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What the media can learn from Occupy

In 30 years of reporting, I've never covered a story quite like Occupy Wall Street, the cacophonous drum line of a leaderless protest against greed and inequality (and a bunch of other stuff) that started in New York on Sept. 17 and spread quickly to Philadelphia on its path from coast to coast. Neither have most of my colleagues at the Daily News or in the wider media.

With the camping phase of the protests over down at City Hall, up at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, it's a perfect time to ask: How did we in the media do, so far?

Well, it arguably could have been worse.

But it could have been a whole lot better.

I don't think any paper captured the media's schizophrenia better than the Daily News. The self-described People's Paper seemed to get the movement's message about income inequality ("It's About Time!" a Daily News front page declared of Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 4) early on and offered some great up-close and outside-the-box reporting, especially my colleague Jason Nark's personal account of sleeping over at Dilworth Plaza.

But as the protest dragged on, Philadelphia's sometimes ADD-addled tabloid shifted gears and — in my opinion — got caught up in the hygiene-and-homeless hype, and overnight the protesters went from being "us" (remember, "It's About Time!"?) to "them," culminating in a cringe-worthy Daily News front page on Nov. 16 calling Occupy Philadelphia a "Stain on the City."

A few quick lessons:

1. Protesters don't look, or more importantly talk about important issues, in the same way that our elite sources that we meet for lunch at the Palm — or at least used to before they killed our expense accounts — might talk.

Reporters aren't lazy but, hey, it's nice to have things laid out in a certain way, with leaders talking in 15-second sound bites, the way someone slick like Newt Gingrich does. Occupy's lack of leaders — and its array of grievances and varying levels of skill in articulating them — made it easy for some journalists, from CNN's corporate-jet-inhaling Erin Burnett to the rank-and-file, be dismissive. But when thousands of people in all 50 states are so frustrated with the American system that they take to the streets at once, there's nothing to dismiss.

2. Homeless people should be covered as "people," not "the homeless" in a tone that sounds as if someone without a dwelling, whatever the reason, is 3/5 of a citizen. How could "the homeless" "overwhelm" a protest of the 99 Percent when they are the epitome of the 99 Percent during America's crisis of chronic, long-term joblessness.

The homeless come in all stripes — long-term and short-term, from white-collars out of options to people not coping well with drugs, alcohol or mental illness or with a criminal past — nuances that seemed ignored by most media. The obvious question wasn't how did homeless citizens overwhelm the protest, but why has America's handling of the homeless been so inadequate before September that so many were drawn to these tent cities? It is imperative that journalists answer this question in the weeks ahead.

3. When journalists weren't paying attention, our police forces became small armies and limits on free expression became way too onerous. In the national fog after 9/11, with millions of dollars doled out on a frenzy of homeland security, America militarized its urban police forces with few questions asked by media watchdogs.

In 2011, it almost feels normal to see peaceful protesters in a park or a university campus greeted with helmeted riot police wielding batons and armed with pepper spray or God knows what else. That is not normal, but rather the sign of a democracy going off the rails. Journalists need to explore when and how free expression stopped being so free, and how to win it back.

4. In the end, it's not about the tents. The reason the Daily News said "It's About Time" for Occupy Wall Street was because of the underlying issues raised by the protest — that the income for the top 1 Percent has doubled over the last three decades while income for the middle class has shrunk, and that the rich have expanded their edge by buying off both political parties. It wasn't to increase coverage of camping and other outdoor sports.

At first, the long-term occupation caused the media — which had been ignoring the wealth gap — to change the conversation in a positive way, but as the tent cities dragged on, coverage of income inequality began to lag. We can't let that happen.

At the start of 2011, new management proclaimed the Daily News as "the People's Paper," but later in a redesign it was announced that a major focus would be "Power," a heading to cover the foibles of the Mark Segals and Pat Croces of the city — stories that mean little to citizens fighting to put food on the table every night.

A true "People's Paper" has a heading for "Powerless," because that's who it never stops fighting for — everyday Americans in difficult circumstances who may or may not dress or speak like us, or the elites we feel at home covering.

It sides with the rabble.