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Occupy Wall Street, Mass Media and Progressive Change in the Tea Party Era: Our Window of Opportunity

Better understanding how both OWS and the Tea Party are discussed in media should remain a major focus of those concerned with promoting bottom-up notions of grassroots democracy.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is spreading throughout the United States and the world.

It is captivating media attention in the United States in a way no left social movement has in recent history. Regular reporting of public anger at business elites has led some to compare OWS to the Tea Party with regard to both forces’ “insurgent,” “revolutionary” themes and their support for “rebellion” against the status quo.

Questions about how both the Tea Party and OWS are portrayed in the mass media are still emerging, however, considering the freshness of OWS in American politics. Better understanding how both OWS and the Tea Party are discussed in popular dialogue and media should remain a major focus of those concerned with promoting bottom-up notions of grassroots democracy.

Considering the freshness of OWS, many questions still remain with regard to whether it is a real social movement. From our limited experiences participating in OWS thus far (in New York, Illinois and Iowa), it certainly appears to have many of the basic prerequisites of a movement, in terms of participation across a wide number of demographic groups, regular protests in towns and cities across the country and the world, strong resistance from much of the political-economic establishment, and in terms of OWS’s strong opposition to co-optation by national Democratic Party elites. Most starkly, OWS protesters’ extended willingness to occupy public spaces in solidarity with one another suggests that OWS is solidifying into a serious social movement, likely one of the most important since the civil rights era.

Whether the group will further develop and sustain a mass activist base in terms of regular planning meetings and mass marches, and whether it will coalesce around a specific set of demands that differ from those of the corporatist Democrats, remains to be seen. OWS appears to be in the process of fleshing out many of its demands and still overwhelmingly relies on a very general anger with the state of the economy. It is not an electoral force with a specific list of demands, and it has not sought to take over the Democratic Party or form a third party to date. These realities, however, may represent a major strength of OWS, as it enjoys the potential to remain independent of the corruptions that increasingly define the major parties. OWS’s ultimate success may be in its potential to change the political-cultural values for the masses on a more general level. Such a success by OWS could force major political change without the movement being co-opted into the major party system.

  • According to one theme that quickly became popular in academic and mainstream media circles this fall, OWS’s spread from New York City’s financial district to more than 800 locations by mid-October of 2011 is the left-wing version of the Tea Party. One variant of this tale referred to OWS as the Democratic Party’s version of the Tea Party. The storyline drew on a number of obvious and undeniable parallels. Like the Tea Party phenomenon, which broke out in the late winter and spring of 2009 and significantly influenced US politics on behalf of the Republican Party at the federal and state levels in the mid-term elections of November 2010, OWS:[1]
  • Opposes the federal government’s massive bailout of the nation’s leading financial institutions.
  • Speaks in loud and angry terms and populist, anti-establishment language on behalf of “the people” against arrogant and greedy elites.
  • Inveighs in stark and dramatic terms about the subversion of American democracy, freedom, and prosperity by concentrated power and tyranny, and calls for taking America back from the agents and forces of subversion.
  • Is disproportionately white (Caucasian) in composition.
  • Expresses the sense that something has gone fundamentally wrong in America and that fundamental changes are required to restore balance, decency and democracy.
  • Appeals to a rising mass of Americans who feel that “the system no longer works for them” and who complain that they are getting nowhere despite playing by all the rules and working hard.
  • Is driven by “anxiety about the economy [and] belief that big institutions favor the reckless over the hard-working” (New York Times reporter Kate Zernike).[2]
  • Advances grievances that seem “inchoate and contradictory” (Zernike) to many observers.
  • Conducts demonstrations, protests and rallies against designated tyrannical targets beyond and between candidate-centered elections.
  • Claims to be independent, partisan and leaderless, beyond the control of the dominant two establishment business parties (the Republicans and the Democrats).
  • Posts themselves as legitimate expressions of “‘the people”‘ over and against dreaded and demonized others.
  • Expanded quickly thanks in large part to outside sponsorship and excited media coverage. This final point is one of the most important that we track in this essay, with regard to explaining the rapid proliferation of OWS.

