The first major Occupy protest took place when Occupy Wall Street occupied New York City's Zuccotti Park in September 2011. It soon spread across the US and around the world. Its message "we are the 99 %" highlighted how 1 percent of the population held most of the wealth and power:
"Occupy has revealed the profoundly undemocratic nature of a democratic consensus expressed by corporate-sponsored political representatives, demanding direct popular involvement in areas of social and political life normally dominated by ruling class power. "
Despite this the mainstream media consistently accused the movement of having no clear message, goals or agenda. "But while the pundits profess to being confused by what the activists are trying to say, polls show that more than half of Americans support the movement's aims."
A study by Margaret Cissel of the media framing of the Occupy movement during the first three weeks of demonstrations "found that the portrayal of the movement differed greatly depending on the source. While mass media articles framed the movement as lackluster, dismissive and confusing, alternative news emphasized the strength and diversity of its protesters and demonstrations".
For example the New York Times was trivialised the demonstrations as a "festival of frustrations, a collective venting session with little edge or urgency" and the movement as "a 'leaderless resistance movement' of a couple hundred people (depending on whom you ask)" who "have camped out and sat-in at a tiny park in Lower Manhattan to protest greed and corruption, among other things." The "protesters would first be meeting at Bowling Green Park for a program that included yoga, a pillow fight and face painting".
Cissel also notes that the mainstream media tended to focus on any conflict and arrests: "By focusing on this conflict, the journalist steers the reader's attention away from the actual reasons for the protests in the first place and places more emphasis on the violence."
In some cases it suited the media to exaggerate the dangers posed by Occupy protesters such as the false report by a Fox News affiliate in New York that "protesters planned to 'shut down' the subways". In other cases the numbers of protesters were dramatically underestimated as when "CBS Evening News reported that hundreds had turned out for an afternoon rally when in fact many thousands had".
Jackie Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, says Foreign Affairs portrayal of Occupy protests "reinforces the
mainstream media representation of most left-wing political protests as disorganized, violence-prone mobs". She claims this instills "fear and suspicion in public discourse" and discourages broader participation.
The more right wing commentators took to demonising the protesters: "Fox hosts and guests have described the protesters as a 'group of nuts and lunatics and fascists' (Karl Rove), 'demonic loons' (Ann Coulter) and 'a bunch of wusses' (Greg Gutfeld)."
News Corporation's New York Post claimed "The Occupy Wall Street protest has drawn an unwelcome crowd of freeloaders who joined the movement for the sex, drugs and free food — and they are blending right in."
Old-fashioned hippie-bashing, including an almost obsessive level of reporting on hygiene, sanitation and hairstyles in the park, has been a tactic used by almost everyone from the Post to The Daily Show. Media onlookers, apparently, still find clothing and countercultural signifiers worthy of mention, decades after the derisively intended terms, hippie and beatnik, were coined by media entities of those eras.
Journalists taking part in the movement risked their jobs. At least two lost jobs for publicly siding with the movement: "The public radio host Lisa Simeone was dismissed by one of her employers, Soundprint, after she was reported to be a leader of an Occupy camp in Washington, and a freelance journalist, Caitlin Curran, was fired by "The Takeaway" radio show after she was photographed holding her boyfriend's sign at a protest."
Donald Gutstein has noted similar reporting tendencies in Canada. In several newspapers Occupy was portrayed as "little more than a rag-tag bunch of ne'er-do-wells with vague—but nevertheless invalid— goals who need to get a job". One writer in the Financial Post described "Starbucks-sipping, Levi's-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters... saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees [who] have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching".
The Occupy movement declined in numbers over the winter but resurfaced in the Spring of 2012. According to a Truthout article:
The powerful rejuvenation of the Occupy movement, however, was used by the US media - owned by the very same interests that Occupy directly threatens - as an opportunity to finally kill the Occupy movement and marginalize the voices of its participants. Since September, the mainstream press in the US has systematically ignored and demonized the Occupy movement. The nakedness of the class bias in this case, however, was especially jarring: the size and significance of the protests were downplayed, reports of police brutality were largely ignored, and the movement was portrayed as violent and dangerous. Many of the most prominent US news outlets, such as The New York Times, practically ignored the protests altogether.
Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher claimed that although tens of thousands of people marched on May Day, the New York Times confined its reporting of the protest to a 400 word article in its Metro section focussing on "snarled traffic and smashed windows". Similarly the Washington Post had one story in the local section of the paper including "reports of violent clashes on the West Coast." CNN.com reported the nationwide marches as evidence that the movement was fizzling out: "Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy messages and vague goals, is not going to leave a major mark."
The Tea Party, a movement which serves rather than threatens corporate interests, has receiv ed front-page coverage in virtually all of the nation's national newspapers for events that were smaller and less significant than this week's May Day protests.