Media Choreography and the Occupy LA Raid


During the Los Angeles Police Department's forcible removal of the Occupy LA protest last night, they chose 12 reporters and photographers to represent the media as a whole.* This is called a "media pool" -- and it used to be a fairly time-honored, if oft-derided, way of dealing with very specific types of situations. The original idea was that a select group of mainstream media journalists go into a military engagement, report their observations to a larger group, and then everyone could write from the same observed facts.

Growing beyond its military borders, the media pool concept has been deployed during political conventions, high-profile trials, and in a few other cases. In all cases, though, as summarized in the Encyclopedia of Television, the pool "offers those who employ it a way to manage media coverage."

It strikes me as significant that the compromise developed in the 1980s after the media was barred from covering the invasion of Grenada. It also strikes me as significant that we use the term "compromise" to describe it. The first and second meanings of compromised come into play: "to settle a dispute by mutual concession" and "to weaken (a reputation or principle) by accepting standards that are lower than is desirable."

All of that brings us to last night's media pool. The LAPD deployed this old-school method in a decidedly 20th-century way. First, they didn't select a single web-based publication or alternative news outlet. Instead they allowed the Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, AP, the big four television outlets, and a two radio reporters. Anybody not in that group -- which would include reporters for every website not affiliated with a newspaper in Los Angeles, not to mention all citizens performing acts of journalism -- were told that they would be arrested if they came too close to the eviction area.

The LAPD forbade their pool reporters from reporting the events live. (Update: See bottom of the post for details. The restriction was more akin to a kind of tape-delay than an embargo.) This helped to neutralize a key informational advantage that Occupy protesters have exploited. As confrontations with police begin, they are able to use the emotional imagery from those events to draw more support in real-time. Of course, in this case, there were some people writing about the events in real-time and others livestreamed, but only if they were willing to risk arrest.

Let's stipulate that there are real issues surrounding how charged situations can or should be covered by card carrying-media or citizen journalists. Fine. Still, my thought is that this sort of media choreography cannot survive for long. The tools to record and distribute information about the world are too widely distributed. A video of protesters getting pepper sprayed has impact whether it comes from the Los Angeles Times or some dude with an iPhone.

But institutions do not have to take this democratization of reporting tools lying down. Many organizations want to control -- and are used to controlling -- media narratives. They will (I can hear Evgeny Morozov whispering into my ear) have an institutional response to the deployment of new technology by political dissenters. In this case, the LAPD has come up with a way to say that they allowed media into the eviction and they can still arrest people that they don't want to cover the event.

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