Media commentators and bloggers alike have recognized that the news divisions of the major television networks did not evenly cover the Occupy movement while it flourished in late 2011. Since then, it would appear that television networks have lost interest altogether (Knefel 2012). Fox News notoriously avoided reporting on the movement, and the other news providers were late and inconsistent in their coverage,(2) due on the one hand to the generally peaceful nature of the protests (during September and October), on the other to the media’s general inability to understand the issues at stake. Reporters and news directors thus had difficulty identifying the rationale for the movement, which stemmed both from the issues at stake and the diversity of causes that brought the protesters together.(3) When the cameras of the local stations and national networks entered the encampment areas, reporters seemed hard-pressed to justify what was occurring or to narrativize the stories they were hearing from Occupy participants. This was not a traditional protest against military intervention, comprised of large-scale marches and demonstrations; rather, Occupy employed primarily passive forms of resistance (Gersen 2011), even though Occupiers adopted tactics (including sonic practices) from those prior anti-war actions. The diversity of these sonic practices also provided a justification for the trivializing and carnivalizing interpretations of Occupy that television newscasters by and large adopted, since music can “soften” “hard news” and introduce entertainment values into newscasting (Jaramillo 2009).
This dismissive sonic portrayal of the movement by televisual news media had precedents in their historical coverage of protest, just as Occupiers themselves drew upon traditional aural practices from the lexicon of dissent as formed by the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, more recent actions against the World Trade Organization and the Iraq War/Afghanistan War/War on Terror, and even the Tea Party. Moreover, the coverage of Occupy resulted from a complex negotiation over the control of sound in collective protest, whereby on the one hand participants took “sonic advantage” of the media during demonstrations, while on the other the microphones of news outlets exploited the aural aspects of the movement. Such competing claims over protest sounds – between tactical deployment and manipulative framing – cannot readily be untangled except in the minds and ears of news consumers, whose own allegiances could find confirmation in the soundscape of the newscast, whether through the auralities of the protesters or their representation by the media. In the struggle over the control of the meaning of protest music and sounds, those of us who affirm the efficacy of sound nevertheless believe that it possesses the power to resonate beyond any attempts to dismiss or distort its messages.(4)
Music and sound not only possess the ability to draw attention in ways that the visual by itself cannot,(5) but also serve to lend reality to those images.(6) This quality could only enhance the value of aurality in the reporting of news, of real occurrences, which comprised the bulk of the earliest French films (the “actualities”) from the 1890s (Fielding 2006: 3-18). Like narrative film, the silent theatrical newsreels required musical accompaniment to make their representation of events more believable, which is why musical anthologies for silent films featured cues suitable for a range of news topics. When Fox Movietone News pioneered its sound-on-film technology in 1927, with their first full sound newsreel released on December 4 (only eight weeks after the premiere of The Jazz Singer), theater patrons experienced a new level of reality.(7) Newsreel exhibitors could not keep up with the demand for installation of the new sound technology in their theaters, with the production of “talking” newsreels keeping pace with that for sound film (Crafton 2007: 99-100). World War II played itself out in the cinema – Movietone, Universal Newsreel, Hearst Metrotone News, and The March of Time all competed in American war coverage, not only bringing images of battle to the large screen, but also reifying them through a soundtrack that blended battle and material sounds with appropriate music. The theatrical newsreel gradually yielded its pre-eminence to television newscasting during the course of the 1950s and 1960s until 1967, when Universal – the last newsreel producer – ceased creating them.(8) In the meantime, the news programming of the major networks had become more professional, eschewing music and moving to a half-hour format (the first to do so was the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on September 3, 1963). And yet during the same period, the sights and sounds from the battles in Southeast Asia and protests in the United States (the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement) filled the living rooms of Americans (Deaville 2012).
It is those protests of the 1960s and early 1970s that commentators identify as the most significant precedents for the Occupy movement (Journalist Nikki 2012) and that likewise exemplify the problematic of television news coverage of protest. As already suggested, peaceful marches and rallies do not provide much spectacle for the gaze of the television news consumer, whereas the heated confrontations of the late 1950s and 1960s between African American protesters and the “brutal agents of Southern segregation” became leading news items (Everet 2012). Under the adage of “if it bleeds, it leads,”(9) news outlets have favoured capturing visually and aurally arresting scenes of conflict, and protesters have not infrequently encouraged such representations to the extent that the repression of non-violent demonstrations may create sympathy and support among the public. Whether or not violence manifests itself at a televised protest action, the aurality of such an event is likely to capture the attention of media crews and help them decide whether to broadcast the footage. Thus in the 2004 practical handbook Writing and Producing Television News, Beverly White advises the following: “If you’re covering a war protest, and you hear people chanting, ‘USA, USA’ in the beginning, it pins the viewers to their seats, and they’re excited and interested about what comes next, whether or not they agree with the point of view contained in your report” (Gormly 2005: 287). She proceeds to describe one of her recent television news stories:
My preview report included a lot of people who were on the other side of the fence, who were absolutely against the war [in Iraq]. They were the only ones on scene, they were the only ones we included. The natural sound was profound, the ranting, the chanting, the pushing and shoving with the police. Subsequently, the many arrests we witnessed all made it into our piece. (Gormly 2005: 287)
With this in mind, the following will reflect on the early years of televisual news reporting of the sounds of collective protest, from the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests to protest actions related to the Gulf War/War on Terror, the Tea Party and the Arab Spring.