Beneath and beyond these easily noticeable similarities, however, deep and fundamental differences significantly undermine the core equivalence and parallels that are commonly posited between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. As we showed in our book, “Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics” (Paradigm, 2011), the conventional, quickly entrenched and mainstreamed media description of “the Tea Party” as a refreshing, independent-nonpartisan, anti-establishment, insurgent, grassroots, populist and democratic force that constituted a leaderless and decentralized popular social and political protest movement was deeply inaccurate – every bit as false as Tea Partiers’ fallacious claim that Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the nation’s dominant corporate media are part of the “radical socialist Left.”

“Crashing the Tea Party” exposes an ugly, authoritarian and fake-populist pseudomovement directed from above and early on by and for elite Republican and business interests such as the right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch and the longtime leading Republican operative Dick Armey. Its active membership and leadership are far from “grassroots” and “popular,” far more affluent and reactionary than the US citizenry as a whole and even than the segment of the populace that purports (at the prompting of some pollsters) to feel “sympathy” for the Tea Party.

The real Tea Party phenomenon, we discovered, is relatively well off and Middle American (not particularly disadvantaged), very predominantly white, racist, militaristic, narcissistic, hostile to the poor, deeply undemocratic, profoundly ignorant and deluded, heavily paranoid and overly reliant on propagandistic right-wing news and commentary for basic political information. Many of its leaders and members exhibit profound philosophic contempt for collective action, a disturbing and revealing uniformity of rhetoric across groups, cities and regions, a stunning absence of real and deeply rooted local organizing, and a predominant prioritization of Republican electioneering over grassroots protest of any kind.

The Tea Party, we discovered, is not a social movement at all, in fact; rather, it is a loose conglomeration of partisan interest groups that is set on returning the Republican Party to power. It is astroturf and partisan-Republican in orientation. It is not an “uprising” against a corrupt political system or against the established social order. Rather, it is a reactionary, top-down manifestation of that system, dressed up and sold as an outsider rebellion set on changing the rules in Washington. Far from being anti-establishment, the Tea Party is a classic, right-wing, and fundamentally Republican, racist and victim-blaming epitome of what the formerly left political commentator Christopher Hitchens once called “the essence of American politics”: “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

In terms of social movements, everything the Tea Party pretended to be and wasn’t, OWS displays the potential to be. Unlike the Tea Party, which was launched top down from the arch-Republican heights by Republican-operative groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Express, OWS really did spring up from outside and from beneath the political establishment. It emerged from the dedicated activism of anarchist and other radically democratic activists acting on an extremely clever and powerful suggestion on the part the Canadian anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters – to occupy the belly of the world capitalist financial beast in New York City’s financial district on the model of the revolutionary Egyptians who seized Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011.

Unlike the Tea Party, OWS really is a leaderless phenomenon, making decisions through a militantly democratic and decentralized process embodied in its nightly General Assembly process. OWS really is populist at a grassroots level, targeting the nation’s leading economic institutions and modern capitalism’s extreme concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the “1 percent”: the unelected dictatorship of money that controls both of the nation’s major political parties and so much more. OWS really does appear to be a genuine social movement, with demands, slogans, tactics, philosophies and practices regularly percolating up from the grassroots, not from the top down (that is, from the billionaire arch-reactionary Koch brothers, Armey’s FreedomWorks and Fox News).

At this point in its development, OWS is far more independent of establishment partisan politics, refusing to embrace candidates of either the Democratic or Republican Party. It has seen recent significant efforts at co-optation from Democratic Party officials, although protesters at the rank-and-file level have bitterly complained about such co-optation in light of the refusal of the Democratic Party to reconsider its corporatist, pro-Wall Street orientation.

As the 2012 campaign heats up and large majorities of voters share OWS’s hostility toward concentrated wealth and power, the Democratic Party is predictably trying to position itself to draw strength and gain electoral advantage from OWS. It hopes to turn OWS to its benefit in the same way that the GOP benefited from the Tea Party in 2010. But it is not likely to succeed in that endeavor. OWS articulates a social movement and direct action orientation that rejects the candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas that big money and media masters stage for the populace every two and four years, saying, “That’s politics – the only politics that matters.”

