media and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

01 Dec '11

How Canada’s corporate media framed the Occupy movement

The Occupy movement occupied two parallel, rarely intersecting universes in the corporate media. In one, described frequently in the Toronto Star, occasionally in the Vancouver Sun and Globe and Mail and only once in the National Post, Occupy is a worldwide movement created in response to the growing gap between the one percent at the top of the income-and-asset pyramid and the 99 percent below.

In the Occupy universe largely described by the other papers, Occupy is little more than a rag-tag bunch of ne’er-do-wells with vague—but nevertheless invalid—goals who need to get a job. Such a characterization may not be surprising given that almost all newspapers are owned by card-carrying members of the one percent.

A review of opinion pieces and editorials in these newspapers over five weeks suggests that if any journalist should receive an award for the most sympathetic and accurate coverage of the Occupy movement, it’s Pete McMartin of the Vancouver Sun, who persisted in focusing on growing income inequality, the real threat to democracy. He could be joined on the podium by the Toronto Star’s Joe Fiorito and many of Fiorito’s colleagues.

As for the most negative and hostile coverage, first place undoubtedly goes to the National Post thought collective, with Gary Mason and Margaret Wente at the Globe, and the Sun’s Craig McInnes following behind.

The study did not look at alternative media. Through first-hand account by participants, reports by on-the-scene observers such as David Ball (now a staff reporter for the Vancouver Observer) and others, and numerous blog postings and YouTube videos, readers and viewers of alternative media—rabble.ca, Vancouver Observer, Georgia Straight, The Tyee—received a more accurate and nuanced picture of the movement, the social and economic ills that led to its birth, and its aims and challenges.

Both the Globe and National Post—Canada’s national dailies—had little patience for Occupy. The Post seemed to operate on the principle that what you believe about an issue is more important than the facts in the matter. To prepare its readers for the Canadian Occupy movement, the Post offered five negative opinion pieces about Occupy Wall Street over the days around October 15.

Financial Post editor and resident libertarian Terence Corcoran advised readers that the entire Occupy initiative was started by the “anarcho-crazy” Vancouver magazine Adbusters, whose “global objective is to bring down the political system, bring down the corporations,” combining at one fell swoop name-calling and conspiracy theories (Oct 15).

Fellow libertarian Lorne Gunter argued that OWS is mistaken to go after the bankers because the real villains are greedy politicians. Worse, he proclaimed, “the protesters main point is obscured by all the lefty, social justice, union-financed trash they have heaped on it” (Oct 14).

And libertarian—get the idea the National Post has lots of libertarians?—Tasha Kheiriddin claimed the 99 percent are just as greedy as the one percent because they live beyond their means. Listen up 99 percenters, “you reap what you sow!” Kheiriddin knows that 99 percenters are responsible for the crisis because she watches Gail Vaz-Oxylade’s new TV show “Princess” about heavily indebted young women. Kheiriddin looked after her own debt responsibly; we should too. After all, no bank held a gun to our head (Oct 18).

The Post topped up its orientation to Occupy with two offerings from leading American conservatives. George Will contrasted the “Tea Party‘s splendid successes, which have altered the nation’s political vocabulary and agenda,” with the vague and amorphous OWS. “OWS is to the Tea Party,” Will harrumphed, “as Lady Gaga is to Lord Chesterfield,” although the meaning of this comparison is far from clear (Oct 13).

The second piece was written by Charles Krauthammer, a star neoconservative pro-Israel hawk and pro-millionaire dove. He castigated the “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” (Oct 15).

The Post also included a short article by conservative Rasputin Karl Rove, to help readers distinguish between the Tea Party, which they are supposed to admire, and Occupy Wall Street, which they should despise.

“The Tea Party is a middle-class movement of people who want limited government, less spending, less debt, low taxes, and the repeal of ObamaCare. Occupy Wall Street isn’t a movement. It’s a series of events populated by a weird cast of disaffected characters, ranging from anarchists and anti-Semites to socialists and LaRouchies.

“The Tea Party files for permits for its rallies and picks up its trash afterwards. Occupy Wall Street tolerates protesters who defecate on police cars, allows the open sale of drugs at protests, and features women walking around rallies topless” (Oct 14).

Once the frame was established, the Post settled in for a month-long anti-Occupy harangue supplied by Gunter, Corcoran, Robert Fulford, Barbara Kay and others in the Post stable of conservative writers.

