Personal and Otherwise — August 22, 2013, 12:56 pm

Occupied by The Newsroom

On inspiring (probably, maybe) a Newsroom plot arc

Still from The Newsroom, Season 2 Episode 1. © HBO

Still from The Newsroom, Season 2 Episode 1. © HBO

Thirty-six minutes into the first episode of the second season of The Newsroom, the dorky young News Night staffer Neal Sampat arrives at a nighttime meeting of protesters in a park. “I see some new faces,” says the anthropology Ph.D. student running the meeting, “so I have to say up front: no police and no reporters.” Watching it, I suddenly had the feeling of being on both sides of the screen at once. In my February 2012 Harper’s article about Occupy Wall Street, “Some Assembly Required,” I quoted the original wording that was used: “No cops or reporters.” 

Unlike Neal, who sits in silence with his press credentials hanging around his neck until he is called out, I identified myself voluntarily, but what follows for Neal is something like what I described — a period of “interrogation and harrowing debate,” complete with perplexing hand signals, about whether I could stay. By the end, I was the first reporter allowed to stick around for Occupy Wall Street’s pre-occupation planning meetings, which formed the basis of the Harper’s article as well as of my new book, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse.

I have yet to receive a response from The Newsroom’s writing staff to confirm or deny that my article was the primary source for subplot, which lasts for another few episodes. (I even tweeted my question at someone who said he was on an airplane with Aaron Sorkin.) I probably can’t take it as a sign that Neal Sampat and I have the same initials. But even though I don’t work for a hard-hitting TV news show, I can relate to Neal’s experience of being ridiculed for proposing a story about the impending occupation to the news staff, who laugh out loud at him in a meeting. Neal’s credulity was illustrated in an earlier episode, when he tried to argue that Bigfoot is real — and in the earliest days of Occupy, when I pitched the story to various publications, I might as well have been proposing pieces on Bigfoot; mostly what I got was silence or a brief no-thank-you.

Still from The Newsroom, Season 2 Episode 1. © HBO

Still from The Newsroom, Season 2 Episode 1. © HBO

Some Occupy veterans have complained that The Newsroom’s depiction doesn’t do justice to the best ideas and impulses of the movement, but, truth be told, neither did the movement itself. The show’s Occupy “leader,” the aforementioned anthropologist Shelly Wexler, is as ineloquent as many of her real-world counterparts were at the beginning. During one of those planning meetings, I got so fed up after three and a half hours of gruesome argument that I got up and left. I was often tempted (and sometimes gave in to the temptation) to do as Neal did in offering Shelly advice: stick to one demand, keep it reasonable, keep it simple.

“Bring that up at the next meeting,” Shelly replies as she storms off. “I’ll show you the hand signals.”

Occupy may have developed a new populist rhetoric that contributed to the defeat of one-percenter poster boy Mitt Romney, but there are few signs that the movement changed the media’s dismissive attitude to protests. Last July, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton made the sensible proposal that newspapers have a permanent beat for covering resistance movements, “using social media and engagement tools to help draw the groups and their adherents (or opponents) to Post coverage before, during, and after demonstrations.” Somehow I doubt the paper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, will be making that a priority.

In a subsequent episode of The Newsroom, there’s a painfully awkward reconciliation scene between Shelly Wexler and Will McAvoy, the show’s starring anchor, who has recently humiliated Wexler on the air. She wants him to apologize for being so smug. He replies by confessing that he ridiculed her and her movement in order to soothe his own chronic self-doubt. 

“I’m not smug,” he says. “I’m having a crisis of confidence.”

It could happen. When Occupy became one of the biggest stories in the world for a month or two, one editor I’d pitched actually emailed me to apologize. 

Share
Single Page
is the author of Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse (University of California Press).

More from Nathan Schneider:

Commentary April 30, 2012, 12:01 pm

Mapping Out May Day

From the February 2012 issue

Some assembly required

Witnessing the birth of Occupy Wall Street

Commentary January 30, 2012, 10:35 am

Planet Occupy

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2020

Click Here to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vicious Cycles

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Oceans Apart

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Forty-Year Rehearsal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Whale Mother

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Click Here to Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a sunny July day in 2018, Alexis Stern was sitting behind the wheel of the red Ford Fusion her parents had given her the previous year when she’d learned to drive. Robbie Olsen, the boy she’d recently started dating, was in the passenger seat. They were in the kind of high spirits unique to teenagers on summer vacation with nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. They were about to take a drive, maybe get some food, when Stern’s phone buzzed. It was the police. An officer with the local department told her to come down to the station immediately. She had no idea what the cops might want with her. “I was like, am I going to get arrested?” she said.

Stern had graduated from high school the month before, in Big Lake, Minnesota, a former resort town turned exurb, forty miles northwest of the Twin Cities. So far she had spent the summer visiting family, hanging out with her new boyfriend, and writing what she describes as “action-packed and brutal sci-fi fantasy fiction.” At sixteen, she’d self-published her first novel, Inner Monster, about a secret agent named Justin Redfield whose mind has been invaded by a malevolent alter ego that puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. “It isn’t until his inner demon returns that he realizes how much trouble he really is in,” the synopsis reads. “Facing issues with his girlfriend and attempting to gain control of his dark side, the tension intensifies. Being the best agent comes at a price, a price of kidnapping, torture and even death.

Article
Oceans Apart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I had been in Domoni—an ancient, ramshackle trading town on the volcanic island of Anjouan—for only a few summer days in 2018 when Onzardine Attoumane, a local English teacher, offered to show me around the medina. Already I had gotten lost several times trying to navigate the dozens of narrow, seemingly indistinguishable alleyways that zigzagged around the old town’s crumbling, lava-rock homes. But Onzardine had grown up in Domoni and was intimately familiar with its contours.

Stocky in build, with small, deep-set eyes and neatly trimmed stubble, Onzardine led me through the backstreets, our route flanked by ferns and weeds sprouting from cracks in the walls and marked by occasional piles of rubble. After a few minutes, we emerged onto a sunlit cliff offering views of the mustard-colored hills that surround the town, dotted with mango, palm, and breadfruit trees. We clambered down a trail, past scrawny goats foraging through piles of discarded plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and corroded aluminum cans, toward a ledge where a dozen young men were waiting for the fishing boats to return to shore, gazing blankly out across the sea.

Article
Vicious Cycles·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is what I feared, that she would speak about the news . . . about how her father always said that the news exists so it can disappear, this is the point of news, whatever story, wherever it is happening. We depend on the news to disappear . . .
—Don DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle”

What a story. What a fucking story.
—Dean Baquet, on the election of Donald Trump

a circular conversation

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

Article
The Forty-Year Rehearsal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.

It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.

Article
Election Bias·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the spring of 2018, Tequila Johnson, an African-American administrator at Tennessee State University, led a mass voter-registration drive organized by a coalition of activist groups called the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Turnout in Tennessee regularly ranks near the bottom among U.S. states, just ahead of Texas. At the time, only 65 percent of the state’s voting-age population was registered to vote, the shortfall largely among black and low-income citizens. “The African-American community has been shut out of the process, and voter suppression has really widened that gap,” Johnson told me. “I felt I had to do something.”

The drive generated ninety thousand applications. Though large numbers of the forms were promptly rejected by election officials, allegedly because they were incomplete or contained errors, turnout surged in that year’s elections, especially in the areas around Memphis and Nashville, two of the cities specifically targeted by the registration drive. Progressive candidates and causes achieved notable successes, capturing the mayor’s office in heavily populated Shelby County as well as several seats on the county commission. In Nashville, a local measure was passed introducing a police-accountability board.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today