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Amy Alexander: Is MSNBC To Blame When OWS Protests Get Out of Hand? (Guest Post)

When the city of Oakland, Calif.'s police force fired projectiles into Occupy Wall Street protestors trying to retake a public space they were ousted from, long-time journalist and media critic, Amy Alexander worried that sensational, biased media coverage of the protests has caused these crop of new activists to put themselves in harm's way without understanding all the consequences.

By Amy Alexander

The videos of the ill-fated OWS street action in Oakland the other day churned my stomach.

I mean, really. So many urgent questions, starting with, Who is training these activists?

Followed fast by -- Will any cable TV political chat show hosts take responsibility for having ginned up the OWS-ers, for having worked them up to such a degree that they felt safe enough to face off with cops?

From what I have viewed of the recent Oakland situation, and the Wall Street, pepper-spray incidents of a few weeks ago, there are apparently more protestors concerned with turning cameras on cops than on getting the hell out of the way.

I chalk this up to youthful ignorance -- but also to the influence of partisan cheer-leading found on a multitude of news-ish sites on the Interwebs, and on the 24/7 cable TV news channels.

In particular, MSNBC's prime time programming is to be singled out for its egging on of the OWS-ers coast to coast.

"Lean Forward" is the cable network's marketing "house-ad" message-frame, and the spots (which air daily, across all the cable network's programming) feature hosts Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, and Ed Schultz, earnestly sharing their (liberal-tinged) thoughts about how America is in a battle between Good and Evil. I am a San Francisco Liberal, and media Old Head, which is to say that I appreciate the ads for their slick ability to convey clearly the high stakes bound up in our present political landscape.

Yet I do worry that the "Lean Forward" ad campaign -- accompanied by a weeknight prime time line up that is vociferously, unapolagetically Left-leaning -- is not serving well the American people. No, I am NOT going neo-con, and I am equally opposed to the Fox News Channel's equally one-sided (Conservative) political bent.

But the Liberal me lives within the same spirit, brain, memory, and body as my Journalist. And I am inherently -- well, from training and experience -- reluctant to let the Liberal in me drive the Journalist unquestioned.

The cops in SF, Oakland and Berkeley are widely known (among natives) for being militarized. This is not news ... unless you don't know the history, or have the wherewithal to look it up ... or don't care to report it.

The videos of the Oakland "Occupy" protest demonstrated to me foremost that even the best-intentioned among us -- including high-profile Liberal, "activists turned TV news people" -- are ignorant about key aspects of our recent American history. The folks we see in the recent Occupy Oakland videos are not mindless 'bots but I bet you dollars to donuts that they felt emboldened by what they view on MSNBC and what they have heard in the past two weeks on other liberal-leaning broadcasts. They did so at their own peril.

Has anyone in MSNBC's editorial braintrust at 30 Rock in New York watched the KRON TV footage showing how the cops responded during the multitude of protests in the '60s and '70s in the Bay Area? (KRON was the NBC affiliate in SF for many years.) How about footage of the cops' handling of the homeless camps that sprang up around San Francisco City Hall during the 1980s, anybody at MSNBC bother to watch those images? Probably not.

I ask because I know from those situations that cops will brutalize OWS activists; I know this because I have seen them brutalize homeless advocates, ACT-UP members, and the shaggy Food Not Bombs kids. So what I want to know is:

Why wouldn't a responsible "newscaster" in 2011, especially one who flies proudly the flag of "activist," not warn their viewers/followers of this, even as they gin them up with segments and reports clearly designed to spur street activism?

Sure, Frank Rich delivered a sweeping piece in the recent edition of New York Magazine on a long-ago showdown between Real People fed up with being left out by the Fat Cats. Rich tells the story of the Bonus Army, those Depression-era, middle and working class Americans who thronged the District of Columbia in protest of income inequality and job losses in the bleak years following an orgy of excess from early corporate titans and Robber Barons.

