Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lying About Occupy Oakland

I haven't written much about the Occupy movement both because I'm lazy and because I haven't thought of anything original to say about it. I have taken a baton to the stomach, I have participated in actions that have stopped (at least for now) further fee increases that would make the UC system even less affordable, and just a couple of weeks ago I took part in a largely unreported occupation that restored funding to the Anthropology Library (we had to do the same thing over two years ago before Occupy Wall Street was a national catchphrase). But so far, I haven't been able to articulate anything that anyone else hasn't already written better than I could. That still remains the case, but I think that writing about how CNN and the New York Times failed utterly and deceived their readers in "reporting" on Occupy Oakland this weekend is worthwhile even though someone else has already described what they did. Because the message must get out there: believe almost nothing that you read in CNN and the New York Times. They lie, they plagiarize and they have no credibility left.

Last weekend, shit went down in Oakland. I wasn't there, but the mainstream reportage I've seen only confirms the increasingly hollow and pointless role the press plays in helping anyone understand the events of the world. The problem is not that press coverage of what happened is biased. Press coverage will always be biased. There is no escaping it. Initially, press coverage of Occupy Wall Street and the movement that coalesced around its message all around the world suffered from a novelty bias. Now that the novelty bias has worn off, reporters have fallen back on the most pernicious bias of all: the laziness bias. It's what Aaron Bady calls stenography journalism.

I'm about to do what they have just done. I'm going to be lazy and outsource the work of explaining this to someone else. But the difference between me doing that and them doing that is that it's their job to actually cover the damn story and not simply rewrite the Oakland Police Department's press releases. Remember what a job is? It's that thing that the Occupy movement is pissed that there is not enough of for everyone. Working reporters should be happy they still have jobs in the face of a massive recession and the rapid decline of their industry. They should not, under any circumstances, do this:
 [W]hile I had an obstructed view of those events – and I know what I did and didn’t see – it’s very easy for you, when you read a news article like CNN’s, to not see the most important clause in the article, the last one, “city and officials said.” This indicates for you (or should) that CNN is essentially doing to OPD’s press release the same thing that desperate college students sometimes do with wikipedia articles: copy and paste, and then change just enough words so that it isn’t plagiarism. CNN was not there yesterday, so they only saw what the Oakland Police Department told them to see...They turned “12 pm” into “around noon” and they copied down OPD’s crowd estimates exactly (ABC7 guessed 2,000; I would have guessed about a thousand), and slightly altered the wording to cover their trail. After that, to their credit, they found the time to copy and paste text from the Occupy Oakland twitter feed and web site. And then they called it a day and went home, apparently; while real journalists were still being arrested while doing their jobs, the good people at CNN were finished putting the imprimateur of “objective” journalism on OPD’s press release, and laughed all the way to the bank. 
As Bady points out, CNN is not alone in failing all over the place on this story. The Oakland Tribune did essentially same thing, and our country's "newspaper of record," The New York Times, turned in the very same brand of lazy reporting (ever since the NYT helped the Bush Administration lie us into the Iraq War, they have continued to fail their readers on a regular basis and few people are willing to call them out on it).

It's time for everyone to start labeling this sort of journalism for what it really is: plagiarism, which is a form of lying. CNN, the Oakland Tribune and the New York Times released reports on Occupy Oakland with the implicit understanding that they sent reporters to investigate what happened and then tell us about their findings. But they clearly didn't do that. They took the work of others and rewrote it and while they gave some attribution, that doesn't get them off the hook for plagiarism because all they did was rewrite the reports of others. They added no work of their own. Yet they still added their byline to it as if they had really done original reporting. This is plagiarism; this is deception; this is lying.

I do not claim to be a reporter. I was not in Oakland this weekend. But based on the available evidence, neither was CNN or the New York Times or (absurdly) the Oakland Tribune. Many are worried about the "death of journalism." If this is what passes for journalism in our time, I say let it die.

PS - To articulate what I think of flag burning and the other sensational parts of the Occupy Oakland story this weekend that I haven't mentioned, I will once again defer to Aaron Bady who seems to get it about right:
I’m not going to defend things like burning of flags or vandalizing city hall; I wouldn’t have done it, I wish they hadn’t done it, and I think it was stupid to do it. I don’t think it accomplishes anything, and it feeds into the story that people like Reid and De La Fuente want to tell about Occupy Oakland, making it seem like Occupy are the violent ones...That said, the “assault on City Hall” was virtually the last thing that happened on Saturday. It wasn’t the cause of the police reaction, as the National Lawyer’s Guild noted: it was a response to the actions taken by OPD and the city of Oakland. You can still think whatever you want about it; you can be appalled at the protesters who did it, if you like. But it wasn’t the cause of the days events; it was the coda to the night’s events, if that.

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