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From blog post to protest sign on Occupy Wall Street

A sign with a quote by Conor Friedersdorf was read out loud at Occupy Wall Street.

Kai Ryssdal: The news of Goldman's troubled earnings dovetails nicely with Occupy Wall Street today. Specifically, with these 45 words that popped up on a protest sign the other day. Bear with me, 'cause it's a mouthful:

"It's wrong," the sign said, "to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon."

It's clunky, not at all protest-like. It's an pretty obscure reference to an infamous Goldman Sachs mortgage-backed security called ABACUS. And it was part of a blog post that Conor Friedersdorf wrote on the Atlantic magazine's website.

Conor, good to have you with us.

Conor Friedersdorf: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: Tell me how this happened: You wrote this post in which, it's actually part of a sentence, appeared on The Atlantic, and then somebody at Occupy Wall Street basically saw it and put it on a sign, right?

Friedersdorf: Yeah. The interesting thing is, I wrote a post that actually critiqued Occupy Wall Street in a way, and said, I wish that they would attack actual Wall Street, the place that helped bring the financial system down, instead of symbolic Wall Street. And I laid out a paragraph that I thought, here's something that actual Wall Street did. And it was just a sentence in my post, and an Atlantic reader took it and put it on a big poster board and took it out into the streets.

Ryssdal: And there is a certain beauty, because the thing hits basically the same day as Goldman Sachs comes out with earnings, and this post was all about Goldman Sachs and its ABACUS deal, which was, as you said in this sentence, a thing where they basically rigged the game in some of these mortgage-backed securities.

Friedersdorf: It's funny, because most people in the streets probably didn't realize that it was the ABACUS deal that it was referring to, but I think it tapped into their sense that there are actual things that the investment banks did that were sort of shady practices that were unethical, and they're very complicated and it's hard to understand exactly what they are. But that sign tapped in the sense of, 'OK, if that's what it is, yes that's the kind of thing we're angry about.'

Ryssdal: Yeah, and that's what really hit me when I read this and I saw the sign and then I read the post you put up about the sign this morning, was that there has been so much criticism of Occupy Wall Street for not really having a message, right? They're against a whole bunch of stuff but not really for anything. And then these 45 words seemed to crystallize intensely what it is that's going on out there.

Friedersdorf: It definitely crystallized it for some people, certainly the couple that took the words and put them on a sign, and some of the people who were chanting it. You know, I think some people are out there for completely different reasons, and this sign probably doesn't appeal to them. But at the same time, there are people out there who really are just angry at what the investment banks did, I think it tapped into the people that were angry about those things.

Ryssdal: There's one other thing I wanted to touch base with you about this, and that is the sheer Internet-ness of this entire thing. You wrote a blog post, somebody saw it, they made a sign of what you wrote. You saw a picture of the sign on the web and you wrote about it again. It's very, very whoa.

Friedersdorf: Yes, I wrote these words from this remote location and someone picked them up and put them on a sign, and a photographer had taken them and put them on his Twitter feed, and someone at BoingBoing saw those. And so there really is a lot of connectedness just going on, a lot of Internet age going on. It's certainly a story that couldn't have happened before the Internet age, and that's one way in which these protests are just different and new and open up different possibilities.

Ryssdal: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. Conor, thanks a lot.

Friedersdorf: Thank you.

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Thanks for the informative post, it was very curios for me to read different opinions expressed by quite different people, as I was one of those in the streets.

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Caitlin Curran said she was fired for violating "every ethic of journalism". Give me a break! Not only was she covering the scene on the streets, the quote on her sign was an objective statement of fact.

As it happens, I stumbled into a local Occupy protest this morning... and made a few business contacts there. That's what it's all about: rebuilding the economy from the ground up.

Great comments. Commenting from Australia because the actions of US banks and corporations doesn't stop at border. What they do affects the world.

The story *does* get weirder, and in ways that speak to what the Occupy protests are about, who is involved, and what mainstream media assumptions may be misleading when it comes to coverage and analysis.

The woman holding the story is a journalist and freelance public-radio producer. As she tells it, her plan was to use Friedersdorf's words as a kind of op-ed probe: to show up at #OWS with a sign that conveyed an outrageously articulate piece of analysis, and see what the occupiers made of it. And if you watch video of the event, it's pretty clear that the occupiers chanting Friedersdorf's words got the gist of the analysis fairly accurately—not only that this Atlantic staffer's words jibed with some inchoate rage, but that they actually tracked the allegedly obscure demands and reasons of the protest fairly closely. That Friedersdorf's criticism of OWS as vague or directionless was perhaps more than slightly moot.

For a lovely sentence wrapped in a piece of analysis supportive yet critical of OWS, Friedersdorf gets interviewed on Marketplace; for her interventionist op-ed elaboration on it, the sign-maker (her name is Caitlin Curran, and she tells her story at Gawker) loses her job in public-radio journalism.

Curran tells her tale at http://gawker.com/5854118/how-occupy-wall-street-cost-me-my-job

While I appreciate the honesty of the quote, it's a bit disingenuous to let the OWS people get away with their protest now that they found their scapegoat. None of them knew what they were protesting except what they were told was bad. Then someone comes along who did some research and finally has it right and it's "crystallized" the movement? Come on...

I'm not making excuses for the ABACUS deal; it was pretty horrendous and unethical. But remember there was a buyer on the other end who was supposed to do their due diligence. Are they blaming this entire thing on Goldman and Abacus? Where is the Occupy Fannie Mae movement?

I heard this on the radio (via my phone), read it online, linked to it on Facebook and Twitter, and will probably write my own blog about it. That's really neat and all, but I'd like to think the speed and reach at which news moves can lead to something positive, even if only greater understanding.

Yes, but . . . wow, is this only part of the story. It didn’t stop there, and it hasn’t stopped yet. The “clients” may have been investors, or they may have been the very investment banks who created them—with AIG on the short side of the deal, or with the top floor of an investment bank creating mortgage-backed securities, and the bottom floor, the credit default swaps to insure them. Mortgage originators, borrowers unsuspecting, defrauded, and even non-existent, regulators hand-picked or bought by the regulated; regulations eliminated, relaxed, or unenforced; Fannie Mae’s complicity, along with a neo-conservative Congress, Treasury, Fed, and various regulatory agencies; a completely opaque global derivatives market worth some $600 trillion, with investors now attempting to blackmail governments and downsize democracy in order to rationalize it. And yet, as far as media focus goes, the blame seems to target borrowers in general, whether individual homeowners or whole countries like Greece. This, to me is why people are in the streets. People write books, their legislators, editors, blogs; they vote, they read, and they know, but nothing is ever done to address or even admit to the root cause of the problem; indeed, the cart is put before the horse and these ridiculous ideologues still want to blame it all on “over-regulation.” There should be no doubt about the cause at this point, yet proponents still insist that the last thirty years have been just great for us all, owing to trickle-down, supply-side economics. If only the lying would stop, that might be enough to keep people out of the streets, I think. As long as it goes on, however, there are few alternatives.

There's an excellent explication of Goldman's Abacus deal in Matt Taibbi's "Griftopia".

For a longer view going back to Walter Wriston and his antecedents, check out "The Age of Greed" by Jeff Madrick.

I heard the story on Marketplace this evening and came home and googled the quote. A great story and another example of why public radio is so good - and most other media is so bad. A pro-business radio program offers more substance on the Occupy movement and what many people are disillusioned about. Fox, CNN, and the networks missed it completely. And still do.

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