(1) I wish to thank Anahid Kassabian (University of Liverpool), Michael Saffle (Virginia Tech) and Scottie Wingfield (Occupy Charlotte) for their generous assistance, as well as Mariam Al-Naser and Agnes Malkinson (Carleton University) for their editorial support.
(2) An assessment of the media coverage of Occupy Wall Street been offered by Mark Bray (Bray 2012).
(3) Todd Gitlin (2012) has provided the most detailed and informed discussion on the background of Occupy.
(4) A clear affirmation of this position, as illustrated in a political context, is provided by Guillerme Wilde (2007).
(5) For example, director Robert Bresson believes that “sound, because of its greater realism, is infinitely more evocative than an image, which is essentially a stylisation of visual reality” (Bresson in Burch 1981: 90).
(6) Claudia Gorbman explains such perspectives on music’s role in cinema this way: “Words such as three-dimensionality, immediacy, reality, and, of course, life recur throughout film music criticism in its attempt to describe the effect and purpose of film music” (Gorbman 1987: 39).
(7) For example, theater owner Samuel Rothapfel reported how a newsreel item on the Yale-Army football game on November 1, 1927 caused the patrons of the Roxy Theater (at 50th and 7th) to “burst into a frenzy of cheering and for the moment you weren’t sitting in a theater at all, but in the bowl at New Haven. It wasn’t just a picture, but the game itself” (Crafton 2007: 98).
(8) Fielding’s history devotes only a few pages to the post-war years of newsreel production, which is surprising given its continued vitality despite the ever-increasing market share of television news (Fielding 2006: 183-193).
(9) Matthew Kerbel (2001) provides an interesting exposé of this practice.
The Envoicing of Protest:
Occupying Television News through Sound and Music(1)
The primary musical vehicles for protest during the years of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement (the first major protest movements reported on television) were the solo songs of the singer/songwriter (usually accompanied by acoustic guitar) and the collective chant of protesters. The chanting may not have involved singing per se, yet – as John Protevi remarks about the spoken human microphone (see below) – “the bodies of the chanters (their chests, guts, throats, eardrums)...vibrat[e] at something close to the same frequency, something close to being in phase” (Protevi 2011). While the protesters’ performance of the collective texts could lack pitched melody, the rhythmic enunciation of the words renders the chanting a musical experience. A variety of other sounds contributed to the aurality of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, including clapping, call-and-response, and individual vocal interjections. Leaders used microphones and megaphones to disseminate the message, while massed protesters relied upon the age-old practice of collective vocality to make themselves and their message heard.(10)
Unfortunately, not much of the televised footage from the early days of the Civil Rights movement still exists or is accessible, especially as produced at the local level.(11) The Vanderbilt Television News Archive did not initiate its daily recording of national evening newscasts until August 1968, and finding footage from local television news from that far in the past is uncertain at best. Major protest events like the civil rights march on Washington on August 28, 1963 or the March 1965 marches to Birmingham, Alabama were so large, momentous, and – at times – violent that they attracted considerable attention from local and national news providers,(12) and thus multiple televised reports survive for them. An informal survey of these sources reveal how the network coverage of these demonstrations falls into five primary categories of aurality: speeches and interviews by leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement (with the eminently musical enunciations of Martin Luther King most prominently featured), collective chants of marchers and demonstrators, clapping and other non-vocal forms of sonic expression, the disorganized sounds of protesters, and the chaotic soundscape surrounding police actions.(13) These sounds may have upset some and angered other audience members on the one hand,(14) and played into racial stereotypes on the other,(15) yet there can be little doubt that – supported by moving images of the movement in its various manifestations – they helped to bring the movement to the attention. At this point in time, the protests remained non-violent, which created the aural binary between the sounds of peaceful demonstration and of police-generated conflict. Particularly effective in gaining the attention of the nation were the sights and sounds associated with the Birmingham protests on May 3, 1963, when the authorities deployed fire hydrants, fire hoses, police dogs, and their own personal brutality to violently disperse young (largely school-age) demonstrators. Covering civil unrest was new to television news in the early 1960s, and it was through the Civil Rights Movement that the networks developed an “aural lexicon of crisis-television” that would be available later in the decade for reporting on the anti-war and Black Power movements (Everet 2012). See the following ABC News report from April 8, 1968 for an example:
During this period, the newscast frame for such reporting was by and large devoid of music. The rise of professional newscasting in the United States coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the increasing American involvement in the war in Vietnam. When the CBS Evening News moved to a half-hour format on September 2, 1963, the music that had accompanied prime-time network news in the 1950s – as derived from newsreel practices – had disappeared, replaced by silence (CBS) or nominal music (for the NBC Evening News end credits, the Scherzo theme from Beethoven’s Ninth). Musical elements only gradually entered the Evening News slot, the most important of the daily newscasts,(16) and that process of entoning the news occurred gradually over the course of the late 1960s and 1970s. The result would be the adoption of filmic musical and sound practices into the newscasts of the 1980s and later, based on the high-concept entertainment values of Hollywood (Jaramillo 2009; Deaville 2009). That such a development would affect the televisual sounds of protest stands to reason.
