Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Full Disclosure

When I first marched with OWS in the second Saturday of the occupation, I was troubled and confused because marchers would suddenly leap out of the march and start filming. It upset me, because I believed in the otherness of the press.

I need to unpack that belief now, a little: My family admired The Press and worked within it on and off for years. (We’re writers; journalism is a respectable way to spend one’s time writing that also involves a regular paycheck.) My first byline was in 4th grade, when I wrote a snarky version of the Christmas Story and the local newspaper published it Christmas Eve. *bliss*

What I believed in was the rule that reporters held themselves above and outside events so that they could more critically and clearly show the world what was going on. If you get too close to your subject, after all, you can no longer claim you are showing the objective truth. Like smearing Vaseline on your camera lens, the bonds of affection or gift-debt cast doubt on the veracity of the story you are trying to “get” …or tell or share. (Different verbs motivate different reporters.)

When I became a journalist for realz, though, I was hamstrung by that belief. With no connections to people, and no exciting events to cover in our little town, I became a press release re-writer. It wasn’t the important job I expected it to be, but the paper had to get filled somehow and my by-line was all over it. Not ever as a cover story, but I wasn’t interested in the glory of it anyway. I wanted to share helpful information with our audience.

Later, in London, I saw that my fellow journalists did make connections with people. …Mostly through pub crawls and PR bunnies. Since I was a teetotaler and a girl, that left me out of those information loops. I continued to re-write press releases, with an occasional data-driven story, but with a vague sense that I was not ever going to “get” a really *juicy* story, because I was trying so hard to be objective.

Because I was specifically trying not to create bonds that would affect how I told the story, I never got The Story. (Though I did get a lot of swag. PR Bunnies will send you neat stuff in the mail whatever your sex.) Still, it was a commitment that I had kept for my self-respect as a journalist.

When I marched with OWS, I was a marcher. It felt wrong and strange and odd that others could slip between marcher and observer and marcher again with such ethical ease. I was suspicious.

And yet, without them recording themselves and each other and me there would have been no story to get: The women who got pepper sprayed would not have made it into the collective national story if there had not been a camera filming for every couple of marchers shouting.

The ubiquity of cameras, especially after Liberty Square became a tourist destination, became problematic (for me). Yes, people were living their lives in public—but it was uncomfortable for me, who slipped in and out, to have all these cameras shoved in my face (and all these reporters shoving themselves in my way as they took pictures of others—the privileging of journalists’ right to get their story was troubling to me, when it seemed to be more important than my right to exist and movefreely in this shared space), so I expect it was no picnic for the full-timers.

When my fellow marchers or even tourists held cameras, I felt like part of a silly spectacle. Worst case, I’d be the butt of an Internet joke. It felt mostly safe, because they usually smiled and I felt like they were One of Us. The illusion of safety was removed when the camera was held by an unsmiling cop; then, it became an obvious and clear threat. Cameras are like guns in that way: they may be neutral tools; but it really does matter who is holding them. You have to trust the person pointing at you, or you can lose your life. At least the cops are clear on who they stand with.

As Occupiers move through the grey waters of alternative journalism and alternative modes of creating and judging and living, it can feel like a betrayal when someone makes a different decision than you would on the sliding scale of law and justice and need and comfort.

It is hard and it is painful, especially after the big betrayals of “get a degree and it’ll be ok” “get a mortgage and it’ll be ok” “get lighter skin and it’ll be ok”… so many stories they told us, and the stories were lies. It hurts so much.

One more betrayal can feel like the last straw.

I’m still not sure I understand all the implications of transparency, and what it means to other people. I don’t know if privileging people who are recording events over people who are making events is healthy—and whether that dichotomy between observed and observer even makes sense in these post-modern times.

We are all out there making history in our own ways, right?

But what seems clear to me is that the first thing a reporter should be clear about to their potential audience is themselves: Who are they? What motivates them? Where do they get their funding? When are they not able to tell the whole story? Why are they out here, anyway?

I’m still not a wonderful journalist, but I am what I am: good cook, Protest Mom, human mic.
I am motivated by the dream of a future where my children (and yours) can have a better life even if it isn’t an easier life.
I am funded by my husband, who really does support me in so many ways, and I can’t tell you the rest of the story both to protect his privacy and his job.
I am here because this is where I need to be. For my family, for our non-terrifying collective future, and for my self-respect.

…And for the food. Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious.

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