Stenography Journalism, Oakland Edition

by zunguzungu

I want to start with this CNN article:

(CNN) — Occupy activists tossed pipes, bottles, burning flares and other objects Saturday at Oakland police, who responded by using tear gas and smoke grenades and arresting more than 100 demonstrators, city and police officials said.

Now, I have no difficulty believing that at least a few protesters threw things at the police, though we should also be extremely skeptical; they always say that, and it’s at least usually not true (or at least wildly exaggerated). But while I had an obstructed view of those events – and I know what I did and didn’t see – it’s very easy for you, when you read a news article like CNN’s, to not see the most important clause in the article, the last one, “city and officials said.” This indicates for you (or should) that CNN is essentially doing to OPD’s press release the same thing that desperate college students sometimes do with wikipedia articles: copy and paste, and then change just enough words so that it isn’t plagiarism. CNN was not there yesterday, so they only saw what the Oakland Police Department told them to see. OPD wrote this:

Officers were pelted with bottles, metal pipe, rocks, spray cans, improvised explosive devices and burning flares.

And then CNN wrote down a garbled version of it. Similarly, they took this paragraph from the OPD press release:

By 12 pm, a crowd of approximately 250 had gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza for the Occupy rally. Just before 1:30 pm, the group started marching southbound on Broadway. As the group of approximately 450 marched, traffic disruptions occurred on downtown streets.

And (slightly) re-wrote it as:

The tension began Saturday around noon when about 250 activists gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza. They were joined later by another 200 people as they marched around the city.

They turned “12 pm” into “around noon” and they copied down OPD’s crowd estimates exactly (ABC7 guessed 2,000; I would have guessed about a thousand), and slightly altered the wording to cover their trail. After that, to their credit, they found the time to copy and paste text from the Occupy Oakland twitter feed and web site. And then they called it a day and went home, apparently; while real journalists were still being arrested while doing their jobs (Susie Cagle and Gavin Aronsen were both arrested, despite having press passes, then later “unarrested”), the good people at CNN were finished putting the imprimateur of “objective” journalism on OPD’s press release, and laughed all the way to the bank.

Pretty much exactly the same thing happened with the New York Times article, which has exactly the same architecture: liberal excerpts/paraphrasing from OPD press release, followed by copied text from activist social media. Even the Oakland Tribune managed to not only paraphrase the OPD press release  – and they’re a terrible newspaper, but still, they’re right there – but also to get the time of the weekly march wrong:

In what has become a weekly march, about 250 protesters gathered around noon at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza for a rally. At 1:30 p.m., the group began marching with a crowd of about 450 protesters. Forty-five minutes later, some of the marchers entered the campus of Laney College, city officials said. That was when police first fired tear gas, a witness said. At 2:50 p.m., marchers began tearing down perimeter fences around the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, city officials said. Police declared an unlawful assembly and fired more tear gas. Witnesses said police fired rubber bullets after protesters began hurling items at them.

That error (the weekly marches happen at night) is so pointless, and yet also such a rookie mistake that it gives the game away. To make that mistake, you have to know almost nothing about what’s going on in Oakland. And the repetition of the same numbers and times should start to feel like what it is, an activity utterly empty of anything like professional journalism. The fact that all of these “journalists” repeat the same ridiculous crowd number, march times, etc isn’t just an indication of their tendency to downplay activist mobilization; its an index of their basic and fundamental worthlessness as news sources. They’re just copying and pasting. Or take the line “some of the marchers entered the campus of Laney College,” another phrase lifted directly from the OPD press release: almost all of the marchers got to the Kaiser center by marching through Laney. It’s not important, but there’s no “some” about it; virtually all of us got to the Kaiser center by marching through Laney and anyone who was there would know this. It isn’t just that there are errors, or that these errors are small and pointless; it’s that the level of non-knowledge required to produce these texts is huge: these articles are what they are as a function of the total distance and disconnect from what actually happened and a total dependence on being told what happened by the Police press officer (and an inability to do anything more than write that down, and slightly change the word order to cover their tracks).

This is a small post; I will write more later. For now, this: I don’t know everything that happened yesterday; I know what I saw and what I didn’t see. But if you only read the NY Times, CNN, and the Oakland Tribune, you won’t even have the benefit of knowing what they don’t know. Which is a whole hell of a lot.