I don’t know how Occupy Wall Street will impact the 2012 election, but one thing seems pretty clear: it’s changed the national conversation.
A few short months ago, the corporate media and inside-the-Beltway chatter was all debt and deficits, all the time.
Occupy changed that. It reset the media narrative so it’s more aligned with the true crises of our times—income inequality, downward mobility and economic fairness. It’s also renewed attention to corporate accountability and the corrosive role of corporate money in politics.
Just look at the media’s use of the words “inequality” and “greed” post-Occupy. As Peter Dreier notes, a Lexis/Nexis search shows that US newspapers published 409 stories with the word “inequality” in October 2010. Through September 2011, the number of stories about “inequality” remained roughly the same. But in October 2011, when OWS erupted across the country and overseas, the frequency skyrocketed to 1,269 stories.
You can see a similar pattern with stories on “greed.” Between October 2010 and September 2011, “greed” stories fluctuated between 452 and 728. But in October of that year newspapers stories on greed jumped to 2,285.
And the “Occupy Effect” continues. As of mid-January there were 455 mentions of “inequality” in US newspaper articles, and 549 mentions of “greed.” So just halfway through the month, the figures had already reached the total monthly usage pre-Occupy.
As New York Times columnist Charles Blow puts it, “On this point, we must applaud the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It took income inequality and corporate responsibility out of the shadows and into the streets.”
Here are just some of the articles that reflect the impact of Occupy:
In November, Time magazine ran a cover story, “What Ever Happened To Upward Mobility?” Just this month, the New York Times ran a “dialogue” on “Mobility and Inequality in Today’s America,” as well as a front page story “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs.” The Washington Post ran this terrific and humorous piece by Nation contributor Barbara Ehrenreich exploring the disconnect between the über-wealthy and the rest of us. Even Town & Country—the quintessential magazine of the 1 percent—ran “The Millionaires of Occupy Wall Street” this month, which worked hard to portray its crowd as sympathetic to Occupy.
Here’s more: Reuters recently announced a new “Income, Inequality & Access” beat in DC, and posted a great article on poverty-level wages in New York City. Tapping into people’s frustration with the hyper-conglomeratized banking industry, the New York Times ran a 2,500-word profile of a 130-year-old microbank in upstate New York that lends to people in the town with the greatest need, saving residents from losing their homes, and taking modest profits. (Imagine, a bank that puts the people it serves on equal footing with the profits it makes—revolutionary!)
When Occupy Wall Street contributed to the fierce backlash against proposed debit card fees, and the subsequent migration to community banks and credit unions, the media covered the protests at Bank of America and its Big Bank brethren. Now Occupy is being covered as part of the mobilization to get money out of politics, and along with the work of other groups, Occupy helped create the political climate that halted a weak settlement between the Obama administration, state attorneys general and the Big Banks that would have prevented a full and fair investigation into mortgage foreclosure fraud.
Public attention to these issues shows no signs of waning—in fact, just the opposite is true, it’s on the rise and Mitt Romney can’t stop it—no matter what he has to say to protesters, or how much he wants this conversation to be confined to “quiet rooms.” (Read: back-room deals between powerbrokers to preserve and protect the status quo.) Sarah Treuhaft, associate director at PolicyLink, says grassroots equity advocates who have been working on these issues for years are now much more confident to speak up about inequality. That makes sense, since according to the Pew Research Center, conflict between the rich and poor is now “the greatest source of tension in American society,” with two-thirds of Americans describing that conflict as “strong.” The New York Times credits Occupy with making Americans “more aware of the deep inequities in the economy and of the government’s responsibility to act.” President Obama certainly tapped into that trend, making economic inequality and fairness the centerpiece of his State of the Union address this week.
As Election 2012 gathers steam, the corporate media will no doubt fix on the hoopla of the horserace. Independent media has a vital role to play in ensuring that the real issues of our time which are now, at long last, front and center—thanks in no small part to Occupy—remain there.