Being the Media: Covering Wisconsin's Uprising

Last Thursday night, when I heard of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plans to forcibly evict those who have occupied the state Capitol building for nearly two weeks, I couldn’t not go home.
I ended up in Madison not just to add my voice to the hundreds of thousands who rallied in protest last weekend of the corporatization of Wisconsin, but to help my friend at the Isthmus, Kristian Knutsen, who has nearly-singlehandedly held down the alt-weekly’s real-time online coverage of the massively fluid events.
It felt nice to put the journalistic shoes on again. During the threat of a “forcible evacuation” of the Capitol building on Sunday afternoon, I perched my netbook on the marble railing on the building’s second floor in the Rotunda and hunkered down, with thousands of my newly-found best friends. The police, who are working people, too, made no move and the Capitol remains occupied today.
The experience provided some important insights into the role of media during a sustained protest event. Ten years ago, I was very active in the Indymedia movement; citizen journalism has evolved far beyond that paradigm.
Local media is alive and well. The national media got “event fatigue” after the first week of the protests in Madison, when more than 70,000 people rallied. This past weekend that number doubled, but you wouldn’t have known it from the networks. The real story of what is happening on the ground is essentially going unreported to the rest of the nation.
The right-wing bias of Fox News is blatantly clear, for those who might not have already noticed. As Sunday afternoon’s civil disobdeients thinned out once the Capitol Police agreed to allow people to stay overnight again, a Fox News cameraman darted in and took closeups of “trash” (i.e., protest signs) on the floor.
That evening, Bill O’Reilly had the audacity to use footage from elsewhere to portray events in Madison (hint: it’s Wisconsin, we do have snow, and don’t have palm trees). Inside the Capitol, as Fox claimed “civil unrest” and the “trashing” of the Capitol was underway, the occupiers hi-fived and thanked the floor polisher.
I am biased to the coverage of the Isthmus, having worked with them. However, Madison’s community radio station, WORT, continues to do amazing work. And even local corporate media coverage, such as that produced by the Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin Radio Network, and the local CBS TV affiliate, has been exemplary.
Even so, the personal decimation of newsrooms that has taken place over the last decade was painfully clear. No news outlet in Madison has the capacity to provide 24-hour news coverage. Those on the ground are running ragged. This hasn’t diminished the amount or quality of local journalism, but it makes for superhuman working conditions.
I’ve been assisting from afar now by running down leads to story-threads that those on the ground simply don’t have the time to cover in real-time. More work like this is essential to deepen coverage of the event and take some of the stress off overwhelmed colleagues.
Social media tools go beyond the social. Facebook has been an a key organizing mechanism for the protests, rallies, and Capitol occupation. But it is not a news source. Capitol occupiers are blogging themselves, and those outside – who want in but can’t get in, and are sleeping overnight in sub-freezing weather in “Walkerville” (a play on the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression) – have their own Twitter feed.
Twitter itself is useful, but only to a point. The Isthmus uses a tool called CoverItLive to provide real-time coverage of every day’s events. The tool essentially aggregates individual Twitter accounts and directly-submitted live reports to provide a minute-by-minute news flow of each day.
While CoverItLive is an imperfect tool (extremely kludgy back-end interface for editing the content-stream), it significantly increased the signal-to-noise ratio during breaking news threads, which became invaluale. By the second weekend of the uprising, the number of Twitter hashtags for the events in Wisconsin had exploded from one to more than a dozen. Most contained little original information not already found on the “primary” hashtag (#wiunion), and when you added in the retweets a cacophony ensued.
I did not subscribe to Twitter for the events, preferring to report for the Isthmus directly (but others retweeted the coverage). However, when the public wi-fi node inside the Capitol was intentionally disabled by the state Department of Administration Sunday evening, I was sh*t out of luck.
Smartphones have also been surprisingly useful. Although they’re not ideal for getting out cogent tweet-style coverage (some minute-by-minute reports require more than 140 characters, and a tactile keyboard makes a huge difference), when the Capitol wireless was killed some guy with a smartphone streamed live video to an audience upwards of 80,000 Sunday night.
“Old media” still have value. One of the most impressive aspects of the uprising has been the transformation of the Capitol building. It is blanketed with signs, the overwhelming of them homemade and strikingly individual. Services like Flickr and YouTube are turning into an invaluable tool for archiving this ongoing event.
More importantly, the epicenter of the uprising has been a micro-manifestation of the public sphere: a “people’s microphone” stands at the center of the Capitol Rotunda since its occupation began on February 14. It is open to anyone, regardless of their politics, and the thousands who listen are respectful. Over the course of two weeks, the sound system for this space has evolved from bullhorn to megaphone to portable speakers to a fully-powered sound system.
Made of granite and marble, the building is incredibly acoustically lively. To clearly hear the people’s microphone, you had to be inside the Rotunda, either on the ground or second floors. The building, however, is much larger than that.
A low-power FM radio station would have amplified and clarified the collective voice of the protest; placing receivers throughout the outer hallways would have allowed those at the people’s mic to be heard by everyone inside and added a whole new experiential dynamic to those who just came to witness history being made.
In a nutshell, the experience was transformative, both as a citizen and journalist. The plethora of tools available to provide authentic journalism from such a large and fast-moving event have made coverage of it more immediate and accurate than ever before. The full story is both analog and digital – always has been, always will be.