You can’t expect much from local news, with anchors hired primarily for their hair and content intended to titillate mouth-breathers. But on Tuesday night, Tampa’s WTSP 10 mixed up the usual local palette of heroic three-legged dogs and unfilled potholes with coverage of the most important political event of the last year – the Occupy movement. Predictably, understanding the significance of Occupy and presenting it to its viewers in a coherent, balanced manner proved too much for their pretty little heads.
The story that aired last night was focused on Occupy Tampa, and it made no bones about being a "gotcha" attack. The tagline - "Are Occupy Protestor's Hypocrites?" - invites only one answer, and the setup during the show was no more subtle. “They say they want change, but do they practice what they preach? A look into some of the protestor’s own voting records, and some startling results.” The meat of the story is that the station had pulled the voting records of the 22 participants who have been arrested since the beginning of the Tampa Occupation about six weeks ago. Their findings were that of the 22, 64% were registered to vote, about 33% voted in the last presidential election, just under 25% voted in the primary, 15% voted in the 2010 midterm, and less than 10% voted in recent municipal elections.
Leaving aside the issues with sampling, these are objectively not good numbers. As the smug, spray-tanned, pudgy male anchor framed it, “many [Occupiers] may be a bit hypocritical.” But, blinded either by its overt hostility to Occupy (whose motivations we'll get to in a second) or by a more basic inability to see further than the tip of their nose, WTSP’s team failed to put them into any kind of context.
How much differently might their viewers have taken the depiction of Occupy as a bunch of insincere louts if they’d been reminded that overall national turnout in the last presidential election was about 68%, and for the 2010 midterms was about 38%? Suddenly we’re looking, not at a few disenfranchised arrestees, but at an entire nation so disillusioned that two-thirds don’t participate in the political process at one of the most crucial moments in its history. But this contextual information was, of course, omitted from the report.
Even more fundamentally disturbing was the way the story framed voting as the only legitimate way to participate in a democracy. There was some screen time given to the Occupiers' contention that, in a democracy bought and paid for before the election even starts, voting will never succeed in overturning government by the rich, for the rich (just ask poor John Huntsman). But reporter Noah Pransky dismissed - or rather, ignored - all these claims by pointing out that “there is a mechanism available to the people who are unhappy with politicians – the ballot box.” The entire story was set up to reinforce the idea that voting is the single necessary and sufficient component of participation in politics. I’m sure this indulges the lazy schadenfreude of WTSP’s self-satisfied middle-class audience, but it’s an insult to anyone who paid attention during high school U.S. History. WTSP is happy to help its viewers forget that every significant change in American political culture, from women's voting rights to the 8-hour day to civil rights, required action in the streets.
And no wonder. I’m sure all the good-looking white people on screen for WTSP’s broadcast are perfectly happy with the status quo (Seriously, check their staff bios page – it's like looking at a sleeve full of Saltines). They’re comfortably sponsored by the Suntrust Bank, the retail banking subsidiary of SunTrust Banks, Inc., a bank holding company. Thanks to the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act – also known as Gramm-Leach-Bliley (GLB) – bank holding companies like Suntrust have spent the last decade aggressively expanding their portfolios. Before GLB, retail banks provided vital local services in things like home and small business loans, which they carefully vetted. After GLB, they became speculative casinos, packaging home loans into arcane products called Collaterallized Debt Obligations that obscured the underlying value of the loans and encouraged risky lending practices. This is the sort of behavior that caused the financial crisis, and that the Occupy movement is trying to stop by working for the rollback of GLB and the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall act.
So, it’s no wonder that WTSP, as a bought and paid for propaganda outlet for the financial sector, wants to delegitimize a threat as scary as Occupy. Despite falling profits, Suntrust CEO James Wells received a 33% pay raise in 2010, pushing his total compensation up to $10.3 million. The reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, which would force companies like SunTrust to return to the sober, responsible, slow-growth world of retail banking, would be a huge blow to what I’m sure is Wells’ very comfortable lifestyle.
But this is just par for the course. WTSP is one of many media outlets with an only passing interest in the truth, or in what’s best for America. In a way, they’re geniuses – to perform the semblance of ‘news’ so beautifully without actually providing any insight into the current configuration requires a level of insititutional and individual self-delusion that most humans would find demeaning and soul-crushing. Take, as the most obvious example, the story that immediately preceded the report on Occupy Tampa – the news that Tampa home prices have now declined almost fifty percent since the peak of the housing market only four years ago, with the average home price down from to $204,829 in 2007 to $105,048 now. This deflation (or, rather, the bubble preceding it) were of course caused by the regulatory irresponsibility and corporate greed of banks including SunTrust - but WTSP’s report failed to even attempt a superficial explanation of the systemic problems that have cost Tampa residents millions of dollars in equity, even as their lenders continue enjoying buying yachts and other luxury goods at record rates.
This organization is part of the fourth estate – journalism – so called because it is expected to operate outside the three branches of government while also providing the information vital to keeping a democracy functioning well. Journalists are supposedly tasked with informing their audience about the world, helping them make good decisions at the ballot box. Is it any wonder that American voters are disillusioned, when the very outlets that are supposed to help them understand their world are clearly under the influence of organizations profiting from their ignorance? For an organization like WTSP to accuse political activists of hypocrisy for not participating in the machine that they themselves are helping to rig is an absolute obscenity. I’m not sure how any of these people live with themselves, but I hope the decidedly 99% salary Noah Pransky is taking home makes it worth being part of an institution that is actively harming its viewers.
|Just another cog in the machine.|