It's been more than a bit surreal watching the media grapple with Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots. A month ago you could tell that many big media organizations were kind of hoping, or at least expecting, that the movement would quickly fade away.
As journalistic beats go, I suppose that covering a bunch of protesters camped out in a park is not exactly a plum assignment -- especially if you've decided in advance that they'll have no traction. Consider, specifically, The New York Times. The paper was initially so flummoxed by the protesters that it assigned one of its critics, Ginia Bellafante, who'd just taken over the paper's Big City column, to write a withering review of Occupy Wall Street as, basically, subpar theater delivered by a rather uneven troupe of performers.
In a Sept. 23 piece titled "Gunning for Wall Street , With Faulty Aim," she zoomed right in on the flakiest protesters she could find and then made fun of them (with precise aim), starting with a takedown, in her very first sentence, of "a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka." She went on: "A blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park." Elsewhere, Bellafante criticized "the group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably." (The columnist had actually telegraphed her intention to belittle and dismiss Occupy Wall Street in a tweet two days earlier: "The Wall Street protesters: passion, pizza, horns, toplessness. I fear favorable tax treatment of private equities will continue unimpeded.")
Fast forward to Oct. 8. Just two weeks after Bellafante effectively trashed Occupy Wall Street for failing to supply her with a PowerPoint slide show of demands, The New York Times editorial board pointedly endorsed the movement and its inchoate rage: "It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That's the job of the nation's leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself." And on Oct. 16, when op-ed columnist Paul Krugman wrote of the early "contemptuous dismissal" of Occupy Wall Street , it almost could be read as a rebuke of what the Times itself had been engaging in just a few weeks earlier.
The New York Times ultimately had no choice but to take the Occupy movement seriously because it's gained astonishing momentum in record time -- the Washington Post tallied Occupy-themed protests in at least 900 cities around the world so far -- and it's become politically mainstream. According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, New York City voters say they agree with the views of the Wall Street protesters by a 67% to 23% margin. And a national Time magazine poll says that the Occupy movement is twice as popular as the Tea Party movement (with favorable ratings of 54% vs. 27%).
But it's helpful to remember that for the Times and other big news organizations, covering Occupy just underscores the schizophrenia of media culture circa 2011. Because conglomeratized American media companies are every bit as good at overcompensating their upper ranks -- while continuing to bleed the rank-and-file -- as any other type of corporations.
The media oligarchy in this country is , of course, very comfortably ensconced in the so-called 1%. You may recall that a little over a year ago, a unit of the Newspaper Guild bitterly commented about the compensation The New York Times Company's Arthur O. Sulzberger and Janet Robinson received in 2009 -- a year of peak financial crisis for the conglomerate -- when those figures were revealed in spring 2010 filings.
A Guild letter to the executives read: "As President and Chief Executive Officer, you, Janet, have been given a 31.8% increase in salary, bonus, and other compensation in a single year, bringing your total compensation to $6.3 million. Arthur, as board chairman and publisher of the New York Times, your total compensation more than doubled in 2009, to $6 million. The $3.7 million that your compensation increased could pay the salary of some 75 of the people that have been laid off by the company." (Robinson's and Sulzberger's 2010 compensation packages were, respectively, $4.48 million and $4.75 million. Two weeks ago the Times offered a new round of buyouts to employees as it seeks to once again reduce headcount.)
Perhaps more to the point, though, is how the Times apportions is dwindling editorial resources. For instance, in attempting to compete more aggressively with the likes of Conde Nast for the attention of wealthy consumers, the paper has ramped up its coverage of ultra-conspicuous consumption. Consider a not-atypical fashion spread in the most recent edition of the paper's T magazine showing a waifish model wearing a $6,600 Dior dress, a $7,800 Gucci coat, a $1,850 Hermes belt, a $1,000 Eddie Borgo bracelet, an $11,900 Pomellato ring and a $34,200 Patek Philippe watch, for starters. (The U.S. annual median household income was $50,046 in 2010.)
In its Oct. 8 op-ed, the Times bemoaned the "concentration of income in today's deeply unequal society." But that concentration of income -- and the luxury brands and advertising it supports -- has helped the paper stay afloat.
Oh, the wealth-hoarding 1%! You can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em. Right, Arthur and Janet?
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.