A recent survey of OWS protesters in New York finds that most disapprove of Obama and are strongly disillusioned with the Democratic party in light of its establishment, pro-Wall Street politics. Ninety-seven percent say they disapprove of Congress. A plurality of OWS protesters claim to identify with no political party, while 11 percent identify themselves openly as socialists and another 11 percent identify as Green Party members. Most are significantly to the left of center in describing their ideological orientations (80 percent claim to be liberal, 40 percent very liberal), compared to the increasingly center-right Democratic Party.[3]

OWS activists get it that, as the late, great radical American historian Howard Zinn used to say, “It’s not about who’s sitting in the White House. It’s about who’s sitting in.” As Arun Gupta has noted, “It is difficult to imagine a Michele Bachmann or Eric Cantor emerging as a standard-bearer of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” And, Gupta adds, “given their reliance on Wall Street money, as well as radical demands from many protesters, the Democrats will find it almost impossible to channel ‘the 99%’ into an electoral tidal wave next year, the way the Republicans rode the Tea Party to victory in 2010.”

Unlike the Tea Party, OWS is no adjunct of the dominant party system and does not focus ultimately on electoral objectives. Its targets go deeper than partisan politics, reaching down to taproot national and global capitalist financial institutions and corporations that hold leading national parties, policies and governments hostage to the profit interests of the wealthy few.

It really is an independent-nonpartisan, anti-establishment, insurgent, populist force that actively and fluidly represents longstanding majority public dissatisfaction with concentrated wealth and power. This is no small part of why it has inspired hundreds of sympathetic copycat movements and occupations not only across the United States, but also (in a significant contrast with the white nationalist Tea Party phenomenon) around the world.

As a corollary to these core differences, the Tea Party and OWS have received considerably different responses from government authorities and the dominant corporate media. As a pseudomovement that is strictly aligned with existing dominant domestic and global hierarchies of class, race and empire, Tea Party activists have faced little if anything in the way of state repression. They pose no threat whatsoever to the existing corporate, military, sexist, eco-cidal and structurally racist state, and, therefore, operate largely free of government harassment, surveillance, arrest, violence and incarceration.

Things are very different with OWS. Its genuinely radical-populist and democratic character and its basic opposition to the aforementioned hierarchies have meant that it has repeatedly been subjected to arrest, brutality and surveillance from state authorities.

Interestingly, media coverage of OWS has been quite varied, depending on the media outlet, but, generally speaking, it has been strongly sympathetic. In terms of variation, some media outlets are strongly supportive, while others are fiercely opposed. In the opposition camp are the right-wing Fox News, The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other news organizations. The Washington Times’ editors dismiss OWS protesters as little more than “whiners” and “crybabies” who are “desperate to blame others for their poor life choices” – “Wall Street occupiers represent the problem, not the solution.”[4]

Similarly, the editors of the reactionary Wall Street Journal lament the protests as out of step with the American public’s anger, which the editors (falsely) claim resides exclusively “a few hundred miles south of Wall Street” in Washington DC.[5] That a plurality of Americans agreed with OWS protesters (over their Tea Party competitors), and that most blame both government and Wall Street for failing the American people, seems largely irrelevant in the paternalistic scolding expressed in The Wall Street Journal.

Much of the commentary in the Wall Street Journal amounts to little more than vulgar propaganda and distortion. The same editorial which criticizes OWS would have Americans (and the world) believe that the primary causes of the economic crisis today are:

  1. Obama’s mildly populist rhetoric (in early 2009) as directed against the banks and their reckless lending practices (criticisms which he quickly retracted after an outpouring of Wall Street rage);
  2. The extremely mild government reforms as directed against Wall Street (personified in the Dodd-Frank legislation) which legally required toxic derivatives investments (which helped cause the global 2008 economic crisis) to be the subject of federal regulation; and
  3. Talk among Democrats of a very modest increase in personal income taxes for the wealthiest 1 percent – as personified in Obama’s proposal to increase the highest tax bracket to 39 percent (from the current 35 percent) for that portion of individuals’ yearly income that exceeds $379,150. This mild increase translates into a return to the Clinton era’s (also admittedly mild) levels of taxation. Ignoring right-wing fearmongering is the reality that even Clinton-era tax law amounted to a dramatic scaling back of previous top tax bracket rates (of 90 percent) during the 1950s, Eisenhower’s golden era of capitalism.

