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Occupy Wall Street: Social Movement or Fleeting Moment?

Reading Summary:

Todd Gitlin, “The Whole World Is Watching”

Introduction

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.

 Discussion:

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.

Bibliography

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>