Protesters feed media while remaining cautious

By David Bauder

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Oct. 18, 2011 photo, Occupy Wall Street protestors work on their computers at the media area in Zuccotti Park in New York. The protestors have sectioned off areas of their camp to provide information, services, food, and media resources for both demonstrators and curious pedestrians alike.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

NEW YORK — The Wall Street protest against economic inequality has a chaotic and complicated relationship with media that has helped spread its message across the world from a small Manhattan park.

Like the demonstrations themselves, Occupy Wall Street's media operation has no clear leader or simple message. Some of its volunteers work to help reporters whose cameras and microphones dot Zuccotti Park, even as many protesters express an aversion toward the press.

A red-flowered umbrella and flimsy blue tarp hanging over two tables marked the centerpiece for the media operation, amid sleeping bags and circulating crowds.

"It's triage," Bill Dobbs, a veteran liberal activist who is one of about two dozen volunteers who take shifts at the press area, said Wednesday. There is no central phone number and Dobbs' cell phone voice mail tends to be full.

The media volunteers have counted at least 500 outlets that have sent reporters to the park, including a New Zealand newspaper, a college newspaper from Texas and a documentary filmmaker from Australia. Trucks from television networks were parked on Wednesday along a narrow street next to the park, their transmitters reaching for the sky.

If asked, the volunteers work as "fixers" for reporters who want to interview specific types of people — for example, a student overloaded with college loan debts or a middle-age person out of work, said Jeff Smith, a volunteer who works in advertising.

Last weekend the group held "media training" sessions for protesters, not necessarily to push a certain message but to give tips in dealing with combative reporters, said Beth Bogart, a documentary filmmaker and volunteer.

The media volunteers try to meet daily to discuss what is going on. No one has really taken the lead role, and Dobbs said that's intentional. "We try to avoid accumulating power in that way," he said.

A dry-erase board near the media center advertised the day's schedule of events: "coordinating meeting"; "direct action group meeting"; "burlesque." Nearby, a knot of reporters and demonstrators stood in a circle around one of the day's celebrity visitors: the Rev. Jesse Jackson. His visit wasn't advertised. Others who have dropped by to support the protesters include Susan Sarandon, Kanye West, Mark Ruffalo, Penn Badgley, Tim Robbins and Michael Moore.

Julianne Pepitone, a reporter for CNNMoney.com who has been covering the protest since it started, said that in the early days media volunteers would often approach her in the park and ask if she needed any help. It struck her as a well-oiled machine.

Still, it can get frustrating covering a leaderless movement. "When you speak to these people, they are very careful to say that 'I don't speak for the whole revolution. No one does,'" she said.

Rich Stockwell, executive producer of MSNBC's Ed Schultz show, said a media volunteer similarly offered help when Schultz prepared to do a broadcast at the scene. Stockwell sent an email asking for help and got a message saying, "We are receiving 500 emails an hour. I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

"I still haven't heard from him," he said.

What complicates the coverage is the ambivalence — even antipathy — that some of the demonstrators have toward traditional media outlets. Pepitone noted comments complaining that CNN wasn't covering Occupy Wall Street affixed to articles she had written about the protest.

Particular anger is reserved for Fox News Channel. When he appeared at the demonstration, Fox's Geraldo Rivera was surrounded by a group of people beating on drums and chanting, "Fox News lies!" Another video was posted on YouTube showing Rivera retreating after someone threw powder at him.

"You have a point," Rivera told them. "You have momentum. Don't let the jerks steal your movement."

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