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OWS: Same Old Same Old, So Far

Despite its month-long conspicuous presence at the center of America’s financial hub, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has been having trouble attracting attention. In its early weeks, supporters had complained that the movement was being deliberately ignored by the media, and although media coverage has since grown, many boosters still feel that it has still received short shrift. Yet the problem may not be with the media: a new Pew poll on the movement reveals the true problem — Americans just don’t care. From the Washington Post:

Just 17 percent said they were following the protests “very closely”. Independents — at 19 percent — were keeping the closest eye on the “Occupy” efforts while just 12 percent of Republicans did the same. Only 17 percent of self-identified Democrats said they had were watching the protests closely, a somewhat surprising number given the party’s recent embrace of the motives and goals of the “OWS” crowd. (Worth noting: 51 percent of self-identified Democrats viewed the “Occupy” protest favorably in an Ipsos-Reuters survey.)

By way of comparison, 24 percent of people in the Pew poll said they followed the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs very closely while 20 percent said the same about the “current situation in Afghanistan”. (The 10-year anniversary of the U.S. commitment in the country came during the time the poll was in the field.)

The numbers on “Occupy Wall Street” compare unfavorably to the amount of interest in the tea party movement at a similar time in its birth.

This is bad news for the protestors, but it’s not particularly surprising. At first glance, OWS and the Tea Party seem to share many similarities: both are loud populist movements precipitated by the recession, and both share an intense anger at established politicians and Wall Street for leading us into this mess, albeit with some differences on the diagnosis.

Yet in many other ways, these movements could not be more different. The Tea Party movement had its share of professional malcontents but on the whole it was a movement of people and kinds of people who had never joined protests before: Rotarians and soccer moms don’t usually demonstrate.

Occupy Wall Street, by contrast, looks more like the usual suspects, the kind of people who have been demonstrating for various causes for the last fifty years.  Change the signs and to many people these demonstrations could be anti-Iraq war and anti-Bush demonstrations, or any of the other leftie causes going back many years.

From a news point of view this is dog bites man: the usual people are doing the usual things.  They are doing it in an unusual place — and over time they may be doing it in unusual numbers.  But leftie protests that go nowhere are part of the background noise of modern American life.  Drums and granola in the park is not news.  Until OWS breaks that mold, expect public interest to remain tepid.

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  • Dave

    I think you are underestimating the Occupy movement. I predict this movement will catch the establishment off guard within the next 12 months.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Dave: I’m only writing about what exists so far; we’ll see what the future brings.

  • Jordan

    Occupy Wall Street. Weren’t some of these same people protesting against occupation not too long ago? So confusing…

  • Jordan

    And might I further add that “Wall Street” isn’t what it used to be. Rather than floors filled with traders, Wall Street is now a bunch of nondescript data centers in New Jersey. Which is metaphorical for their true plight, which they likely don’t realize.

  • Luke Lea

    Ooh Wee! Look at these charts!

    You can almost start to see why. Which side are you going to be on Mr. Mead? (Or can I call you Walter?) Be nimble.

  • Kris

    Jordan@2: Stop the Occupation! Free, Free Wall Street!

  • mcthorogood

    So alike, yet so different. Check out this Venn Diagram.

  • Toni

    If 100 anti-government lefties stage a protest, the media cover them respectfully. (Remember Cindy Sheehan in Crawford?) If 100 anti-government conservatives stage a protest, the media can’t be bothered. If 1,000 anti-government conservatives protest, the media cover them with extreme suspicion, and their suspicion grows in proportion to the protesters’ numbers.

    If 1,000 white conservatives demonstrate against Obama’s government, they’re accused of racism. If 1,000 white lefties demonstrate against Obama’s government, race is not an issue.

  • Kenny

    Mr. Mead, here are some harsh comments about Bard’s implicit role in Occupy Wall Street.

    Are the Bard kiddies getting extra credit for their time there, I wonder?

  • Sam L.

    Are the OWS folks fools or tools? I say both.

  • WigWag

    That was a very interesting article you linked to, Kenny, even if it was somewhat hysterical.

    It does raise an interesting question that goes well beyond the role that Bard students are or are not playing in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    The article references a large ($60 million) gift given to Bard by entities related to George Soros for the purpose of supporting the “Bard College Center for Civic Engagement.”

    It seems to me that given his busy travel schedule and the fact that Professor Mead frequently blogs about regions he’s visited, Professor Mead should divulge whether his travel is being underwritten by the “Center for Civic Engagement.” For that matter, if he is going to write on his blog about a place that he has visited, he should tell his loyal readers about any other organization that underwrites his travel.

    A few weeks back, the Professor visited the Middle East and now he is heading to China. All of the loyal readers of his blog will certainly end up benefiting from the insights he gleans on these trips. But it also seems to me that it is up to his readers to determine whether or not what he writes might have been influenced consciously or unconsciously be the person or organization that paid for his trip.

    Some months ago, Professor Mead offered some criticism of famous “intellectuals,” several of whom are associated with Harvard, who traveled to Libya and came back and wrote relatively innocuous posts about what they found while they were in there.

    The problem was that these commentators had neglected to announce to their readers that Libya had paid for their travel.

    In my opinion, if Professor Mead is going to write on his blog about the places he has visited (as I hope he will) the smart thing to do is disclose who has paid for his travel whether it is George Soros or anyone else.

  • Luke Lea

    @WigWag – “Mead frequently blogs about regions he’s visited, Professor Mead should divulge whether his travel is being underwritten by the “Center for Civic Engagement.”

    I really don’t see why that has any relevance. In the first place Soros is doing some good work nowadays, stuff WigWag should be sympathetic with unless I have him wrong. Getting INET up and running for instance. And secondly, WRM seems far from being in the pocket of Soros, or anybody else for that matter. He’s his own man it seems pretty clear. That’s why I like him (that, and it’s so much fun to disagree with him! 🙂 ) So keep it up Walt.

  • WigWag

    It’s not about Soros in particular, Luke, it’s about the ethics of “new” media. Whatever its successes or failures, when all we had was the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek and the CBS Evening News, we could always count on the fact that the journalists reporting the stories had their travel paid for by their employer, not an outside organization with an ax to grind.

    In today’s world, it’s different. I don’t doubt Professor Mead’s strong sense of honesty. I am sure, that like most pundits he is certain that nothing he writes will ever be influenced by anyone who underwrites his travel. I am also sure that when Steve Walt, Steve Clemons, Bernard Lewis, Richard Perle and Joe Nye were writing about Libya, they didn’t believe that their comments were affected by the fact that the Libyan Government (or organizations connected to it) subsidized them.

    I don’t think it’s up to the commentator in question to decide for themselves what weight to attach to the fact that their trip has been underwritten; I think that the reader is entitled to determine for his or herself how important a factor this is. If the writer of an article or a blog post refuses to divulge who has paid for a trip where they obtain information that they ultimately write about, the reader can’t make this judgment.

    My point, Luke, is that it’s not about Professor Mead or George Soros or any particular pundit or benefactor; it’s about the ethics of new media.

    We do want the ethics of new media to be at least as rigorous as the ethics of old media; don’t we?

  • Luke Lea

    re: Occupy Wall Street

    This is informative:

    Will post this link again when you return to the phenomenon.

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