It would nevertheless be misleading to suggest that music was altogether lacking from network newscasts during the Vietnam War. Like for earlier manifestations of the Civil Rights Movement, American news consumers did hear music in their living rooms from the televisual reporting of the war, only it took the form of anti-war solo songs and collective chants from across the United States, which did not rely upon the visuality of what New Yorker media reporter Michael Arlen described as the small and unreal figures upon the screen (Hamilton 2009: 41). The aural lexicon from the Civil Rights protests of the early 1960s still functioned, but now, given the development of television news and the rise of rock, footage of protest music in concert became another feature of the broadcast mediascape. Major concert events like the Woodstock Festival of August 15-18, 1969 or Leonard Bernstein’s “Counter-Inaugural” at the Washington National Cathedral on January 19, 1973 generated interest from the networks, which enjoyed an ever-expanding audience base. By one estimate, almost one in five Americans was consuming the news on a regular basis, with the number of audience members for the evening news of the three networks at approximately 42,850,000 in 1967 (Wood 1967: 36). In other words, the size of the potential market suggests that the sounds of protest were reaching a large television audience.
However, the eye and ear of the television cameras and microphones were selective in what they presented as news items. Even as self-accompanying singer/songwriters like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger occasionally found national (and undoubtedly more significant local) coverage,(17) and songs like Eric Burdon’s “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” from 1965 and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” from 1967 were selling in substantial numbers and receiving considerable airplay on the radio (Secunda and Morgan 2007: 107-108), they did not significantly figure in the television news coverage of protest. This resulted in an interesting split between the radio coverage, which featured professional solo and group songs and anthems, and the television coverage, which featured collective chants and musicking(18) and especially the sonic chaos of demonstrations that became violent. It is hard to imagine any study of the anti-war movement that did not consult the now iconic television footage of the chaos outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which showed how “police pummeled protesters as the crowds chanted, ‘The whole world is watching’” (Donaldson 2009: 169).
Of course, with the rise of television newscasting and the resulting competition for its attention, demonstrating groups became aware of their own role in selling marketable representations of protest against a given cause, which meant exploiting the sonic realm to attract the reporter’s microphone and camera.(19) Pierre Bourdieu expresses the general principle behind protesting to the camera with the following words:
Anyone who still believes that you can organize a political demonstration without paying attention to television risks being left behind. It’s more and more the case that you have to produce demonstrations for television so that they interest television types and fit their perceptual categories. Then, and only then, relayed and amplified by these television professionals, will your demonstration have its maximum effect. (Bourdieu 1999: 22)
This is not to suggest that protesters were not genuine in their expressions, but they learned how to draw media attention for their own ends.(20) Already in the late 1960s, Abbie Hoffman “orchestrated street theater for the television camera,” which of course prominently relied upon its aurality (Joselit 2002: 64). A crucial moment in the 1968 Democratic National Convention’s protests occurred when the demonstrators, under brutal attack by the Chicago police and realizing the presence of the cameras, “coined the chant ‘the whole world is watching’” (Werenskjold 2011: 179), which would later become a mantra of the Occupy movement. The following news story from ABC News on August 28, 1968 provides an example of the coverage of the convention protests:
(10) While a variety of secondary sources – especially from the field of musicology – document and study the sonic history of protest, they have tended to focus on the solo singer/songwriter like Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie rather than the aural practices of collective protest (notable exceptions include Foster 2006; Taylor and Van Dyke 2008; Roscigno, Danaher and Summers-Effler 2002).
(11) Among others, exceptions were the Roanoke, Virginia television stations WSLS and WDBJ, which preserved their footage from the Civil Rights Movement as discussed by William Thomas III (2004).
(12) As Anna Everet argues, “the public clashes around the Civil Rights Movement were too violent and too important [for television networks] to ignore” (Everet 2012).
(13) Other ambient sound features include conversations among occupiers, police officers addressing demonstrators, and even cooking sounds from the encampments.
(14) Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (2005) effectively situates the backlash to the televised Civil Rights Movement.
(15) These images would tend to confirm the stereotype of African Americans as chanting hymns and traditional songs, which was already contested in the 1940s through the controversy surrounding the 1946 Disney film Song of the South (Cohen 2007).
