Further Adventures in News and Media

So, although I haven’t been posting much the past little while; or at least I haven’t been posting much here. I’ve been doing some blogging and chatting and other social media stuff, both officially and unofficially, for my employer, a public radio station in San Francisco.

The two weekends before this, I did a live blog for the San Francisco 49ers NFL playoff game against the New Orleans Saints and then a sort of hybrid live blog/chat for the 49ers game against the New York Giants last week (along with a couple other posts before and after each game).

Then this weekend, when our newsroom was unstaffed, things started to happen in Oakland. The Occupy Oakland movement, which had been evicted from the plaza outside City Hall after repeated clashed with police and other authorities, had announced its intention to go out and seize a vacant building in the city. Its target was a shuttered convention center near downtown. Yesterday was “move-in day,” and a crowd I’ve heard estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 showed up for a march across downtown to take over the, building, which they said they wanted for a meeting space and social center. The police were ready for the move and blocked the takeover. All they had to do then was deal with the crowd of demonstrators. When push came to shove, as seems inevitable in Oakland, protesters threw stuff at police, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, etc., and before the dust settled, 400 people had been arrested.

I sat down early in the story and started following what was happening through online sources and writing it up on yet another live blog. Along the way, I decided to try an experiment with Storify, a platform that essentially allows you to build a running narrative of an event or subject using online media–Twitter and Facebook posts, blog entries, video, audio and photos from whatever online source you can find. The result is embedded below. One surprise: It actually kind of took off in a minor way, traffic-wise. It became the featured post on the Storify home page and was also picked up by an Oakland community news blog. Anyway, here’s to experimenting (and yes, many questions of journalistic practice are raised by all these tools and the ability to become a one-person newsroom. I’m thinking about all that):

Posted in Berkeley: General Strike


Or “Huelga General,” if you want to be more literal (and Spanish) about it. Posted in the window of Subway Guitars at Cedar and Grant streets. (In fact, we’re in between “general strikes.” This poster refers to the event last week. And now students up at Cal are planning another one for next Tuesday, largely in response to the aggressive police tactics employed the other day to prevent protesters from setting up an “Occupy” encampment.)

Occupy Oakland, from Near and Far


If you don’t live in the immediate Bay Area, or even if you do, you’ve been hearing about how violent last week’s Occupy Oakland “general strike” was. On NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”–not a news show, I know, but still a place I usually think of as careful with facts, the day was summarized as one where police clashed with protesters who tried to shut down the city’s port. No police tried to stop the port shutdown, there were no clashes there, and the protesters succeeded in shutting down the port.

Here’s the way a local news commentator, who knows better, puts it: “The place for action last week was Oakland, where thousands of righteous demonstrators who believe they’ve been marginalized by those in power clashed with police, littered parks, broke windows and defaced buildings to vent their anger at the callous disregard they’ve experienced.”

Leaving for later why these accounts have gained currency–a combination of destructive, belligerent behavior by a relative handful of the demonstrators combined with the media’s natural tendency to focus on trouble wherever it occurs–I just want to say don’t believe everything you read or see (also leaving for later: the philosophical conundrum of whether you should believe anything you read or see right here).

From talking to both participants and people who covered the events that day, the vast majority of folks who took part in the Occupy Oakland strike were people bent on just one thing: peaceful protest. (Next you’ll want to know what they were protesting, and I think you’d get a thousand, or ten thousand, different versions of what brought people out there).

Anyway, here are some pictures of signs seen that day, long before the late-night miscreants (self-styled anarchists whom a friend calls “joy-riding thugs), seized their moment.

Oakland Occupied


Friday night at Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall in downtown Oakland. I stopped very briefly on my way down to the Jack London Square ferry slip. The city had served notice a few hours before that it considered the occupation/encampment illegal and wanted Occupy Oakland to vacate the premises. Since the city considers the space “closed” from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.–a closed park at any hour, especially at city center, is an odd concept to me, but also not a new one–the city each day for several days has issued a “notice of violations and demand to cease violations” to the folks in the plaza. Today’s notice, like previous ones, says in part:

You do not have permission to lodge overnight in Frank Ogawa Plaza. You must remove all tents, sleeping bags, tarps, cooking facilities and equipment and any other lodging material from the Plaza immediately. Your continued use of the Plaza for overnight lodging will subject you to arrest.

