Blog Post

The Spin

Of the many video clips currently circulating on social media sites, one of the most revealing is the one featuring Fox News personalities Bill O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly discussing the recent events surrounding the pepper spraying of non-violent student protesters on the UC Davis campus on November 18.

What I found most interesting about the clip was Bill O'Reilly's impressively calm demeanor (no anger by this most angry of tv personalities), and his repeated characterization of the use of pepper spray as a use of "reasonable force" against disruptive students who were interfering with the legitimate business of the university. I was also struck by the suggestion that the pepper spray must have been "diluted" because the students didn't seem to be in so much pain. Equally noteworthy was Megyn Kelly's repeated suggestion that what the cops did was, after all, "legal."

It is such an interesting (and deeply disturbing) effort by the news channel that consistently champions the interests of the 1% to shape the public's perception of what is potentially incendiary video footage of the use of armed police force against the young citizenry of our country.

The O'Reilly and Kelly characterization of the police brutality reminded me of a recent conversation I had with the small business owner of a limousine service who drove me from the Syracuse airport to Hamilton College where I was scheduled to give a talk. I was coming in to the campus on the night before my talk, and had been invited to sit in on a campus discussion (jointly sponsored by the campus diversity center and the conservative campus student group) of the Occupy Wall Street protests. The Hamilton discussion was interesting, but more significant to me was the response my driver made to my open-ended question about his opinion about the occupy protests. He said that he thought the occupiers who were protesting in his home city (Utica) were mostly "hippies" and that they were in effect "asking for a beat down." He was, at that point, unaware that the occupy protests were taking place around the country, and did not know that the movement had started in NYC.

I had asked for the driver's opinion because, like most Americans, I am most often in conversation with people who share my political views. Here was a nice guy, a responsible small business owner (an individual entrepreneur, basically) with two teen-aged sons who is working hard to make ends meet. By any objective standards, he would be part of the 99%. So I was genuinely interested to find out what he knew about the protests and what his opinion was. And while I was dismayed by his response, I wasn't surprised; too many Americans get their news from Fox News for me to be able to expect that this petit bourgeois man would identify with the struggle of the many against the very privileged few.

What all of this speaks to is the struggle currently being waged to define the meaning of the Occupy protests. The fact that Fox News is weighing in on what happened on the campus of UC Davis points to the importance of the videos supplied by UC Davis students and the interpretive framing being provided by commentators like Robert Hass in his piece in the New York Times, Robert Reich on the Huffington Post,  Roland Greene and David Palumbo-Liu here on Arcade. The question of how the public at large (in addition to one's friends on Facebook) understands the meaning of these events is crucial. I am grateful for those commentators who have spoken out quickly and loudly in a variety of fora about the barbarity of a university administration that would unleash riot police armed with billy clubs and pepper spray against unarmed and peaceful students who are exercising their moral and legal rights to protest the untenable situation in which they find themselves—boxed in by debt, tuition hikes, unaffordable housing and a dismal job market.

I, for one, am pleased that Chancellor Katehi now finds it necessary to make a tearful apology to the students who were so brutally dealt with last week. It may not save her job, but it certainly indicates that, at this point at least, the spin O'Reilly and Kelly are trying to put on the events of Nov. 18 is failing in the face of the articulations of those who care about the first amendment rights of citizens rather than corporations.