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Popping the Media Bubble

john.halle's picture

An essay in support of this letter protesting the NYT's smears of OWS.
Popping the Media Bubble

Fred Hampton, Occupy and Us: Media Silence and Media Complicity Then and Now

In the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, the FBI and the Chicago Police Department stormed Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton's apartment, spraying Hampton's bedroom with machine gun fire, concluding their visit with a bullet to his head to ensure that he was "good and dead now."

My purpose in relating this history is to remind those of us in Occupy Wall Street who are now encountering serious police violence that we are by no means the first. Many in OWS are young and unlikely to be familiar with Fred Hampton, or Allison Krause, George Jackson, or James Rector, names (and graves) which are tangible reminders of the war against dissent. These serve to remind us that police violence could get a lot worse and that it probably will as the movement becomes increasingly organized and effective.

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The execution of Fred Hampton is worth mentioning for another reason: we might have thought that an extrajudicial execution on U.S. soil would be at least noticed and presumably met with some degree of disapproval from the liberal press of its day. But most media outlets unproblematically accepted the Chicago Police Department version of events that the raid was legally conducted and that the use of force was justified.

It was not until the mid seventies that the grisly facts would become known. Even then, few on the liberal left were interested, being more concerned with the Nixon administration's involvement in the Watergate scandal than in what were by then regarded as excesses of the sixties. Noam Chomsky would be among the few to bring the matter to the public's attention in articles which were publishable only in relative obscure outlets-the print equivalent of low traffic left blogs. These were, according to him, "greeted with the usual silence and hysteria" from the liberal agenda setting media of the day.

The lesson we should draw from this is to take as par for the course the media's response to OWS. For, as should be apparent, its basic outline constitutes a minor recapitulation of the "silence and hysteria" Prof. Chomsky noted back then. Silence is evident in the almost complete absence of news coverage of OWS sponsored Mayday rally, which brought over 30,000 to the streets for the first domestic celebration of International Workers' Day in many decades. A more sinister media silence has been the failure to report numerous, well documented instances of seemingly unprovoked police violence directed at peaceful OWS demonstrators with increasingly serious injuries hospitalizations now becoming the routine price which demonstrators are expected to pay for exercising their supposed constitutionally protected rights. As for hysteria, that is the category into which should be consigned the numerous smears of OWS widely circulated by the establishment media, one instance of which i'll return to below.

The conclusion to draw from both from the Hampton execution and our experience now is that despite the awareness of many outstanding, honest and decent journalists working within it, we are required to the media as an institution with great skepticism at best and as a simple enemy at worst.

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That doesn't mean, however, that we should ignore it as some have suggested, resigning ourselves to developing and ultimately relying entirely on our own internal resources for the dissemination of information relevant to us. Rather, while we are building our own communication networks, we should be actively looking for ways to undermine the establishment media's credibility and authority taking advantage of whatever opportunities which present themselves for us to do so.

As most reading this know, the smear referred to above occurred last week when the New York Times ran on its front page a story claiming the existence of a DNA link connecting OWS to the 1994 murder of a Julliard student. This was likely concocted by the NYPD, dutifully circulated by the Times and then retracted by them the next day. While the Times' reporting as fact a brazen and transparent lie might make us angry and defensive, we should cool down long enough to recognize it as an opportunity to go on the offense.

The way to do that is to pressure the Times to issue an apology, the objective of the letter here. While this might seem a modest objective, it is more ambitious than appears at first sight. That's because the Times, as do all elite institutions hates to apologize doing so only very rarely and grudgingly. Their resistance is based on their recognizing that they must be perceived by their readers as above reproach for them to maintain their journalistic authority and for this to be convertible into into major political influence. Each apology demonstrates, in one instance, they are little better than the vulgar propagandists which they routinely deride, the 21st Century domestic variant of Soviet organs Pravda or Isvestia. Once this perception is becomes widespread and their bias is seen as systemic their effectiveness in their institutional function is seriously degraded.

Insofar as the potential for a complete collapse of their credibility exists, they will need to think seriously when the NYPD (or for that matter, the State or Defense Department) requests their service in circulating lies and/or smears which have the potential, if and when they are exposed, of subjecting them to shame and ridicule.

