18 Nov The New News
This morning I woke to a voice message from a friend in Prague. He was terrified that something terrible had happened at Occupy Wall Street because all of the live streams he had followed the day before, during the massive protests, were shut down. He thought that either everyone had been arrested, or that all of the cell service had been stopped. He was actually a bit frantic to be cut off from the reliable sources of information he had found. I don’t think he had even bothered to check the news sites like the NY Times or CNN. They are hopelessly slow with information in relation to live streams or people on the ground tweeting pictures and videos. He thought I might be down there at OWS and could tell him what was really happening. He didn’t trust the news enough to even check it. We now have two media systems in this country; The media, and the citizen media, and a large number of citizens don’t trust the media any more at all.
I rarely watch the news but I did last night. I was curious to see how the massive protests that had rocked lower Manhattan would play on the 10 O’clock news. I’ll have to admit that, as someone who pays a lot of attention to media, my hopes weren’t too high. What I saw though was simply stunning. Upwards of 30,000 people had spilled into the streets to express their outrage, at not only financial malfeasance, but the deep corruption of our democratic system. The local news in NY framed the protests from the point of view of those who were annoyed or inconvenienced by them, or alternatively as having failed in their goal to “shut down” wall street. One channel spent a full minute with a woman who said that the crowd had swallowed up her young child and wouldn’t help her get him back. Finally, once she had summoned her inner lion she was able to snatch him back from the throbbing evil mass that was the protest. Jim Dolan, on ABC local news started off by stating, “The protesters set out to shut down wall street, but they failed. The bell rang on time.” These situations framed the protesters as both out of control and failures, but failed to address what they might be so upset about.
Back on Fox, the focus was on two Wall Street counter protesters who had a scrawled “Occupy a Job” poster. “These people are touching me,” they wailed. The news also focused heavily on the fact that one officer lacerated his hand and that others had a liquid thrown at them. This liquid might have been vinegar, they weren’t sure. It certainly wasn’t pepper spray. This framing posited the 30,000 protesters as having violently harmed the police, but didn’t address the fact that hundreds had been violently detained during non-violent protests.
2 months into these protests, “the news”, and the people that they focus on, still claim to have a deeply limited understanding of why the protests are taking place. Anyone who spends even 10 minutes at any of the Occupy sites however, knows why people are gathering. The people are fed up with a system that stifles real debate and dissent, and sends money and power further upstream.
Despite my desire to participate, I hadn’t gone out to the protests on November 17th because I was still exhausted from shooting all day after the eviction from Zuccotti Park on the 15th. Instead I spent a good deal of the day checking out the live stream to see what was happening. While the live stream can be a bit disorienting, it gives the most immersive sense of what it’s like to be down there. One experiences the stress, the excitement, the boredom, and the expectation. These elements can’t be packaged in a 1 minute news cast. I think that, in addition to all that’s wrong with America, one thing that is driving more and more people to be involved with the movement, is that the mainstream news message is so hopelessly false. It fails to engage with the deeper issues that are at the heart of the movement. Even the casual observer can see through the farce of the news focusing on a person stuck in traffic, rather than asking the harder questions of why 30,000 people hit the streets to get their voice heard. I bided my time and waited for Nightline to see if I could get a better sense of how the national media was responding to this crisis. Unfortunately, Nightline decided to ignore the 2 month anniversary protests and instead focused its energies on the implications of Kim Kardashian’s 72 day marriage. My experiment with mainstream media had failed miserably so I headed back to facebook.
Now a days nearly everyone is on facebook, and many people in NY know people who are connected to Occupy Wall Street. Our friends are our representatives and our providers. A few days into OWS I started to post photos and videos that I had found online. My friends on facebook were very appreciative. Many people let me know that they had been interested in what was going on but hadn’t been able to figure it out. Soon I started to head down there to post my own photos, videos, and observations. I wasn’t making media for a huge audience, but I was giving context to a pretty large group of people. Some of them went to check it out for themselves and found that it was much more complex than they had thought. This movement didn’t spread exponentially based on top down media covering the protests. Instead it exploded through media webs. The centralized media system demands simple, on-point messaging. The media webs thrived on immersive, less-contextualized viral videos. Still, a few videos went wildly viral and spurred others to be involved. This video of Sgt. Shamar Thomas by Jannah Handy now has nearly 3 million views on its original youtube posting and it can found in countless other places. For many people, seeing a soldier respond to the police brutality in this way seemed to give them permission to ask deeper questions about what’s going on. In addition, live streams allowed people to check in periodically to virtually inhabit the space.
On “Democracy Now” Vlad Teichberg, one of the creators of the OWS livestream commented on the violent ouster of the protesters from Zuccotti Park, “There was a huge attempt made to block out press….aside from assaulting press they assaulted hundreds of people in the park that day- attempts to censor press in the modern day and age are problematic at best. Even though they took out the corporate media, the live stream from inside the camp showed the whole world what was taking place…. In the day and age when everyone has a camera we should be asking ourselves the question, isn’t everyone a journalist, and if everyone is a journalist, shouldn’t the rights reserved for the press be reserved for everyone else.” After he finished, Amy Goodman related that the previous day, she told an officer that was pushing her that she was press. His response was that “everyone’s press.”
When I film I often focus on how the mainstream press is covering the situation. They have their trucks, and they stand on their cases to rise above the fray. I was shooting a fox newswoman as she read from her blackberry into her microphone. I guess I got too close because she swatted her hand at me and lost her place. I stepped back. After she was done with her live spot she yelled at me, “That was so unprofessional!!” I apologized and moved back. As I walked away I was wowed by her sense of entitlement. She was “the news” and I had gotten in her way. With each day of the Occupy movement though, her brand of news becomes less and less relevant. Our relationship with information is clearly shifting. As more people become involved, even in small ways, with the occupy meme, they see the media through new eyes, and what they see doesn’t jibe with what they know. I can’t be the only person in NY that was flabbergasted at the woefully inadequate coverage of the Occupy protests yesterday. However, when I canvassed my friends I found that they hadn’t even bothered to check the news.
What does all this mean for documentary film? As a documentary filmmaker this is something I have been asking myself everyday. When I go down to Occupy more people are shooting than not shooting. An enormous amount of footage is being created each day. Some of it is simple documentation, some protest porn, some is interviews, and some is playful. If documentary film is about creating context to more deeply understand complex situations (as I think of it), what will the hundreds of films look like? I believe that a new form of news is taking shape; a news of citizen journalists- a decentralized news supply that will rely on trusted relationships. The old media will still exist obviously, but I think it will be forced to react to the power of this new form. It will have to become more complex, more real, and more responsive. In the world of documentary film I believe that the new technologies, and new desire for real news, will lead to a flood of strong documentaries. Now we have to figure out how to get these documentaries to the public, and get people the resources and support they need to make them.