(16) According to David Culbert, “in the 1960s and 1970s [...] almost 80 percent of American television viewers watched the evening news” (Culbert 2001: 232).
(17) See, for example, Evening News reports from ABC on her June 22, 1972 self-sponsored demonstration in Washington and from CBS on his musical tribute to Philip Berrigan upon his release from jail on December 20, 1972.
(18) As defined by the term’s originator, “musicking” is a social experience through the activity of making music (Small 1987).
(19) See, for example, the early television news text by Herbert J. Gans (1979: 57).
(20) As Aaron Doyle observes: “Television, for many years now the source of news most relied on by audiences [...] has offered tantalizing new opportunities for social movements to capture attention with a striking image or sound-bite” (Doyle 2003:112).
Participants in and ideologues behind the Occupy movement admit to taking inspiration from the protests of 1968 (whether in Chicago or in France), as well as the Arab Spring and the Iberian and Hellenic summers of 2011 (Davis 2011: 5). However, protests did occur after 1968 that undoubtedly influenced the sonic practices of Occupiers, the representation of the protest on television, and the perceptions on the part of television news consumers. Among the most memorable protests from the post-Vietnam years originated not in the United States, but in the Middle East, during the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981.(21) As Robert J. Donovan and Ray Scherer observe,
Evening after evening, television showed mobs of fanatical-looking Iranians, men and women, besieging the embassy, chanting anti-American epithets, shaking their fists, burning the American flag, and otherwise reviling the hostages and the country they represented … On December 7 [Frank] Reynolds voiced over a picture of crowds chanting “God is great” with what he supposed was the crowd’s true sentiment, “hatred of America.” (Donovan and Scherer 1992: 141, 142)
This, the country’s first important contact with the Islamic world, helped to stamp a stereotype of the Middle East that would recur in the audio-visual trope of the nameless mob of Islamic people (overwhelmingly males) vehemently chanting in an incomprehensible language, which would figure in television news coverage from the hostage crisis to the Intifada, 9/11, and the War on Terror. We might call this the “Islamic protest trope,” which also made an appearance in network reports of Palestinian funerals in Gaza, Pakistani demonstrations against the Quran burnings (February 2012), and even the protests against Lady Gaga’s Indonesian concert (May 2012). The pervasiveness of this sound-image in the news of the last thirty years supports the contention that, given the previously cited televisual fetishization of sound in protest, reporters and film editors sought out such representations of the Islamic world. It also may well have led to the increasing discomfort with mass protest among mainstream news media consumers in America, which would be reflected in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) television coverage.
For protest occurring in North America, the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) brought about the first significant revival of Civil Rights and Vietnam-era practices, for, as Chris Gray observes, “the protests to the Gulf War started with a level of support and sophistication that was only achieved during the old Movement days after years of organizing” (Gray 1999: 192). The global wave of demonstrations from the late summer and early fall of 1990 abated later in the year, only to intensify once the United States undertook military action in January 1991 with a mass rally of 75,000 in Washington on January 27, replete with music performances (Mermin 1999: 111; Walsh and Valentine 1991: A1). However, unlike the Vietnam War, the Gulf War enjoyed widespread public support in the United States, especially once George Bush and associates began branding it as a “moral and just” war (Myers 1996: 123). In terms of music, certain bands did take a position against the war, whether Fugazi with “Turnover” or The Offspring with “Baghdad,” while other musicians supported Desert Storm (Racine 1991: 10). Reports from the time indicate that collective protests against the Gulf War adopted some of the sonic tactics from the Vietnam-era anti-war demonstrations (chanted slogans from songs like John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Norman Whitfield’s “War”), while anticipating those of later actions, including drumming groups and improvised corporate noise-making.(22) Given the general popularity of the Persian Gulf War with the American public,(23) protest actions were widely scattered and only sporadically covered by television news outlets.(24)
If the decade of the 1990s began in the United States with a cluster of rallies against a war, it ended with the largest protest action since the Vietnam era, that against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Ministerial Meeting in Seattle in 1999 (also called the “Battle of Seattle”).(25) The demonstrations of late November and early December would serve as an ideological precedent for Occupy to the extent that – like other global protests against the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and the G20 – the rationale for the actions was economic injustice. It may have taken over one year to plan the disruption of the meeting (Wood 2012: 104-107), but the media coverage began on November 28, as it became apparent that a major protest action was in the making. As communication studies scholars Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples reported, once the violence began on November 30, the position of the reports in the evening news of ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC moved from the end to the beginning of the newscasts, with total coverage time increasing by 26% (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 139). Although the images and sounds of violence dominated the television reports – the literature about the protests typically ignores the sonic component(26) – the networks did also broadcast the attention-getting sounds of the demonstrators, which included chanting, drumming, and even playing brass-band music (Gilliam and Marx 2000: 216). Like the Occupy protests over a decade later, the WTO protests lacked hierarchical structure and clear, unified demands, which gave the news cameras and microphones a diversity of possibilities for reporting in the days before November 30 – however, any potentially dismissive framing of their activities quickly yielded to the “main story” once the violent confrontations broke out. And as Herman and Chomsky observed,
media coverage of these events was derisive and hostile to the protesters and almost uniformly failed to deal with the substantive issues that drove the protests. The media portrayed the Seattle protesters as ‘all purpose agitators’ (U.S. News and World Report), “terminally aggrieved” (Philadelphia Inquirer), simply against world trade (ABC News), and making “much ado about nothing” (CNN), but the basis of the protesters’ grievances were almost entirely unexplored. (Herman and Chomsky 2002: xliii)
The complex of American military actions in the Middle East, collectively known as the War on Terror and including the wars in Afghanistan (beginning in October 2001) and Iraq (beginning in March 2003), called forth another wave of protest actions across the globe. Again, certain sonic tactics of the anti-war protesters can be perceived as contributing to the soundscape of Occupy Wall Street, especially to the extent that the activist movements of the 2000s linked economic and political injustice under broader umbrellas (see, for example, Epstein and Dixon 2007: 455; Cartya and Onyetta 2006; Juris 2005). The threatened and actual invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and allies nonetheless evoked a storm of global protest specifically directed against military intervention. Thus the international synchronized protest on February 15, 2003 focused on the impending Iraq War – it remains the largest anti-war action in history, with at least 10 million participants at various locations across the world (Cortright 2008: 172).