Rex Murphy wrote two mean-spirited columns. In his first diatribe against the “righteous-tent-and-yurt people,” Murphy suggests Occupy should go after not just “rapacious” capitalists, it should also occupy Kim Kardashian and Cameron Diaz (Nov 5). This point is somewhat obscure. Perhaps it’s a bait-and-switch strategy.

In his second name-calling slugfest, Murphy claimed “the people of the various Occupy camps represent a petty sub-sample of the hard left.” These people “enjoy a morbid, almost innate hatred for capitalism in so far as they may be said to understand it” (as surely he must). And they are hypocrites—although Murphy doesn’t use this word—because they “are only too comfortable using the products and the largesse of capitalism while railing against it” (Nov 19).

One highlight of Post coverage was its nasty attack on Michael Moore because he is too rich to be on the side of the 99 percenters (Nov 15). The Post splashed on its front page a picture of Moore’s $2-million summer retreat on the shores of Torch Lake in northern Michigan. (The picture had gone viral in the conservative blogosphere.) Moore’s insult seems to be that he lives like a “pasha” and wears a baseball cap instead of a tie on TV.

The paper did publish one pro-Occupy column, its effort, apparently, to provide some balance to the dozen-and-a-half negative pieces. NewsTalk 1010 AM Toronto host John Moore certainly got it:

“The establishment can try to convince itself that the Occupy movement has no resonance but as we approach the tipping point of income and power inequality there will be no denying that there is something fundamentally wrong with how things are” (Nov 17).

Post writers, however, continued blithely in their state of denial.

The Globe and Mail was not as extreme, but just as unsympathetic. Gary Mason didn’t start writing about Occupy Vancouver until Day 10, taking a break from his attacks on the teachers’ union (Oct 26, Oct 29) to go after Occupy. By this time Mason had somehow discerned that time was already running out for the protesters. Unlike most Post writers, Mason actually visited the OV site and reported the views of at least one protest organizer in his own words. (Rex Murphy’s knowledge of Occupy, in contrast, came from watching and listening to news broadcasts and YouTube videos.) As the protesters dug in, Mason predicted that a “violent confrontation with police” was becoming more likely (Oct 25).

The following week Mason interviewed Kalle Lasn and concluded that unless the movement could produce a political manifesto, “right now, for all its good intentions, this protest campaign is in danger of fizzling out” (Nov 3). Four days later, after the drug-overdose death of Ashlie Gough, Mason noticed that the camp had become “a rabble of homeless youth and others drawn to the free accommodation, food, clothing and other supplies that can be enjoyed at the site. People presenting with serious mental illnesses are also said to be arriving at the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery” (Nov 7). This can’t be good.

And three days after that, Mason bemoaned the “crumbling” Occupy movement. “The noble sentiments that brought Occupy to the fore, the ones that had many of us nodding silently in agreement, have long since been forgotten” (Nov 10). If Mason did agree though, it was certainly in silence, since he wrote no words of support.

Margaret Wente tried three different blame strategies to undermine Occupy. First she blamed the media: they “have overblown the occupier story because they’re desperately afraid of missing something big” (Oct 18). Next she blamed, not the greedy bankers, but the “virtueocracy—the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment (and a comfortable living) in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us” (Nov 5). Expanding on her message that “the biggest economic challenge we face today is not income inequality, greedy corporations, Wall Street corruption or the concentration of wealth among the top 1 per cent,” Wente placed the mantle of blame squarely on “the increasing failure of young men with high-school degrees or less to latch on to the world of work” (Nov 10). In a final kick at the can, Wente once again chastised the media for giving more coverage to Occupy than to Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square, even though many more people were dying in Egypt (Nov 24), as if that was her calculus for coverage.

Blame the media, the virtueocracy or high-school dropouts, Wente urged, but not the one percent.

Globe lifestyle columnists also ganged up on Occupy. European arts correspondent Elizabeth Renzetti was agitated by the prospect of the “uber-rich” supporting the movement. “You know you’re in trouble when it’s chic for the rich to diss the rich.” But she consoled herself with the prospect that “at some point, the tents will be gone, although the issues will remain. The lights will shut off, the cameras will disappear and celebrities will find there’s a cozy hospitality suite where they’d rather be,” she predicted (Nov 12).

Feature writer Leah McLaren bizarrely assailed Occupy supporter Margaret Atwood for her role as a literary mentor in the 2012 Rolex Mentor and Protegé Arts Initiative. The problem as McLaren saw it was that while Atwood backs Occupy and its critique of bankers, most bankers—with hairy wrists, McLaren revealed, as if from personal experience—wear Rolex watches (Nov 19).

