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Massive May Day Turnout Highlights Media's Disconnect From Reality
by Allison Kilkenny, The Nation
Thursday May 3rd, 2012 9:20 PM

In my recap of the May Day event in New York City yesterday, I briefly summarized the inaccurate crowd estimations published by major publications like Reuters and the New York Daily News. Reuters declared the protest was a “dud,” though eventually walked back that diagnosis to make the exact opposite claim that the resurgence was “far from being a dud,” and the Daily News absurdly claimed that mere “hundreds of activists across the U.S.” participated in the marches even though in New York City alone, tens of thousands of people took to the streets.

But that was only skimming the surface of bad establishment media coverage. CNN published a screed from Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, titled “Why Occupy May Day fizzled,” that appears to make the argument that Occupy failed because capitalism still exists.

Part of the issue seems to be that certain media outlets believe the protest failed because there wasn’t a general strike, mostly because general strikes are illegal in the United States. No Occupy Wall Street representative I ever spoke with genuinely believed there was going to be an across-the-board general strike, which is why the group started to rebrand the event as a day of “economic noncompliance” that they continued to call a general strike. The title was kept for a number of reasons, including to draw as many laborers into the fold as possible and also to bring attention to the fact that workers showing mass solidarity in the United States is illegal. Which is kind of insane.

However, keeping the “general strike” theme also gave lazy journalists an easy out to dismiss the entire protest as a failure.

In a prescient article titled “Occupy and Failure,” Salon’s Natasha Lennard laid out pre–May Day exactly the course the establishment media took with its coverage of the protest, in which journalists rested their narratives on a fulcrum of success or failure. This has always been the mainstream media’s approach to OWS. Occupy failed to shut down Wall Street on September 17. Occupy didn’t successfully occupy the Brooklyn Bridge. The Oakland General Strike wasn’t really a general strike. And so on. Oh, and there are also oodles of Occupy success stories, but weighing the wins against the losses is a waste of time, Lennard argues, because the whole point of mass resistance is the struggle itself:

Queer theorist Judith Halberstam pointed out in her explorations of failure and success that failure, simply put, “connotes effort without achieving the desired result.” As such, broadly speaking, Occupy—the weird, ever shifting assemblage of actions, gatherings, and connections that it is—technically avoids the logic of success and failure altogether. The consistent refusal to pose demands or set out specific goals as a movement means there has never been a “desired result” to achieve or fail to achieve in the first place. But that’s speaking about Occupy as a (loose) whole. Different Occupy groups have certainly set out plans (crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to set up camp on the other side on October 1st, stopping the Stock Exchange bell ringing on November 17, occupying Union Square overnight to name a few New York examples)—and they’ve failed. Granted, they succeeded in escalating energy and garnering media attention, but in terms of enacting a plan or stated goal, these actions were duds.

However, as many people who experienced some of those events might attest with me, these failures constitute some of Occupy’s greatest wins. It was during these days, when chaotic crowds surged into the streets and moved en masse through the city on unpermitted routes, that the chants of “we are unstoppable” boomed most apt. I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge while reporting on the day’s events for the New York Times. When I stood in plasticuffs with other arrestees, flanking the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound roadway awaiting our carriage in police buses, it was cold and rainy; the bridge and its iconic view have never looked so exhilarating and beautiful to me. As far as failing to cross a bridge goes, this was pretty spectacular.

That model of failing toward victory is not something the establishment media understand, unless of course they’re writing a rosy hagiography of some Wall Street CEO that failed upwards into securing a fat bonus after helping to tank the economy.

Tens of thousands of individuals taking to the street is a show of a “weak immigration movement,” according to Businessweek, or a “slow and soggy start,” if one were to consult the National Post on the matter. Most subtly, the New York Post published an article titled, “Goodbye, Occupy” that offered as much of an optimistic interpretation of the day’s actions as you’d expect.

To summarize: Every business in New York City didn’t shut down, protesters “made a mess of the evening commute,” and all of those people in the street were folks “with nothing better to do.” Diagnosis: FAILURE.

The derision from the Post is to be expected, but the under-reporting of the significance of May Day at less extreme outlets is also important. Crowd estimates are sort of a running joke among journalists, particularly after the wildly inflated figures reported by Glenn Beck’s disciples during his rallies, and the reason people laughed at Beckian hyperbole is because accurately reporting on protest turnouts is critical. There’s a big difference between reporting “hundreds” of people showing up and “tens of thousands” because the two narratives paint radically different images in a reader’s or viewer’s mind.

One version means Occupy is dwindling, the other means Tuesday was a resurgence of sort, and clearly indicates the movement maintains support from tens of thousands of individuals, at least, in New York City alone.

Occupy acknowledged that it was going to get the shaft from the press in this way when one of their first missions was to create their own media. OWS has its own newspaper and media team that creates videos and mini-documentaries and is a constant force on social media. This was a way to circumvent the corporate filter that has been so dismissive and belittling of one of the most important social movements to come along in several generations.

One could find literally thousands of “What’s Next For Occupy?” pontifications on-line and in print, but the point is no one knows what’s next for Occupy. OWS might not even be the endgame of economic reform. In fact, it probably isn’t. In all likelihood, OWS will evolve into some other kind of movement, which may evolve again, and so on.

None of this is meant to imply Occupy is incapable of failure and extinction because those are very real possibilities, but because none of us are capable of understanding the trajectory of this movement precisely because nothing like it has existed before it’s more important than ever that journalists accurately report things like turnout figures, if only to keep gauging the popularity of the resistance.

Banging out 300 words about the “future of Occupy” and publishing wildly inaccurate crowd estimates provides a service to no one. It’s not the job of a journalist to be psychic about these kinds of things. A journalist is simply supposed to report what actually happens to the best of their ability, and crowd estimates is the most basic feature of that role.