For the past week, the city has issued more specific complaints, too, citing the occupiers/campers for everything from fighting, open-air sex, open fires, dogs, illegal drugs, public urination, improper storage of food blocking access for paramedics and firefighters, delivering soil to the site, graffiti and vandalism, trespassing in city buildings, and loud music. The notices have been posted on the web and apparently posted at the plaza, too.

The Occupy Oakland response? In essence, “We’re not going anywhere.” Well, that, and some preparation. The group has set up an emergency text system to try to rally supporters if and when the police show up and say 1,000 have signed up so far. An item before the camp’s nightly General Assembly on Saturday urged participants to “have a plan in place for yourself when the police come (lock arms and make inside/outside circles, film officers, evac. plan, outside mobilization). Think about it before you sleep tonight.”

In the picture above, there’s a banner on the left that says, “The Corporate Media Puts the Masses to Sleep.” Occupy Oakland has developed a bit of a reputation for being touchy with the local media. In one incident, a protester’s fairly mean-and menacing-looking dog grabbed the sleeve of reporter Ken Pritchett from Oakland’s KTVU (that link is from KPIX, another Bay Area station; the Occupy Oakland report starts at about 3:00 of the five-minute video; the brief view of the Pritchett incident starts at 3:51). On Friday, a KTVU camera operator and reporter were followed around the encampment and their attempts to shoot video and interview people on the site were blocked by members of the encampment.

Today, a statement purporting to have been approved by Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly appeared on the web. It sets the ground rules for media coverage in the plaza (which the occupiers call Oscar Grant Plaza, named after an unarmed black train passenger killed by a white transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009). The statement:

We agree with Occupy Wall Street that corporations “purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.”

The mainstream media’s inextricable ties to corporate interests drive them to lie to protect profits. This undermines the discourse we have begun in occupations across the country and the world.

Due to this conflict of interest, we have set the following requirements for all media.

  • All media and those with professional recording equipment will check in at the Media Tent, located in the Southeast corner of Oscar Grant Plaza.
  • Do not photograph or film people who are sleeping, receiving medical treatment, or have requested that you refrain from recording them.
  • Do not enter the kitchen, kid zone, or medic spaces as this disrupts their function.
  • Do not recording personal conversations and meetings without the express permission of those involved.
  • We encourage you to document the General Assembly, the primary stage for public gathering and discourse, held daily at 7pm in the amphitheater.
  • Make an effort to report on a diversity of voices and opinions; the media team is happy to help.

OK–there’s something more than a little creepy about attempts to physically restrain reporters from doing their jobs. The guy with the dog in the video seems like he’s into a moment of ugly macho thuggery. And it’s disingenuous for the protesters to declare a right to occupy a public space and then declare it a semi-private zone where they, and only they, have a say in what will be reported from there. But there’s something disingenuous, too, about some of the local news operations and their pious tsk-tsking about the media-unfriendly behavior of Occupy Oakland.occupyoakland102111b.jpg

As someone who’s worked in news for a while, let me offer an observation: The media give credence almost without fail to statements from official government sources. These reports are generally accorded an initial assumption of credibility that virtually no one else enjoys. We often can’t help ourselves: We need to know what happened so we can tell our readers, listeners, and viewers, and we need to do it now. The official word on a crime, a police shooting, our nation going to war–it’s gold. Until it’s not. Until it turns out that maybe the whole truth wasn’t on offer for some reason. But that’s part of a future we’ll deal with then, part of tomorrow’s news cycle.

What does that have to do with Occupy Oakland?

Well, look what happened when the city started to issue its alarming communiques about fighting in the encampment, about rats, poor sanitary conditions, and all the rest. Without doing much independent verification, as far as I can tell, the local media went with the city’s complaints as gospel. The standard approach is taking that stance is pretty simple: As a reporter or editor, you don’t say Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem; you say “the city says” Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem. The media’s issues with public trust aside, many if not most in the audience conflate what they read and hear with what’s true. As Virginia O’Hanlon’s dad once said, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

And so, the occupiers’ preoccupation with trying to control what the world sees. A Chronicle reporter who talked with protesters asks the right question:

The real issue here is whether the stance is smart. The chief goal of a public demonstration, after all, is to bring attention to a cause. Some protest organizers seemed to appreciate the dilemma at a camp meeting Tuesday, with one saying, “When we get raided (by the police), we’re going to look to the media to get our word out. … Let’s stay on the good side. … Don’t scream at them like a madman or mad woman.”