The Globe editorialized obsessively about the act of protest. In one piece the paper claimed that “the protesters have had time to make their points. Perhaps some larger point can be made only in the act of occupying. But if that is the case, cities will have to move, sooner or later, to assert the law” (Nov 8). In another editorial the paper argued that “the Occupiers are occupying other people’s space. And they have no right to it” (Nov 19).

Like the National Post, the Globe did publish one or two pieces supportive of Occupy. Robert Matas’ thoughtful column admitted that “the increasingly acrimonious debate over when and how to end the Occupy Vancouver protest threatens to overshadow the ideas that first brought hundreds of people to the plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“However, regardless of what anyone thinks about the demonstrators’ tactics, Occupy Vancouver is onto something more than imitating a New York moment, Matas wrote. The group is on solid ground with its claim that income inequality is growing in Canada and especially in B.C.” (Oct 27).

This message emanated more frequently from the Toronto Star. In fact, the Star’s views of Occupy were almost the mirror image of the Globe and Post.

If the Star tried at all to frame Occupy before the movement settled into its St. James Park camp, it was as a necessary development to resist the move towards an increasingly unjust society. Columnist Joe Fiorito noticed a bust of Robert Gourlay next to the Occupy camp in the park. Gourlay was the first person to stand up to the Family Compact, Fiorito noted. “Gourlay’s protests eventually led to the Upper Canada Rebellion. I hope the Occupy Toronto movement will lead to similar reforms” (Oct 17).

More than a dozen Star columnists and op-ed writers penned pieces supporting Occupy, some more vigorously than others. Fiorito wrote two more pieces about Occupy. In one he featured protester Cory Bartlett, who owns a designer toy store, giving the lie to corporate media claims protesters were homeless and jobless (Oct 31). But Fiorito criticized Occupy Toronto for a tactical error in marching up Yonge Street in support of a general strike in Oakland, California. Like other Star columnists, he advised Occupy Toronto to remain local (Nov 4).

Richard Gwyn quoted the Financial Times that “The [American Dream] has been shattered by a crisis brought about by financial excess and political cynicism.” The result, Gwyn repeated, “has been growing inequality, rising poverty and sacrifice by those least able to bear it” (Oct 18).

Gwyn criticized Occupy’s tactics in a second column, but argued that “on the core issue raised by the Occupy movement of a deeply rooted unfairness in the existing system, the evidence keeps accumulating that it’s onto something fundamental” (Nov 15).

Thomas Walkom was more tentative in his support. He lauded the protesters for being respectful and tidy, but chastised them for not paying more attention to important Canadian issues, like the banning of Air Canada strikes, contracting out of Toronto garbage collection, minimum wage and income tax rates. Focus more on Canada, he urged (Oct 19). Walkom next argued the rich need to be taxed much more heavily, but wondered if they are solely responsible for the country’s predicament, as Occupy argues (Oct 26). And in a third piece, Walkom criticized Occupy for not having more specific goals against which they can measure success. That may not matter, though, because the forced evictions of most Occupy camps gave the movement a convenient escape during which it could plan its next actions (Nov 17).

Heather Mallick responded to this criticism, that Occupy has no goals, by helpfully providing 13 possible goals (Oct 29). She also celebrated Susan Ursel, the lawyer making the case for the Occupy Toronto protesters. Ursel, Mallick argued, is “a star in the making” (Nov 19).

Rick Salutin saw union solidarity and democracy as a precursor to Occupy (Oct 28). In a second column he urged Occupy not to become irrelevant, which it could accomplish by following the Spanish experience where protesters disbanded their camp and fanned out into neighbourhoods to widen the political landscape (Nov 18).

David Olive bemoaned the fact that the movement itself, rather than the “yawning gap between rich and poor, and all the social evils arising from that” had become the target of attacks (Nov 11). But Linda McQuaig countered that “the occupiers have made an economic system that has dominated for the past 30 years—based on unbridled greed at the top and indifference to the well-being of the bottom 99 per cent—suddenly the focus of attention” (Oct 25).

Chantal Hebert seemed to miss the point of Occupy—that most politicians are in bed with big finance and big business—by arguing that protesters would no longer need to protest if they merely voted in elections and joined political parties (Oct 18).

The single, all-out hostile column in the Star was penned by Rosie DiManno, who condemned Occupy as “another one-way diatribe co-opted by special interest agendas” (Nov 21).

The Vancouver Sun’s viewpoints on Occupy varied dramatically from the Star’s. One difference was that many Sun articles and columns focused on the civic election that was to be held on November 19. The Sun claimed—erroneously as it turned out—that the Occupy Vancouver camp had become the campaign’s central issue and would hurt incumbent mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson.

