Perhaps the single most common media criticism of Occupy Wall Street—and mainstream media have found plenty to criticize—is that the movement's grievances and demands are unclear.
OWS is in its infancy. It is intentionally leaderless—despite the usual right-wing nonsense that George Soros is bankrolling it—and as a movement is focused on systemic problems, not a single issue. So it's not surprising that one would hear varied motives and ideas from movement participants about why they've become involved.
But for all the talk about OWS' lack of clarity, the movement is responding to a grievance felt across the political spectrum. In the midst of a grinding and persistent economic slump, with record long-term unemployment, 4 million homes in foreclosure and spreading economic misery, our political system has simply failed to respond to the needs of ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, the well-to-do continue to thrive in the slump's wake and large financial firms have enjoyed robust profits, leading to record pay and bonuses in 2010 for Wall Street banks and securities firms, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In fact, as former Congressman Alan Grayson recently argued, the core complaint of OWS was quite straightforward: "They're complaining that Wall Street wrecked the economy three years ago and nobody's held responsible for that. Not a single person's been indicted or convicted for destroying 20 percent of our national net worth ... They're upset about the fact that Wall Street has iron control over the economic policies of this country, and that one party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street, and the other party caters to them as well." More succinctly, one of the Senate's senior Democrats, Majority Whip Richard Durbin, said two years ago about that body, "Frankly, the banks own the place."
Of course, "the 99%"—as the movement has dubbed itself—is an imprecise figure and does not represent a monolithic group. But it draws a clear, bright line reflecting the mounting evidence that the political system responds disproportionately to the interests of a small sliver of American society. The 99% also reflects the fact that income and wealth gains of the past 30 years have overwhelmingly accrued to the top 1% of Americans. In sum, although OWS participants articulate a wide range of concerns, their core complaint is quite clear: The American political system is beset by a fundamental lack of fairness, manipulated to benefit a small elite while the vast majority experience increasing economic insecurity.
This relative big-picture clarity hasn't stopped much of the gatekeeper media from harping incessantly on the alleged incoherence of the movement. Their too-cool-for-school pose is consistent with a now-institutionalized aversion to focusing sustained attention on the most serious issues facing this country: inequality, corruption, abuse of power and the frequent capture of the policy-making process by the elite. Instead, gatekeeper media's preferred modus operandi consists of a steady drumbeat of frivolities dressed up as real news and a mocking disdain for anyone who wants to focus on root causes of deep-seated problems.
Efforts by some of those gatekeeper media to play "gotcha" with OWS supporters exemplify this MO. For example, CNN's Erin Burnett thought she was being oh-so-clever when, in a segment called "Seriously?" (seriously, that's what she calls it), she told one protester that government bailout money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) had been paid back, with interest. Burnett then suggested that the protester, who did not know this "fact," needed to rethink his participation in OWS. This, the self-satisfied Burnett suggested to CNN viewers, illustrated the lack of seriousness of the protesters in general.
Leaving aside for the moment the journalistic uselessness of her exercise, it's Burnett who has missed the boat on TARP. Consider the following: If a bank gives me a loan at several points below the market rate, I am being handed an enormous financial gift. If I pay back the loan at that well-below market rate, it will technically be true that I paid back the money with interest. But that misses the important point: I have still received an enormous gift. As Tony Soprano, and every bank, understands, the financial payoff was in the terms of the loan itself, terms unavailable to ordinary people or small businesses. It's precisely that kind of favoritism, exemplifying the gap between elites and everyone else, that has so many people so agitated.
By the way, TARP was only one of many instruments the government has used to bail out the major financial institutions. In fact, a report released this summer by the General Accounting Office listed more than $16 trillion (yes, trillion) in loans to financial institutions like Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs since the beginning of the financial crisis. Many of these operations were carried out on especially favorable terms. For example, favored financial institutions were able to borrow money at zero percent interest from the Federal Reserve and then turn around and buy Treasury bonds. The result: Taxpayer money was lent out at zero interest to the big banks, which, often using their junk assets as collateral, turned around and lent that money back to the United States Treasury with interest. Talk about found money.
This is all too boring and mundane for folks like Burnett. After all, for many talking heads, it's so much more fun to mock earnest protesters than to actually do their jobs. The real question the gatekeeper media should be asking themselves, though, is not whether the protesters understand why they're out on the streets. Instead, gatekeeper media should be asking themselves how they have come to believe that snide, ill-informed pettiness is so central to their job description.
Of course, the real issue isn't the Occupy movement's rhetoric or media savvy. The real issue is Wall Street's "occupation" of Washington, as journalist Zaid Jilani has said. Its massive campaign contributions, its army of lobbyists—the financial sector spent more than $3 billion on lobbying Congress between 1998 and 2007—and the revolving door whereby Wall Street higher-ups cycle through key government positions and back again (think Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson, for example) have largely bent the legislative, regulatory and enforcement arms of government to Wall Street's will. It's this story that the gatekeeper media—with notable exceptions, like Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times—have mostly failed to cover.
In fact, OWS's emergence might be viewed as a reaction to two major developments. First, the movement can be understood as a perhaps inevitable response to the consolidation of political power in the hands of an ever-narrower economic and financial elite and the corruption that has attended that consolidation. And second, OWS's growing appeal may be a reflection of the failure of mainstream journalism to do that which ought to be its first charge: Hold the powerful accountable, rather than serve as their sycophants.