Recent years have shown that they have little compunction about obliging these requests. We need to show them that there are consequences for doing so. The letter is a small but potentially signficant step in beginning to impose on them the appropriate cost.

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okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

Except it isn't, because cops (for the most part, like peaceful protesters) are also just everyday shmoes who are part of the 99% and it's us plus them against the oligarchs that are bleeding us all dry, with the violent fringe on both sides doing their best to confuse things.

When we all figure out that Blac Block and rioting, casually pepper-spraying cops are the twin sides of the same bad coin, representative of nothing, standing for nothing except the violent status quo, the better off we all will be.

Submitted by lambert on

First, Halle is quite right and Izvestia is teh suxx0r. I didn't link to the story when it came out, even though it was Occupy-related, because it stank of disinformation, and lo and behold! That's just what it was. My own take is that the Times that is the real enemy here (far more than the police, in fact).

Second, I agree that the average cop is a poor schub and there but for the grace of the FSM (see the Stanford Prison Experiment) go I. We might also remember the distinction between blue shirts and white shirts. I also agree that violence advocates reinforce and abet each other.

Policing is, I think, a system that produces bad apples as a matter of course, though (like being a prison guard in a town with no other work). Somehow, I don't think the cops who shot Fred Hampton were average working stiffs, and I also doubt they were better for the experience afterwards. Do we know what happened to them?

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

if we push hard enough we might just get an apology. And even if we don't, they at least know that we are watching. It reminds me of writing letters to dictators requesting the release of dissidents. Every now and then it works.

john.halle's picture
Submitted by john.halle on

That's exactly it in a concise couple of sentences. Perhaps you'll consider signing the letter.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

and encourage others to do likewise

Submitted by lambert on

Good effort. I like the dictator analogy....

Submitted by lambert on

Good effort. I like the dictator analogy....

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

At worst, what the Times did was poorly source a story, and or not sufficiently caveat it. But guess what? If a source even falsely said that there was a DNA link, that in itself is "news". For instance, why was a DNA sample taken there in the first place? That is news. Why didn't the lab figure out that the DNA was actually from a lab employee? That is news. Who was pimping this to the press and why? That is now news.

I don't need an "apology" from the NYT for this one, I need them to follow the story and expose what is going on, and who is doing it and who made them look like fools.

Comparing this pretty much non-event (it was debunked not 24 hours later!) to a police-sanctioned murder and years long coverup is Godwin's Law territory.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

to be false. First you make sure that an accusation is true, then you go public with it. You don't just float a theory because law enforcement told you to. There are just way to many incidents of law enforcement trying cases in public precisely because they had nothing that would stick in a court of law. This was obviously an effort to smear OWS and the NYT, to its ever lasting disgrace went along with it.

From the Atlanta Olympics bombing, to Whitewater, to the libel of Wan Ho Lee, to false allegations of Iraq and WMD, the NYT has been the willing accomplice to many smear jobs with tragic consequences. They definitly owe OWS and readers an apology for the latest.

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

That flies in the face of decades and decades of standard journalistic practice. What? Are we supposed to now be completely kept in the dark about all police activities unless they can be independently "proven"? Targets of police investigation aren't allowed to know? Or they are allowed to know, but nobody else is? So we weren't supposed to know about Watergate because nobody was charged and it might have unfairly tarred Nixon's reputation? We are supposed to be kept in the dark about things until people are tried and convicted? That is exactly the logical extension. Please think about this without the OWS blinders on.

Now that I read the story, I'm even less impressed by the argument that this was a New York Times smear job. Whoever chained open the subway door, like it or not, committed a crime, and the police were justified to gather evidence at the crime scene. The fact that several investigators told them (actually they told NBC first, which "scooped" the Times) DNA gathered there matched that found on a CD player at a murder scene IS NEWS in itself. Even at the time, they didn't say it necessarily belonged to the murderer. Even the authorities allowed that. The fact that authorities were incompetent and the DNA belonged to a lab tech is even BIGGER news.