses from a pretty large—and wide-spanning—group, it was undeniably misunderstood. This post proposes an interesting question of whether it should be considered a “social movement” or merely a “fleeting moment.” The notion that OWS failed in its attempts at whatever it attempted seeks to perpetuate the perceived disorganization.
    I, as an outsider, never fully realized what the group’s focus was or why they protested. We concluded in class and through the readings that this was largely due to police and media suppression. The demonstration did not “die out,” rather it was shut down. OWS did, in fact, succeed in many ways. It reappropriated past movements—such as the Battle of Seattle—to successfully self-organize and educate. Most of all, it increased awareness of buzz terms, such as the “1 percent,” and provided a platform for subsequent community-building, such as Occupy Sandy.
    As a result, Occupy Wall Street can only be considered a social movement. Though it may not have been clear at first, its repercussions and unifying power are unmistakable.

  5. lizsmith1425

    I wanted to discuss the definition of OWS as a subculture or social movement. At the beginning of class, I definitely agreed with our consensus that the aspects of Occupy identified it as a movement. However, one of the panelists spoke about OWS as “a moment, not a movement.” While I agree with the above post about the successful aspects of OWS as a moment, I also think that this indicates a larger subculture of the 99% and maybe that group is where future focus will lie. The actively protesting and collaborating efforts that those participating in OWS or on the sidelines found was that global media technologies can be useful in organizing and perhaps has a future of making institutional change. I think time will tell the power that social media can have while mass media representations take more of a backseat. Blogs and community sites have grown tremendously in recent years, and while I don’t think the authority of certain news institutions will disappear, the power of the people in making meaning seems to be growing – and becoming more accessible. The 99% don’t have to rely on information from big business-owned media any longer – there is a choice, that can have negative implications as well as the positive. But at least there is a new choice – alternative media and the ideals of individuals can be heard worldwide by strangers. This new frontier and its successes can change how social movements progress in the future, which I think our panel approved of and found useful in their OWS experience.

  6. Alexandra Kundrat

    Firstly I would like to respond to OWS possibly being seen as an extension of the Global Justice movement and the evolution of social movements. During the OWS panel I noticed that many of those who participated had first tasted activism from the Battle of Seattle in the 90s. This panel was actually the first time I had every heard of the Global Justice movement and the events that occurred in Seattle, little did I know I would be covering it the next week. However I found it the comment about the growth and change of a social movement and that OWS could be akin to many of the anarchist movements, just taking different forms, very interesting. To me, this evolution has a very strong tie to the feminist movement and I began to think about our discussion in class and how we could discuss the different types of feminism and the various stages of feminism for days. The main moment that stuck out to me was when Professor Portwood-Stacer stated that there is a substantial amount of jargon dealing with feminists and how, even today, they feel as if they view themselves and what stage of feminism they fit into. The OWS panel was also the first time I ultimately realized the affect that media framing could really have. I was fortunate enough to sit in a smaller panel with the reporter from New York Times and he told us that he was one of the very few people who was truthfully reporting OWS and was writing about what was actually going on. What also struck me as very interesting was that, although the movement was incredibly large, it seemed as if everyone on the panel knew each other, had mutual friends, or knew of each other, thus creating a community out of the movement, which I can only imagine the feminist movements did as well.

  7. mcschwankee

    I would like to discuss what I gathered from the OWS guest speakers in relation to this blog posts discussion of Todd Gitlin’s analysis of the media’s treatment of and influence on social movements. In this blog post they state that Gitlin believed that in order to be ‘newsworthy’ movements had to submit to the rules of news making by conforming to journalistic notions of what a ‘protest’ is supposed to be. However, from what I learned about OWS from our guests I would argue that OWS refrained from meeting many of these media expectations and that is why OWS was both somewhat of a “success” and a somewhat of a “failure.” OWS had no defined, central leaders or celebrities. They did not have one particular mission, goal or demand and they refused to package their internal functions (i.e. meetings, social networking – both online and in person, speechmaking, planning etc.) in a way that was directly accessible by the mainstream media. All of these qualities illustrate OWS’s refusal to capitulate to mass media’s definition of “newsworthy.” I think it was this quality of ambiguity and constant change that allowed OWS to draw in and educate as many people as it did, while simultaneously hindering its ability to instigate change on a more structural level.

  8. jsm447

    The media frames that Gitlin talks about played a huge role in the OWS movement, as the blog post mentions. OWS in some ways was a victim of media frames. And yes, frames are necessary for journalists in order to condense such large amount of information and deliver to the public. The public isn’t going to pay attention to something that is not to the point and if it seems to complicated to digest. People want simple, interesting, and quick information. So it is true that frames are unavoidable. But it is also unavoidable to raise a problem that comes with framing. Because the media portrayed OWS movement as violent(yes, there were some violence, but it was never a one-way thing, the policemen also were very violent), many people had misconceptions that OWS was being violent for no reason. Also, OWS was the first movement in a very long time that got this much attention, and I think that has a lot to do with the severity of how bad our economy is in the United States. It evoked lots of emotions from people, and this seems to work well not only for social movements but also for ads in today’s society. As a personal opinion, I think that we all lack human communication these days, because we are so “advanced,” and “busy” all the time, and that is one of the reasons why we love it when there is an emotional appeal. It works great for commercials and advertisements, some examples being the Dove beauty campaign and Google Glass, and it seems to work very well with social movements.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s