Occupy Wall Street Is A “Populist” Movement (The Tea Party Is Not)

News coverage of Occupy Wall Street is starting to pick up.

Although the media attention, and specifically the television interest, lags far behind what the emerging Tea Party enjoyed during its early days, the ongoing protests entrenched in New York City's Financial District show new signs of growth as they enter their third week. Mass arrests over the weekend, along with the fact the protests have entered a semi-permanent stage in lower Manhattan, has likely prompted reporters and producers to give the progressive event a second look, after mostly dismissing the happening last month.

However, when covering Occupy Wall Street, the press still refuses to accurately label the protests as what they are: a distinctly populist uprising.

Condemning criminal behavior and the sweeping destruction Wall Street's big banks and their executives have caused the U.S. economy in recent years, Occupy Wall Street's message is without question a populist one. (i.e. "Populism: A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.") And it's an agenda that strikes an anti-Wall Street chord with the American people.

So why don't the dispatches from Zuccotti Park, home base for the growing anti-Wall Street movement, include that alluring, on-the-side-of-the-people phrase that so many politicians covet? And more importantly, why isn't the press heralding Occupy Wall Street as a populist movement when reporters and pundits have spent the last three years declaring, in unison, that the right-wing, Obama-hating Tea Party movement is a “populist” one, when it most certainly is not.

The press has been profoundly wrong about the Tea Party since the very beginning. Far from being a populist surge, the partisan-to-the-core movement remains completely divorced from the traditional sense of what “populism” has stood for in American politics. (Reactionary? Yes. Populist? No way.)

The Tea Party practically worships at the alter of big business and millionaires, whom the movement seems willing to sacrifice its political life for in order to protect them from paying higher taxes. That's not populism. But trying hold Wall Street accountable most definitely is.

Remember when Tea Party forerunners Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh ran to the defense of white-collar executives at financial services giant AIG when it was suggested they give back their cushy bonuses since the company had to be bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $170 billion? (Beck in particular became completely unglued at the prospect of millionaire AIG executives being forced to forfeit some of their pay.)

Or what about oil giant BP and the right-wing reaction when the Obama administration, in an effort to hold the company accountable for its historic spill, secured $20 billion from BP to pay for the cleanup and to compensate working Americans for the damage done to their livelihoods. How did leaders of the Tea Party media movement (i.e. Fox News) react to that? They defended the oil spill giant, of course.

And don't forget that in the summer of 2009, self-described Tea Party members stormed town hall forums and freaked out at the prospect of private insurance giants having to face public competition. So yes, it's a movement born, in part, out of its desire to protest on behalf of insurance companies.

How defending insurance and petroleum giants represents a struggle against the elites on behalf of working people is beyond me. In fact, the Tea Party embrace represents the opposite of what populism stands for.

The press has spent years erroneously labeling the distinctly conservative, big business, pro-status quo movement as “populist.” (See here, here, here and here.) Yet today, there's a truly grassroots, truly anti-elite movement unfolding in New York City and the same political press corps sees very little that's “populist” about it?

Note that one of the first detailed dispatches the New York Times published about Occupy Wall Street, by Ginia Bellafante, produced a sweepingly dismissive review of the unfolding protests.

As Allison Kilkinney explained in The Nation:

Ginia Bellafante gives a devastating account of the event's attendees, depicting them as scatterbrained, sometimes borderline-psychotic transients.

Bellafante, who is not a reporter but a columnist for the Times, offered a representation of the protesters that is as muddled as the amalgam of activists' motives she presents in the span of the article.

Little in the Times piece hinted at, let alone celebrated, the populist foundation of the downtown protests.

I wonder if there's an inherent newsroom perception that suggests liberal protesters are confused hippies, but right-wing protesters represent the masses; that they're “inherently more newsworthy and deserving of sustained coverage than left wing ones,” as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent suggested.

Truth is, one of the only mainstream outlets I've seen that captured the true nature of Occupy Wall Street, as well as contrasted it with the faux populism of the Tea Party, was New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, and its recent, dead-on editorial [emphasis added]:

Occupy Wall Street, a protest against bank bailouts and corporate greed, is what the tea party should have been -- probably would have been -- if the movement hadn't been hijacked by savvy conservatives, bankrolled by billionaires and fictitiously portrayed as an everyman revolt.

Instead of channeling the anger and helplessness of everyday Americans, the tea party instead has argued for spending cuts that have hurt them.

Rather than calling for stricter controls on reckless Wall Street financiers, tea party members (and mainstream Republicans) have knelt at the altar of the super rich -- calling them “job creators” and defeating every proposal to increase their tax rates, which are at historic lows.

In terms of landing additional press coverage, the liberal media watchdog group FAIR recently suggested that if Occupy Wall Street organizers “want more media attention, they should just call themselves Tea Party activists.”

So true. And if liberal protesters want to be described in the press as people-powered “populists,” they should also just call themselves Tea party activists.