The protracted conflicts in the Middle East evoked substantial worldwide demonstrations, especially on the occasion of the annual anniversaries of the beginning of the Iraq War on and around March 20. Protest organizations also exploited events like the 2004 Republican National Convention to demonstrate against the ongoing wars and issues of social injustice, with groups such as United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER staging or participating in large-scale one-day rallies.(27) The network newscasts not only reported the sights and sounds of war,(28) but also covered the visualities and auralities of the mass demonstrations, even though their representations often amounted to little more than sight and sound bites of the collective protest actions interspersed with interviews of participants. In the television coverage of large anti-war protest events like those on March 20, 2004, March 18, 2006, and March 17-18, 2007 across the world, on August 27, 2005 at the Bush family ranch in Texas, and on January 27, 2007 in Washington, DC, both the attention-getting sonic tactics of demonstrators and the superficial network portrayals of protest were featured on domestic televisions. The resulting evening news soundscape anticipated the 2011 reports from Occupy encampments, with the crucial distinction that the mass demonstrations were arresting because of their size. OWS did not provide television cameras and microphones with the “easy target” of the anti-war demonstrations, which would compel audiences to take notice.
One further influence upon the aural practices of Occupy Wall Street was the radically conservative Tea Party.(29) The similarities and differences between the two movements have preoccupied pundits since OWS emerged in September 2011 (see, among others, Krugman 2011; Trudell 2012; Dube and Kaplan 2012; Tarrow 2011), but of interest here is the soundscape of their protest actions as presented in network newscasts. A review of coverage beginning in February 2009 reveals how the Tea Party was portrayed as drawing upon traditional protest sonic practices like collective chanting and singing well-known (in their case, patriotic) songs. The preference of the Tea Party for one-time rallies and large-scale demonstrations would nonetheless differentiate their sonic practices, which included the use of pre-recorded music, from the distinctive soundscapes of Occupiers in their encampments and surrounding activities. The comparatively conventional events of Tea Partiers provided the cameras and microphones of network reporters with clear and unproblematic material for editing, so the auralities of evening news Tea Party coverage tended to consist of sound bites from chanted slogans (“USA,” “Hands off My Healthcare”), rally speakers and individually interviewed protesters. This item from the NBC Nightly News of September 12, 2009 furnishes an example of Tea Party sights and sounds in network coverage:
It is interesting to consider how the distinguishing markers of the movement played themselves out not so much aurally but rather in the visual realm through homemade signs (and occasional costumes) that captured the networks’ eye and found their way into the living rooms of Americans.
(21) Regarding the crisis, see David Farber (2005).
(22) For example, protests in San Francisco from mid- to late-January 1991 featured a variety of sonic tactics that Occupiers would deploy twenty years later (see http://archive.org/details/ssfGULFWAR1).
(23) John Mueller (1994) devotes an entire monograph to assessing public opinion about the war, which was quite significant at its onset.
(24) On the evening of January 17, 1991 the three major networks featured at least one reaction segment in their national newscast, but the coverage of protests involved perfunctory sound and image bites.
(25) The literature about the WTO protests of 1999 is fairly extensive, including books, chapters, and extended discussions in a variety of publications (Cockburn and St. Clair 2000; Gillham and Marx 2000: 212-223; DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 125–151; Noakes and Gillham 2006: 97-116; Wood 2012).
(26) DeLuca and Peeples (2002) all but exclude the sonic element when they explore the images from the “public screen” of Seattle.
(27) The acronym “ANSWER” stands for “Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.”