Columnist Craig McInnes presented the paper’s dominant frame for its readers. In an column the day before the October 15 march in downtown Vancouver, he claimed that “these folks are gathering to proclaim our brand of democracy and the capitalist system broken beyond repair in a time and place where arguably life for most people has never been better … On a global scale, we’re all one-percenters here,” McInnes opined (Oct 14). Conclusion? No need for Occupy for most of us.

A week later he went after the “Occupy Wherever crowd” who don’t understand that life has always been tough. McInnes himself had to go to Yellowknife to get started in journalism “with little more than I could fit in a backpack.” McInnes asked if life is “harder now than it was 30 years ago? Maybe, but it’s not all about what you are given. What you make of it still counts” (Oct 22). Conclusion? No need for Occupy for most of us.

And in a piece outlining the United Nations Human Development Index, McInnes offered that the numbers “show that we’re doing pretty well compared with most countries.” He admitted though that the numbers “also point to the areas where we need work, to the people”—such as Aboriginals—“who are still getting left behind” (Nov 3). Conclusion? No need for Occupy for most of us.

In his final column, McInnes claimed Occupy had defeated itself. “The initial focus on the role of banks, unchecked corporate greed and the downtrodden middle class has been swept aside by a fixation on a battle with local authorities over muddy patches of ground.” How did this happen, he asked. The answer, he replied, is that protesters brought it on themselves, by taking on city hall. But this claim is not credible, since it was city hall that took on Occupy. Nonetheless, in a strange twist of mathematical logic, McInnes concluded that “by taking on city hall, the 99 per cent became the one per cent” (Nov 17).

McInnes’s attacks on Occupy Vancouver were buttressed by a phalanx of Sun columnists and op-ed writers. Barbara Yaffe railed that protesters “may be free to protest, but how does that give them a right to set up a residential enclave that is imposing additional costs on taxpayers? Where are the rights of the other 98 per cent?” she asked (Nov 17).

Capitalism—and the one percent—received a rousing defence from two libertarians. McGill University economist William Watson chastised the protesters for not having taken his Economics 101 course on the marvels of capitalism. The answer to business power, he lectured, is “more capitalism, not less.” Besides, they have no right to protest because if they are university students—which some seem to be—they are already profiting handsomely from government subsidies (Nov 1).

And Sun editorial page editor Fazil Mihlar waxed ecstatic over the many contributions the banks make to the Canadian economy. “For being so prudent, profitable and virtuous,” Mihlar effused without a hint of irony, “Occupy Vancouver protesters should first apologize to our bankers for the disruptions that they caused and then say thank you.”

The Sun editorial board chimed in with an editorial agreeing in principle with Occupy’s complaints, but arguing that the way to deal with them is for young people to vote and join political parties (Oct 19). A second editorial—probably written by Fazil Mihlar because it once again praised the banks—argued that the OV camp had to go, willingly or not (Oct 25). A third editorial, written the day before Vancouver’s civic election, berated protesters for not becoming involved in the election process and mobilizing the “support of a fraction of the 99 per cent of residents they claimed to represent” (Nov 18), as if that would have any impact on income inequality. Bait and switch is more like it.

But Occupy Vancouver had a determined champion in Sun columnist Pete McMartin. Ten days into the protest McMartin berated Occupy’s critics who “fulminate” about the Art Gallery lawn being littered with tents, rather than about Canada’s growing income disparity. McMartin was not concerned the protesters lacked focus:

“Why the demonstrators should be expected to offer up answers to [the world’s problems], when those problems have stymied … the world’s economists, is asking too much of them” (Oct 25).

McMartin devoted his October 27 column to growing income inequality in Canada and its sources in various government policies such as “‘labour market flexibility’—code for more jobs at lower wages.” Declining union membership, especially among young workers, hides a bleak future for them, he warned.

As the Occupy Vancouver camp entered its end game, McMartin bemoaned the fact that the camp site had become the issue. But he was also encouraged by OV’s success in putting income inequality firmly on the public agenda (Nov 17).

And who could ask for more than that?

 

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Margaret Thatcher transformed British political life forever. So did Ronald Reagan in the United States. Now Canada has experienced a similar, dramatic shift to a new kind of politics, which author Donald Gutstein terms Harperism. Among its key tenets:

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The success of Harperism is no accident. Donald Gutstein documents the links between the politicians, think tanks, journalists, academics, and researchers who nurture and promote each other’s neo-liberal ideas.