Propaganda masquerading as informed comment does not stop with the above comments. The Wall Street Journal also lends credence to a widely discredited “study” by right-wing pollster Douglas Schoen, who argued (inaccurately) that a “large majority” of OWS protesters support “radical redistribution of wealth” and express “opposition to free-market capitalism.”[6] A closer look at Schoen’s own survey results finds that only very small minorities of OWS protesters express support for these views, despite Schoen’s brazen misrepresentations of his data.[7]

Despite the propaganda, fearmongering and hate expressed above, much (perhaps most) of the reporting on OWS was strongly sympathetic in two ways.

First, OWS is receiving a significant amount of attention in terms of volume of coverage and salience as an issue. A study by the Pew Research Center finds that coverage in early October 2011 reached 7 percent of all media coverage, at a time when protests were picking up steam. This compared quite well to the Tea Party national protests, which also received 7 percent of all news coverage during mid-April 2009.[8]

In contrast, Tea Party coverage was even more extensive in September to November of 2011, accounting for 13 percent of all media coverage – a full 5 percentage points more attention than that directed at OWS in October 2011.[9] Our own research finds mixed evidence of favoritism in terms of volume of coverage. As the data chart immediately below suggests, five out of seven major American news outlets actually devoted more attention to the OWS (October 2011) protests than to the Tea Party (April 2010) protests, when measured in two-week increments following the beginning of each group’s rallies.[10]

However, volume of coverage heavily favors the Tea Party when comparing coverage of OWS (October 2011) and the Tea Party in the two weeks prior to and after the November 2, 2010 election. Extensive coverage of and favoritism toward the Tea Party in this later period is likely due to media outlets magnifying the importance of the Tea Party as it was being embraced wholeheartedly as an integral part of Republican Party politics during a major election.


Quality of content was also quite mixed in terms of reporting, although media outlets were visibly biased in favor of the Tea Party. Editorially speaking, there was quite a bit of support for OWS in the elite liberal press. The New York Times, for example, sympathized with the OWS message:

At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity…. The protesters’ own problems are only one illustration of the ways in which the economy is not working for most Americans. They are exactly right when they say that the financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. As the bad times have endured, Americans have also lost their belief in redress and recovery.”[11]

Columnists at The New York Times such as Paul Krugman agreed, as he remarked that, “we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people [Wall Street].”[12]

Other elite outlets such as The Washington Post followed suit. For example, op-ed writer Greg Sargent appeared quite sympathetic to OWS when he asked “whether the energy unleashed by the movement can be leveraged behind a concrete political agenda and a push for change that will constitute a meaningful challenge to the inequality and excessive Wall Street influence highlighted by the protests.”[13] In another piece, Sargent argued in the Post that “a plurality of Americans agree with Occupy Wall Street’s diagnosis of what’s wrong. Despite a relentless effort from the right to portray the movement as radical and extreme, a plurality says it reflects the views of mainstream America.”[14]

Counted under such agreements were opinions (revealed in national polling) suggesting that a majority of Americans agree with progressive proposals such as increasing federal aid to states in order to avoid public-worker layoffs, payroll tax cuts for the working class in the name of stimulating the economy, increased government spending on improving the nation’s infrastructure and increased taxation on the wealthiest one percent in the name of reducing the budget deficit.

Systematic analysis finds that OWS receives quite sympathetic coverage in general, although the Tea Party receives even more sympathetic coverage. The data in the table below suggest that, examining the two-week periods following both the April 2010 Tea Party protests and the October 2011 OWS demonstrations, in six out of seven news outfits, reporters were more likely to classify the Tea Party (as compared to OWS) as a genuine, grassroots movement. In our comparison of reporting on the October 2011OWS rallies to Tea Party reporting in the two weeks prior to and following the November 2010 election, stories were also more likely to favor the Tea Party .


