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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Op-ed: In Occupy Pittsburgh coverage, I think I smell a rat

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 11:10 AM

As we settle in for the denouement in the Occupation of Mellon Green, this might be a good time to look at preview footage of the kind of media coverage we can expect. And probably the best place to go is KDKA-TV's Marty Griffin.

On Friday night, Griffin aired a report alleging that the Occupation site was frequently almost completely empty. Griffin backed up this claim with a series of visits to the camp, where he squealed at the site of a rat scampering across a path, and deployed a thermal imaging camera to demonstrate that there were no heat signatures coming from the tents still on the site. In a follow-up story, Griffin also reported that one high-visibility Occupier, who went by the name "Jimmy Blue Thunder," was in fact a convicted sex offender.

As if that wasn't enough, Griffin had this surprising disclosure: "[H]undreds of reinforcements may be called in from Washington, D.C. to repopulate the camp." Goodness me. Griffin quoted a worried Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: "If a large number of people all of a sudden show up, I think it really shows you what the Occupy folks are all about." And his report was prefaced by this assertion from anchor Susan Koeppen: "KDKA investigators have learned hundreds of Occupy reinforcements are expected here by Valentine's Day."

Well, maybe. But ... learned from whom? Expected by whom? Griffin never cites a source for this explosive allegation. And here's a good rule of thumb for media consumers: Beware passive-voice constructions like "we have learned" -- as opposed to "the police tell us." That kind of language is often a sign that the reporter doesn't have the goods.

I'm especially suspicious where Griffin is concerned, because he has a track record of issuing thinly-sourced allegations in which outside agitators are supposed to descend upon our fair city at any moment, seizing our streets and corrupting our daughters. As City Paper previously documented, Griffin was a leading voice in fomenting pre-G20 hysteria. More recently, he warned us that busloads of atheists were set to descend on Ellwood City, in a dispute about a nativity scene. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. In fact, just typing that out seems so comical that I can't believe that the story actually aired ... and I haven't even mentioned the part where rival motorcycle gangs were supposedly ready to rev their engines and drown out the atheists. Given that these stories feel like they originated in '60s biker flicks -- marauding outsiders prey on hapless townfolk -- I guess bike gangs had to play a role somehow.

After Griffin's story aired, I had a major fit of the snarks over on Twitter, major points of which have been developed more fully, and added to, over by Bram Reichbaum at The Pittsburgh Comet.

Reichbaum, like other Occupiers I've heard from, seems most upset by Griffin's claim that the camp is almost entirely empty at night. The Occupiers contend, for starters, that the use of heat-retaining Mylar to line tents and sleeping bags would prevent Griffin's camera from picking up heat traces inside. To me, that debate is about as interesting as the inevitable argument about crowd turnout after every protest march. Griffin may have missed some folks, but the Occupy site has long had more tents than people, as Occupiers acknowledged two months ago.

What interests me more is not the people who were there, but the busloads of protesters who aren't. I mean, time's running a little short for these folks from D.C. to arrive: Sheriff's deputies could show up at any minute to start removing the Occupiers who remain. (Which makes KDKA's report of a pending Valentine's Day massacre all the more puzzling: If the Occupation is likely to end this week, what's the point of having "reinforcements" show up the week after? You may as well send another legion of Normans to fight the Battle of Hastings.)

But as far as I can tell, Griffin didn't bother to ask the Occupiers themselves about this rumor -- and it wasn't for lack of opportunity. Griffin was on-hand for a press conference held at the Occupy site late last week. I watched him interview Jeff Cech, who has handled some media outreach for the movement: Griffin queried Cech about other aspects of his reporting-- the number of people staying in the camp, Jimmy Blue Thunder's whereabouts -- but nothing about any reinforcements.

Cech confirmed that Griffin did not ask him -- nor anyone else in the movement, as far as Cech could tell -- about the "reinforcements."

"As far as I know, it's completely false," Cech said. He says the first he heard of it was after Griffin's report came out: "People were joking about it. You couldn’t get 100 protesters on a bus from D.C. to come here if there was free beer at the other end."

Over the weekend, I sent Griffin an e-mail asking him about the source of the claim and why he hadn't cited it in his report. I also asked why he hadn't asked Occupiers to comment on it, and whether this story would pan out better than the Ellwood City report did.

Griffin and I had a brief e-mail exchange about scheduling a time to talk, but he has not otherwise responded.

There's a paradox at the heart of all this. On the one hand, Griffin and KDKA are portraying Occupy as a bunch of hapless clowns (there's no one in the camp except rats!). On the other hand, Occupy may yet sow chaos in the streets once their outside agitators arrive! The Occupiers are both harmless cranks who have no support ... and dangerous outlaws who may yet pose a threat to law and order.

But of course, that's exactly how every left-leaning political movement is treated in some circles. If those out-of-touch hippies aren't holding consciousness-raising sessions inside the "menstruation tent," then it can only be because they are on the verge of toppling Western civilization. We're supposed to regard them as both comical and menacing at the same time. It's actually a feather in KDKA's cap that they are able to fuse these two contradictory story lines in a single 4-minute report.

The Occupy movement, by its very nature, may be especially susceptible to such attacks. In a leaderless movement, every participant can be held up as representative -- and as the Jimmy Blue Thunder story suggests, that's not always a good thing.

In the end, though, what KDKA's reporting proves is that if you want to make a movement look bad, it's easy to do. If the movement itself doesn't provide you the ammo, just generate it yourself ... by trumpeting dubious, unsourced rumors.

The truth is that Occupy Pittsburgh has, so far, delivered very few of the visuals that TV news especially craves. We haven't seen mass arrests so far, and unless those DC anarchists show up soon, we're not going to. Whatever the criminal past of this or that Mellon Green camper, the camp site has been largely quiet, with a few isolated incidents over the course of nearly four months. And that's not entirely because many of the tents have been empty.

But now that the end is at hand, suddenly the cameras are interested. They were on the Green all last night, waiting for the police to show and the confrontation to begin. Cheated of that, this morning WPXI's Cara Sapida was reporting, a la Griffin, on rat sightings instead. But sooner or later, I'm sure, the sheriff's deputies will have to clear the site. And then, at last, there will be trash a-plenty for everyone to pick over.

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