(28) For a discussion of how television networks deploy music and sound in their newscasts to reflect/incite a bellicose attitude among the American public, see James Deaville (2009).
(29) Although no studies exist regarding the musical and sonic practices of the Tea Party, a few academics have undertaken preliminary analyses (especially Williamson, Skocpol and Coggin 2011: 25-43, and Disch 2011: 123-135). For a history of Occupy that takes into account Tea Party precedents, see Todd Gitlin (2012).
Communication studies scholar Lilian Radovac (2011) has persuasively argued that the soundscape of Occupy Wall Street owes its origins to the New York City of the mid-1930s, when mayor Fiorello La Guardia, determined to control the urban environment, enacted the first ordinance against noise. Upheld by mayors John Lindsay and Michael Bloomberg, this policy was responsible for the prohibition of microphones in Zuccotti Park, which led to the development of the human microphone.(30) That the practice was subsequently taken up in contexts where artificial amplification was not banned bespeaks its vitality in creating collective frames for protesters(31) and its symbolic importance for the Occupy movement, for, as sociologist Nathan Jurgenson argues, “the so-called ‘human microphone’ has become symbolic of the movement itself” (Jurgenson 2011).
If we were to look for the immediate precursors of Occupy Wall Street itself, protests from earlier in 2011 – the “Arab Spring” and the “Greek Summer” certainly inspired the movement, which regarded itself as participating in a transnational community of protest “largely shaped by political identification or activist stance” and availing itself of “social networks and a variety of internet based communication tools” (Malone 2011). The movements may have mobilized social media to promulgate and organize their initiatives, but they relied on traditional television news media to disseminate the actualities of their protest actions, especially as opponents took hostile measures to quell the demonstrations. It is unfortunate but not unexpected that the limited American news reportage from Egypt did not cover the peaceful protest that Judith Butler highlighted in her lecture “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” given in Venice on September 7, 2011 (just before Occupy Wall Street took concrete form). She reported the following about the sonic practices of protesters in Tahrir Square:
When up against violent attack [...] many people chanted the word ‘silmiyya’ [...] Most usually, the chanting of ‘Silmiyya’ comes across as a gentle exhortation: ‘peaceful, peaceful’ [...] What interests me here is the chant, the way in which language worked not to incite an action, but to restrain one. (Butler 2011)
The protests that Americans did see and hear through network coverage of the “Arab Spring” represented what I have already identified as the “Islamic protest trope.” The anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece in the summer of 2011 similarly drew attention from news cameras and microphones, as the louder and more violent the protest, the more likely it will fill a slot on the evening news. DeLuca and Peeples express this axiom in the following comments about the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999: “The news is attracted to disturbers of order and deviation from the routine [...] Nothing fits these parameters more precisely than symbolic protest violence and uncivil disobedience ... Without such violence or its threat, TV news coverage quickly evaporated” (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 139, 141).
Thus it should not be surprising that the by and large peaceful Occupy Wall Street movement caused the press difficulties. Blogging on October 13, 2011, NPR’s David Falkenflik remarked on the media’s problems covering OWS:
At first stretch, the complaint from the left was that news organizations had ignored the movement. But as they did swing their gaze, journalists weren't quite sure how to characterize what they saw. Was Occupy Wall Street a movement, political theater or an expression of anguish? [...] Lacking easy labels, Occupy Wall Street proved difficult for the media to categorize and therefore to cover. (Falkenflik 2011)
Falkenflik’s observations about the mediality of conflict and confrontation support the hook of aurality for audio-visual news coverage:
Even early sympathetic columns in the New York Times and the Boston Globe were largely dismissive. It was covered mostly as a local nuisance in the nation's financial center until September 24, when New York City police forcibly penned in a small knot of protesters. There, a senior official sprayed several shouting but stationary women in the face with pepper spray. The attack was captured on video and forced the NYPD to backpedal. It drew the media’s attention: Coverage spiked after that, and again after police arrested 700 demonstrators for attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Falkenflik 2011)
Above and beyond those and other cases of un-premeditated sonic protest actions, music and sound served as crucial components of the Occupy strategy to draw (media) attention to the movement. Jurgenson surveyed the auralities that figured into the soundscape of the Occupy movement, identifying the human microphone, musical chants, drumming circles, and even silence among its constitutive elements. As he opined, “To ‘occupy’ time and space means more than to just be seen, but to also be heard” (Jurgenson 2011).