Rich's piece is instructive, if thin on the role of media back then. The piece does mention a favorite touchstone figure of postmodern Liberal media columnists, Father Coughlin, a "populist" who railed against class inequality on a popular radio program during the '30s.

Well guess what? The speed, vehemence, and utter pervasiveness of media today is even more influential than in Father Coughlin's day, far outstripping what existed in the '30s or in the intervening years. And more acute, too, is the vast income gap that exists between those who hold media perches that have wide reach -- such as cable TV political show hosts, and top editors and writers at the NY Times and the Washington Post -- and the rest of Americans.

David Carr at The NY Times wrote a cute, timely column early this week suggesting that Journalists should consider an "Occupy the Newsroom" movement, spurred by the crazy lucrative exit packages and bonuses received by some media company executives even while their editorial operations are vanishing. I think Carr didn't go far enough: The experienced, trained, well-paid Journalists still hanging on in "legacy" news organizations should protest the disappearance of black, brown, and others from their ranks who are "non-traditional," aka, from working-class families.

Yes, I am pissed off. No, I don't give a crap if you think that All Black Women are Pissed Off. My professional profile is what it is, I am quite accomplished, thank you very much; I am capable of (and spoiling to, frankly) standing up on this. The alleged "thought-leaders" of media today -- whatever the delivery platform -- are either "vets" who helped screw up the old model or "digital natives" who are so clueless about life that they might just screw up whatever comes next.

Much as the Fox News "journalists" ginned up the Tea Partiers in the summer of '09 with their highly-partisan, ill-informed reports, the "journalists" at MSNBC have ginned up the OWS-ers who are now getting their asses kicked on the streets of our cities.

Rachel Maddow, Lawrence, O'Donnell, Bill Maher, and their kin at FOX, ABC, and NBC have not, to my knowledge, ever been street reporters.

They claim to be "truth-tellers," yet the 50-thousand foot altitude of much of their rhetoric is absent a crucial element known to any Old School Journalist who has covered large-scale domestic disturbances in the US during the past half-century: Verify and report. Yes, people, Cops in many cities nationwide are militarized. They have been militarized since the street actions of the '60s.

It doesn't matter if you are politically opposed to this admittedly unfortunate reality. If you are a "news anchor," what matters is that you refrain from presenting reports that are wholly designed to inflame your (politically partisan) viewers to engage in confrontations with these local armies ... without letting them also know that the local cops will fuck them up.

The decimation of the ranks of qualified, trained journalists of color is not discussed by Maddow and others, likely because they are the beneficiaries of this development. While we were learning the ways of Corporate Journalism -- whitewashing, downplaying, masking, the grit and resolve that led us to become Journalists in the first place -- these late-coming arrivistes were hanging out in their parents' homes, or attending college or knocking around in activist or entertainment, or corporate environments.

And when the winds of corporate media turned away from "objective, Just the Facts Ma'am" reporting that had been the standard for more than a century, toward a product that is infused with entertainment, the gatekeepers looked not for black and brown trained journalists -- many of whom also have "agendas" -- but to academics and activists who were telegenic, and "familiar," if highly partisan.

If you care about the process of verification (which is what Journalism IS, people, not a big mystery, but not easy to carry out faithfully, day after day), you might ask yourself this:

What will it mean in the future if everyone in the US who calls herself a "Journalist" is really not interested in verifying anything more than what they already think they know?

"Lean Forward," indeed, Dear Viewer.

Just be sure to verify, as much as you trust. And do your best not to blindly fall in.


Amy Alexander is an award-winning journalist, content producer and editor, and the author the new Beacon Press Book, "Uncovering Race, A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention." Her work has appeared in print and broadcast outlets nationwide, including The Washington Post, National Public Radio,, and The Nation. She is author of four nonfiction books, including the bestseller, Fifty Black Women Who Changed America; and Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans, co-authored with Alvin. F. Poussaint, M.D.

This post was originally published on her blog, Amy Alexander Community Forum

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