The relative favoritism directed toward the Tea Party represents a sort of double bias, considering that our findings already suggested that the Tea Party is not a genuine social movement, while OWS (at least in its early stages) appears to exhibit many of the classical characteristics of a movement. Still, OWS does quite well for itself (at least standing on its own) in reporting, considering the strong support it received in elite papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and in light of the fact that a majority of news stories in five of the seven outlets examined refer to OWS as a genuine social movement.

The above findings should be of no surprise to critical media scholars. Movements (and even false movements) traditionally receive significant attention and sympathetic coverage when they are embraced (or at least rhetorically supported) by major political parties. Conversely, movements that go against the establishment-political grain are typically ignored and vilified (on the rare occasions when they are reported). The above findings (in terms of sympathetic OWS coverage, but even-more-sympathetic Tea Party coverage) could have been predicted considering that the Democratic Party is at least rhetorically embracing and attempting to co-opt OWS, while the Tea Party has long been courted, celebrated and thoroughly absorbed into Republican establishment politics.

In other words, the Tea Party’s relatively greater partisan support accounts for its relatively more favorable coverage. Tea Party supporters may challenge the depiction of their group as “establishment-oriented,” although a mountain of empirical evidence – documented in our forthcoming book, “The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama” – suggests otherwise.

Supporters of OWS should look to sympathetic media reporting as an opportunity to expand the movement to new segments of the American public. As with the Tea Party, favorable media reporting appears to be creating positive impressions of OWS among the public. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggests as much. Pew’s October 2011 survey finds that increased public attentiveness to the political debate and media reporting on OWS is correlated with increased public approval of the group. Those following OWS “fairly closely” or “very closely” are more than 2.5 times more likely to support the group, compared to those following OWS “not too closely” or “not at all closely.”[15]

The American left has long been distrustful of the mass media, which regularly ignore progressive social movements due to their lack of usefulness to those who hold political power. OWS represents one of those rare opportunities where the Democratic Party and the state-reliant mass media claim to be sympathetic toward its rhetoric and demands. This, no doubt, is due to the electoral value that OWS retains for Democrats seeking to get re-elected next year. The challenge for the left will be to continue to garner sympathetic media coverage and attention, while also finding ways to challenge Obama’s corporatist, pro-Wall Street agenda.

Walking this tightrope is no easy task, but it may be the only path toward building a movement that is able to reach out to the masses while also offering serious progressive and democratic change.


1. In thinking about these parallels, we have consulted (among other sources) Arun Gupta, “Where OWS and the Tea Party are coming from,” Salon (October 21, 2011); John Avlon, “Tea Party for the Left?” Daily Beast, 10 October, 2011.

2. Kate Zernike, “Wall St. Protest Isn’t Like Ours, Tea Party Says,” New York Times, 21 October 2011.

3. Douglas Schoen, “Polling the Occupy Wall Street Crowd,” Wall Street Journal, 18 October 2011; Marjorie Connelly, “Occupy Protesters Down on Obama, Survey Finds,” New York Times, 28 October 2011.

4. Editorial, “The Wall Street Whiners,” Washington Times, 18 October 2011.

5. Editorial, “What’s Occupying Wall Street?” Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2011.

6. Schoen, “Polling the Occupy Wall Street Crowd,” 2011.

7. Judd Legum, “Douglas Schoen Grossly Misrepresents His Own Poll Results to Smear Occupy Wall Street,” ThinkProgress, 18 October 2011.

8. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Coverage of Wall Street Protests Keeps Growing, Gets More Political,” Pew Research Center, 10-16 October 2011.

9. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The 2010 Midterms: A Tea Party Tale,” Pew Research Center, 11 January 2011.

10. Our data is drawn from an analysis of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street print stories and television transcripts, as made available via the LexisNexis academic database.

11. Editorial, “Protesters Against Wall Street,” New York Times, 8 October 2011.

12. Paul Krugman, “Confronting the Malefactors,” New York Times, 6 October 2011.

13. Greg Sargent, “Next Up: ‘Occupy Congress’,” Washington Post, 19 November 2011, 25(A).

14. Greg Sargent, “The Morning Plum,” Washington Post, 26 October 2011.

15. Pew Research Center, “Public Divided Over Occupy Wall Street Movement,” Pew Research Center, 24 October 2011.