But were the television networks listening? The specific admixture of sonic practices exploited by Occupy created a unique aural identity for this protest movement, despite their deployment of tactics appropriated from others in the past. Characteristic of OWS predecessors were the activities of one group or event, with speeches by identifiable figures, a limited lexicon of sounds, a finite time frame, and a generally diachronic flow. With its ostensibly open mike policy, open-ended possibilities for expression through sound and music, ongoing occupations of public spaces, and synchronic events within and in connection with the encampments, and coupled with media perceptions of a movement without clearly defined goals,(32) Occupy Wall Street presented network cameras and microphones with a wide array of potential visual and aural representations, more than for any protest movement of the past, including the Tea Party. Given the networks’ historical tendency to dismissively portray actions of demonstrators and the special issues posed by OWS as described above, it stands to reason that the news media’s coverage would by and large adopt a skeptical position towards Occupy, and its sonic diversity just assisted them in trivializing and carnivalizing the movement and its people. An examination of selected television news reports about Occupy reveals, on the one hand, how the media fetishized the sounds of protest and, on the other hand, how they proved themselves incapable of coming to terms with OWS and its complex “sonic activism.”
Although the ABC Evening News of September 25, 2011 was the first national, prime-time newscast to report on Occupy Wall Street – as second item – regular network coverage did not begin until one week later. Once they realized that something of more than local interest was occurring in New York City (and elsewhere) and that they could not avoid reporting on it, the so-called “big three” television networks began to feature live reports from protest sites.(33) These stories received typical television news framing, with the anchor leading, followed by a live report that incorporated what the profession designates as a “voiceover-to-sound”: the reporter reads while images and sound play in the background until a particular “news-maker” video with sound is interjected.(34) Decisive is the importance and force of the sound, which if representing spoken words or if otherwise aurally compelling, would require that the reporter temporarily relinquish control. However, the ongoing interpolation of images and sounds is supposed to render the report more believable, and the reporter can always frame a powerful sound bite with her own guiding or manipulative commentary.
In the case of the Occupy Wall Street coverage, the soundscapes of the encampments and associated activities provided the television microphones with convenient “sound beds” for the in-studio story, the live report and the embedded “news-maker” videos.(35) In his reporting on the spreading protests on October 5, 2011, for example, Scott Pelley’s CBS Evening News lead begins over a still shot of demonstrators – the most prominent of whom significantly holds a megaphone (graphic: “Wall Street Protests”) – that, after fifteen seconds, becomes an audio-visual bed of protest under his narration:
Just before he leads into Michelle Miller, live in Zuccotti Park, we hear and see one round of “We Are the 99%” as bed. Behind her live report are the inchoate mass sounds of the encampment in Zuccotti Park, which establish the authenticity of the shot, but also serve to underline her ultimate skepticism about the group’s unified goals. The report proceeds to a series of interview sound bites from “typical” protesters, initially intercut with the sights and sounds of demonstrators – during the interviews, the background sounds provide a backdrop, as it often does for Miller’s voiceover. A fairly typical newscast strategy is deployed for several of the interviewees, whereby a protester is introduced through a voiceover with accompanying video that captures that person participating in some protest activity. At about 2:15 into the segment, for example, we are introduced to Patricia Walsh, who is seen joining vocal protesters (for about two seconds), validating her credentials just before her sound bite. The report closes with the live story tag, bringing the news consumer back to the present of Zuccotti Park without any definitive summation or conclusions: the circus goes on.
The media components are the same for Pelley’s CBS Evening News coverage of the “Day of Action” on November 17, only Jim Axelrod’s report relies more on sound bites than interviews:
At 0:48 we see and hear police action (Axelrod twice pauses the voiceover to enable the sounds to carry the narrative); at 1:08 a chorus chanting “We Are the 99%” is inserted, Axelrod entering seconds later while the report turns that chant into a sound bed for other moving images of protest; at 1:16 that soundscape gives way to other voices of protesters at various locations (including the subway); at 2:10 marchers chant “Occupy Wall Street” (initially without voiceover). Throughout, Axelrod takes a skeptical position, whether doubting the announced size of the protest groups or suggesting demonstrators stood to alienate the general public – this overall tenor tends to vitiate and trivialize the chants and other instances of musicking.
Local newscasting has received less scholarly attention than that of the national networks, yet for some media scholars it occupies a more significant role in the construction of personal narrative and identity than the national feeds, even though the formats of local news programming closely resemble each other (see, for example, Allen 2001; Rosenstiel et al. 2007). In their study from 2008, Belt and Just were surprised to find that local news consumers exhibited interest in “quality journalism” and not just “soft and tabloid stor[ies],” which moreover “may contain a policy or ‘hard news’ element” (Belt and Just 2008: 197). To that end, the Occupy protests represented a boon to local stations, since they at once offered the local human interest story while maintaining a clearly political perspective. However, local stations did not significantly deviate from the script of the national networks in the latent carnivalization of the movement through sound and music.
In her report on the Occupy Tampa General Assembly on October 6, for example, Janelle Martinez from ABC Action News opens from Lykes Gaslight Park with the words “they say they’re against corporate greed, but when you ask them exactly what that means, or what they want, well that’s where the message kind of falls apart.”
