Crashing Occupy Wall Street

Right-wing smear journalism is on display again as an American Spectator editor infiltrates the Occupy Wall Street movement in D.C., writes Eric Alterman.

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A demonstrator lies on the ground in front of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington on October 8, 2011. A right-wing magazine editor infiltrated the group of protesters at the museum. (AP/Luis Magana)
A demonstrator lies on the ground in front of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington on October 8, 2011. A right-wing magazine editor infiltrated the group of protesters at the museum. (AP/Luis Magana)

At 6:27 p.m. on October 8, on Post Now: The Breaking News Blog, two Washington Post reporters noted that “The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the Mall was abruptly closed Saturday afternoon after a ‘large group of protesters’ tried to push past security guards and enter the museum, a spokeswoman said.”

The reporters added that “At least one demonstrator was pepper-sprayed by a museum guard in the confrontation,” while “Several witnesses said that more than a dozen people were affected by the spray.” The confrontation between the protesters turned violent, according to the report, when “demonstrators pushed the guard outside and up against a wall” after a security guard told them they could not enter.

In fact, this report was woefully incomplete. The following day, on Ezra Klein’s “Wonkbook,” Suzy Khimm noted that the alleged protester who got himself pepper-sprayed at the museum, Patrick Howley, was not in fact associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement like the others, but was in truth an assistant editor at the right-wing publication The American Spectator. Playing the role of agent provocateur, Howley, by his own account, “infiltrated [the group] the day before in order to mock and undermine [it] in the pages of The American Spectator.” (Khimm noted also that “The language in the story has since been changed without explanation.”)

Accounts of the melee that focused on Howley’s confession also appeared on Think Progress earlier on October 9 and elsewhere. In fact, Howley’s own account appeared approximately the same time of The Post’s initial report. In it, Howley admitted that he was actually the only person who rushed past the guards into the museum.

“I wasn’t giving up before I had my story,” he explained. “I strained to glance behind me at the dozens of protesters I was sure were backing me up, and then I got hit again, this time with a cold realization: I was the only one who had made it through the doors. … so I was surprised to find myself a fugitive Saturday afternoon, stumbling around aircraft displays with just enough vision to keep tabs on my uniformed pursuers. ‘The museum is now closed!’”

And in what may be a new record for chutzpah combined with intellectual incoherence, he chided the protesters for failing to follow him and “push the envelope and go bold,” while simultaneously attacking them as “disruptive.” He added, “But if today’s demonstration was any indicator, they don’t have what it takes to even do that [be disruptive].”

Khimm noted that Howley’s confused behavior was not cited in most mainstream media accounts, which, like The Post, pretended that it was the protesters exclusively rather than the provocateur who helped cause the closing of the museum.

In retrospect, it may be unfair to single out The Post for its incomplete, misleading report. The Los Angeles Times report was just as narrowly cast. But it was nevertheless reminiscent of the The Post’s failure to address the myriad shortcomings of its right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin, who attempted to cast the blame for the horrific mass murders in Norway this summer on alleged Islamic terrorists and then allowed her ill-informed speculation to remain uncorrected for the following 24-hour period, discussed here and here.

Meanwhile, the tactics of Mr. Howley—committing criminal acts of provocation for the purpose of hoping to blame one’s ideological enemies—were straight out of the conservative “journalistic” playbook of James O’Keefe, protégé of Andrew Breitbart. Those antics, which have been exhaustively discussed in this column here, here, here, here, and here, for starters, ought to serve as a warning to those reporters who consider themselves professionals that what self-styled right-wing “journalists” practice is not the kind of news upon which they can rely.

Recall that when O’Keefe and Breitbart used their patented gonzo techniques involving setups, false identities, and deliberately deceptive editing of tapes to create the impression of incriminating evidence, not only was ACORN successfully destroyed, but the very highest members of the media brass, including the current top editors of both The Washington Post and The New York Times, engaged in a spectacle of public self-flagellation for their failure to follow up on the antics of these clowns.

They had to rethink their willingness to take such stories seriously when Breitbart’s tactics were revealed in his attempt to smear Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod and O’Keefe got himself arrested in New Orleans (as well as his attempt to score a bizarre sexual setup of a CNN reporter, Abbie Boudreau). And yet the overall lesson has failed to sink in.

This kind of thing is what the right wants from its journalists. Breitbart and O’Keefe remain Tea Party heroes and much-admired figures among many of the “journalists” on Fox and right-wing talk radio. It would hardly be surprising if Mr. Howley now becomes one as well.

One can find no analogy for these kinds of antics on the left. One need only to compare the respective journalistic talents—and standards—of Washington Post liberal blogger Ezra Klein and those of Rubin, to say nothing of their first, failed choice for Rubin’s job, serial plagiarist Ben Domenech, to learn that the talents that make for right-wing celebrity in the world of journalism are not those, to put it mildly, of the journalist.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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