This past Sunday’s episode of the Aaron Sorkin/HBO series The Newsroom was entitled “Unintended Consequences,” and one of the major subplots involved Occupy Wall Street. The Newsroom continues to exist in an alternative universe; in Sorkin’s mind, not only was the Tea Party not criticized enough but the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t receive enough fair or laudatory coverage from the media.
The action in this episode takes place around the weekend of September 30, 2011 and yes, there are some vague spoilers ahead.
Sorkin’s treatment of Occupy Wall Street so far this season has been interesting: he’s clearly sympathetic with its goals and messaging, but his plot and thematic choices also seem to indicate that he was frustrated by some of the pure stupidity of the supposedly “leaderless movement.”
In this particular episode, a fictional character named Shelly Wexler–who was introduced a couple of episodes ago as one of the early organizers of Occupy Wall Street–has agreed to be interviewed by Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy anchor character, but she’s nervous about it. Wexler says “the mainstream media has been making us look like idiots since this thing started.”
That is the thematic point about Occupy Wall Street that Sorkin hammers home a few times in his script for the episode: the media wasn’t fair to poor Occupy. “Like most of the media, you’re not taking this seriously, “Wexler says to McAvoy as the news segment closes. Wexler’s character feels the interview was so unfair, she punches the producer who set it up in the stomach.
So, is it true that most of the media wasn’t taking Occupy Wall Street seriously by September 30–when the fictional interview happened in The Newsroom? Let’s look at real life.
On September 23, five days after Occupy Wall Street started, the New York Times posted a piece in its Big City section. The first paragraph read:
By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka. A blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park, facing Liberty Street, just west of Broadway. Tourists stopped to take pictures; cops smiled, and the insidiously favorable tax treatment of private equity and hedge-fund managers was looking as though it would endure.
Further down the article, it read like a description from an Ayn Rand novel:
Some said they were fighting the legal doctrine of corporate personhood; others, not fully understanding what that meant, believed it meant corporations paid no taxes whatsoever. Others came to voice concerns about the death penalty, the drug war, the environment.
“I want to get rid of the combustion engine,” John McKibben, an activist from Vermont, declared as his primary ambition.
“I want to create spectacles,” Becky Wartell, a recent graduate of the College of the Atlantic in Maine, said.
Note that the article called the protesters “noble” and “rightly frustrated” before describing the semi-nude woman who was part of the movement and the other assorted goofiness that was, in fact, impossible to miss at Occupy Wall Street. The article tried to take the subject seriously, but the participants made it difficult.
By the next day, leftist supporters of OWS like Allison Kilkenny in The Nation were attacking the New York Times coverage with the same broad “the media doesn’t take us seriously!” point of view that Sorkin expresses in his art, saying:
The main bone the article wishes to pick is the scattered ideologies of the attendees–a fair point. However, Bellafante never attempts to do the job of real journalism here, which is to use this slice of life to help her readers understand the world around them. Instead, she comes across as a rubbernecker leering at a particularly bloody wreck.
Kilkenny acknowledged the lack of coherent messaging is a “fair point” of criticism, but gave short shrift to the various ways the initial Times article actually did attempt to paint a fair paint of the state of OWS at the point. Obviously, Kilkenny also totally ignored the way the Tea Party was treated the by media.
Far from not taking Occupy Wall Street seriously, the MSM was actually attacked whenever they tried to be remotely critical of Occupy. Take Erin Burnett’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street on CNN, which caused critics to attack Burnett as non-objective, such as this Salon piece by Glenn Greenwald (that’s correct–anti-capitalist, anti-American Glenn Greenwald attacks a journalist for being biased. Glenn Greenwald!):
On her new CNN show on Monday night, host Erin Burnett was joined by Rudy Giuliani’s former speechwriter John Avlon and together they heaped condescending scorn on the Wall Street protests while defending the banking industry, offering — as FAIR documented — several misleading statements along the way. Burnett “reported” that while she “saw dancing, bongo drums, even a clown” at the protest, the participants “did not know what they want,” except that “it seems like people want a messiah leader, just like they did when they anointed Barack Obama.” She featured a video clip of herself explaining to one of the protesters that the U.S. Government made money from TARP, and then demanded to know if that changed his negative views of Wall Street.
It’s just patently false for The Newsroom to claim, however, that OWS wasn’t taken seriously by the media. Many journalists were active supporters of the movement: Current TV’s Keith Olbermann was an early Occupy Wall Street defender. Here’s Laurence O’Donnell on MSNBC going after the police, not the protesters, on September 28.
When Andrew Breitbart personally went to an Occupy LA protest near midnight in November 2011, he debated a group of anarchists–and a sympathetic NBC News executive who just happened to be on the scene, offering his support to the demonstrators (the man in the blue jacket with beige sleeves at 0:38-1:20 in the video below).
More centrist or conservative outlets often gave Occupy Wall Street straightforward news coverage. On September 24, FoxNews did a straight news piece on 80 arrests at an Occupy march, news that ABC covered as well. On September 29, Business Insider, among many others, wrote about the Transit Worker’s union decision to support Occupy Wall Street.
The bizarre thing, however, is how The Newsroom completely ignores the real and most significantly newsworthy thing that happened on the weekend of September 30: two big marches, including the march on the Brooklyn Bridge that led to hundreds of arrests, including activist New York Times reporter Natasha Lennard. As I discuss in the Stephen K. Bannon film Occupy Unmasked, the Brooklyn Bridge march was THE pivotal point in the media for Occupy Wall Street; a complete game-changer that garnered international headlines. Yet there isn’t a peep about it in The Newsroom.
Let’s just go over the chronology in the episode and compare it how events actually unfolded. Will has the Occupy Wall Street protester as a guest on his show on Friday, September 30, 2011. In real life, there was a significant march that day, too; about 1,000 protesters marched on 1 Police Plaza to protest what they called police brutality. However, no mention is made of this real life event during the interview.
The next day in real life came the Brooklyn Bridge march. The Newsroom is set in New York and this was a huge New York story, since it shut down part of the Brooklyn Bridge for hours. As the New York Post reported on 10/1/11:
Thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters swarmed the Brooklyn Bridge Saturday, shutting down car lanes and setting up yet another tense showdown with the NYPD.
Roughly 700 people were arrested after standing in the roadway, blocking the Brooklyn-bound lanes. Traffic in the opposite direction was slowed — but still running after the 4 p.m. standoff.
An army of cops swooped in after the demonstrators took over the bridge’s pedestrian walkway and flooded onto the car lanes heading to Brooklyn. The showdown halted traffic on the bridge for nearly three hours.
The Brooklyn Bridge shutdown story was everywhere that weekend, inclined the New York Times, Reuters, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX News and on and on and on–but in Aaron Sorkin’s imagination, it never happened at all.
There were three different scenes with various producers and anchors talking to the Wexler/Occupy Wall Street character plus a couple more showing news events on October 3–and the Brooklyn Bridge march never came up once.
The reason Sorkin left the Brooklyn Bridge march out of the episode is likely exactly the same reason that real newsrooms got so much about Occupy Wall Street completely wrong; it just didn’t fit the narrative.