After panning over the encampment, the report presents a three-second sound bite of protesters chanting “We Are the 99%” followed by her voice-over at 0:57, which is interspersed with sound bites: “It’s a peaceful protest, with all the chanting / We Are the 99% / drumbeats / [close-up of rhythmic drumming] / and dancing [simultaneous video of dancing] you might expect / [person dancing to drums].” Like Axelrod, Martinez focuses on an unlikely protester (a mother) and then presents sound bites from Occupy participants. At 2:08 her voice-over delivers the indicative text: “They admit they don’t have a detailed plan for what they want, but say today is about getting noticed [sounds of chanting protesters as bed] and gaining support.” Demonstrators clued into Martinez’s presence, so for the return to her live report as tag they provided an “improvised” chanted bed of “We Are the 99%.” The viewer is left with the impression that music is integral to Occupy, but its character and diversity reflect more of a circus-like gathering or happening than a serious political-economic protest in the sense of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.
We can multiply the examples, yet the results would remain the same:(36) the sonic markers of Occupy, such as the human microphone, collective chanting and individual drumming, are exploited by television news programs to capture news consumers’ interest for their own reporting, while allowing that same multifarious soundscape to symbolize the movement’s lack of coherence and carnival atmosphere. After all, how could a movement that chants, sings, dances and drums be taken seriously?
Even as these peaceful manifestations of protest continued in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, the network coverage all but disappeared during the course of October until the violent confrontations took place between police and Occupy Oakland protesters on October 25, which was followed by the general strike there on November 2. As the levels of conflict rose, the cameras and microphones of the television stations and networks returned to Occupy, capturing the altercations as well as the militant chants of demonstrators, who knew how to sonically and visually take advantage of the media. This was the type of protest action that the reporters, local stations and national networks understood, harkening back to the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war protests: two clearly defined forces engaged in physical confrontation, with an unequal distribution of power in favour of the police authorities who participated in bloody acts against protesters. The subsequent encampment evictions in November occasioned further coverage, and it is interesting to note how the reports from deserted Occupy sites seem to fetishize the silence, even as they had fixated on the sounds of the movement.
(30) Regarding the human microphone, see Chris Garces (2012).
(31) Drawing upon Erving Goffman’s 1974 study of frame analysis, David Snow and Robert Benford developed a theory of collective frames, which defines them as “action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization,” whereby individuals willingly enter and participate in a group based on these shared beliefs (Snow and Benford 2000: 614).
(32) The Tea Party faced the same critique, although as Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin (2011: 28-29) have demonstrated, it was well organized at the local level.
(33) This term is used to designate the three primary commercial networks in United States television between the late 1940s and the 1980s: ABC, CBS and NBC.
(34) For a fairly complete list of television newscasting terms, see Jones (2005: 279-296).
(35) In fact, when describing the “sound bed,” Kapfer uses the example of the sound of protesters at the opening of a nuclear plant.
(36) Some of the television reports have been collected and posted on YouTube (at times with music soundtrack) by local Occupy chapters and sympathetic media organizations, from the local (“Misc. TV News Clips - Occupy Richmond - Richmond, Virginia”), to the national (“OCCUPY Wallstreet news stories PRT1” and “OCCUPY Wallstreet news stories prt2”), and the critical and satirical (“Real and Jive News coverage of Occupy Eviction NYC”).
The encampments, those visible markers of the movement, were largely de-occupied during the course of November and December, not without the televised sounds of clashes between protesters and police. Attempts in early 2012 to revive the site-based Occupy protests under the guise of Re-Occupy failed to take hold, but in many ways the movement had already achieved certain of its goals, especially with regard to drawing public attention toward issues of corporate greed and income inequity and making Americans aware of the activities of OWS (which then affiliated with other activist groups). That sound and music were complicit in achieving these aims of informing the citizenry stood to reason, but the diverse sonic tactics that caught the attention of media microphones became markers for a movement that ostensibly lacked clearly articulated goals, and thus rendered Occupy vulnerable to trivialization in television news reporting.
The ongoing protests in Southern Europe against austerity measures and the student demonstrations in Québec against tuition increases follow a more traditional, hierarchical mode of collective protest – orator with a microphone, chanting crowd in response, and the like – that facilitates media representation.(37) Nevertheless, it is important to note that television and other broadcast media (especially the internet) did capture the sonic practices of Occupy.(38) As a result, chants like “We Are the 99%” and “The Whole World Is Watching” remain as audible traces in the ears of television audiences. The human microphone and its potential for empowerment – whether egalitarian or totalitarian – also served as a source for public debate, and the sounds of drumming circles may continue to conjure up images of OWS encampments. Such sonic practices may be transitory phenomena, but it cannot be denied that the sounds of protest briefly (re-)occupied television speakers in living rooms across North America.
(37) Starting in February 2012, university students in the Canadian province of Québec staged a strike over a plan to raise tuition fees. The protest actions included marches, rallies, and short-term occupations, but no encampments in the sense of Occupy.
(38) Since the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other streaming media have served as vehicles of choice for disseminating information about protests, both to assemble potential participants and to record and narrate the events of a particular action.
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