In Columbia Journalism Review, October 2, 2012:
With the nation’s political media gripped by electoral fever in the run up to the presidential election, perhaps now is a good moment to pause and note that two of the most important forces that have shaped American political discourse over the last four years have been not parties or candidates, but political movements that emerged from outside the political system, namely the Tea Party and the Occupy movement.
The particular challenges of covering these two movements was the subject of a symposium at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on Monday night, moderated by Todd Gitlin, the author of a new book about Occupy.
While no attempt was made to equate the two movements, which hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the driving idea behind the panel was that political movements—as opposed to candidates, elections, and governments—require a different journalistic approach: They demand deep, constant immersion to fully understand.
Or at least that is Gitlin’s view. “Movements are strange, and if you don’t have a feel, or openness to something that is sui generis and view it as a mob or a failed political party or a failed organization or something, then you’re going to miss it,” he told CJR in an interview following the symposium.
Gitlin argues that this deep approach can succeed in capturing the nature of a movement under certain conditions. “Immersion will teach you a lot if you just keep your eyes and ears open, but for sure it’s a necessary condition that you decide going in that when you look at a movement, you’re not going to judge it by whether it’s an organization. It isn’t an organization, and if you view a giraffe as a failed elephant, you’re not going to have much to say about giraffes.”
Aside from Gitlin, the diverse panel included five journalists and one author of an academic study on the Tea Party movement who have, in very different ways, reported these movements as he suggests, not by dropping in occasionally on a meeting here or a protest there, but by immersing themselves and exploring them deeply and thoughtfully.