Protests 'Occupy' Local Newscasts

For stations in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles—and Burlington (Vt.) and Cleveland and Phoenix, among many other markets— the Occupy Wall Street protests and their local offshoots are a near-perfect news story. There are colorful, if grungy, protesters, police, and occasional skirmishes between the two. There are freedom of speech and assembly issues, celebrity appearances, greater political implications and the classic David versus Goliath narrative.

“It’s something that’s emotional and visceral that a lot of people react to,” said Dick Brennan, veteran reporter at WNYW New York. “A lot of people react to defending the First Amendment, and others are saying, ‘Who are these kids to be there’?”

“There” is, of course, Zuccotti Park, a tiny concrete rectangle a few blocks north of Wall Street, where a shaggy camp of protesters wave signs for racial equality, antifracking, 9/11 “truth” and the death of capitalism, among other issues. The drum circle pounds out its ominous rhythms amidst the construction cacophony of the rebuilding World Trade Center around the corner. Scads of police rim the pocket park, eyeing the protesters carefully.

“There” is also Dewey Square in Boston, Cesar Chavez Memorial Plaza in Phoenix and dozens of other spots around the U.S. The Bay Area, in fact, has major protest sites in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, and smaller ones in the suburbs. “The Bay Area has a great history of protesting,” said Ed Chapuis, KTVU San Francisco news director. “There’s probably a protest a day, and some days a half-dozen. But this one is a little different.”

One key difference is that, while the protesters are frequently derided for an unfocused set of aims, the Occupy movements are extraordinarily media-savvy, including being well-versed in social media. There’s a press desk at Zuccotti Park, staffed by busy media veterans (one rep said he was dealing with his 10th reporter since taking over the desk 45 minutes before), and protesters print their own broadsheet, The Occupied Wall Street Journal. Little television is watched on-site, due to the lack of electricity; protesters consume the latest coverage from newspapers and laptops.

Reporters covering Occupy say protesters are, for the most part, articulate on whatever issues have driven them to camp out in the various cities, and mostly receptive to the media. “By and large, the demonstrators seem to welcome our presence here,” said one veteran New York reporter who asked not to be named. “More often than not, they say come inside, and we talk without restrictions.”

But news professionals say there are exceptions, who see the reporters as henchmen for the corporate giants they so disdain. According to tweets from local TV reporters, KTLA, KNBC and KTTV’s live trucks were marked with anarchy symbols by protesters at the Occupy Los Angeles site. (A KTLA rep disputed the vandalism report, which was tweeted by KTLA reporter Eric Spillman, but said a few photographers had been manhandled by protesters.)

Most at Zuccotti are well-behaved and approachable, said Brennan, but it’s a “mixed bag” nonetheless. “Some people are a little hostile—they see Fox and say, ‘Oh, Fox,’” he said. “Some harass you—who are you, what do you want?” (In an unrelated matter, Brennan was struck by a police officer’s baton, and his photographer pepper-sprayed, during a protester march Oct. 5, which he attributes to “wrong place, wrong time.”)

With Fox News Channel a symbol of the right to many, some far left protesters unfairly direct their ire toward Fox affiliate reporters. Fox does not appear in KTVU’s branding, but the station nonetheless has had multiple run-ins with protesters ranging from the merely irritating blocking of camera shots with hands and signs to the more serious case of a KTVU reporter bitten by a protester’s pit bull—which Chapuis downplayed in hopes of keeping KTVU out of the story.

It’s hard to say how much of the harassment has to do with KTVU (which is owned by Cox) being affiliated with Fox. Chapuis suggests a connection. “People forget we’re not owned by Fox,” he said. “It’s hard to stop them in the middle and say, we’re not owned by Rupert Murdoch.”

Fox sent a security guard out to protect WFLD reporters in Chicago when the crowd there grew hostile, which Sharri Berg, senior VP of news operations and services for the Fox owned stations, chalks up to the group’s strong point of view. “The more attention our story subjects give us, the better,” she said. “We look at it as a positive.”

In several markets, such as Austin, Atlanta and Madison (Wis.), the protests turned out to be more sizzle than staying power, bumping the story from the stations’ newscasts. “It really hasn’t been that big a deal,” said Frank Volpicella, KVUE Austin news director.

But in other cities, the scruffy reinforcements continue to flock in, and the Occupy movement will remain newsworthy for the foreseeable future. “What happens when the weather gets cold? Is it part of a bigger political movement? Do the Democrats embrace it, or run from it?” wondered Brennan. “Where do we go from here?”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.