GUY RAZ, host: The Occupy Wall Street protests appear to be gathering steam and spreading. And their growing reach puts the pressure on journalists to figure out how to cover the protest. NPR's David Folkenflik explains.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: At first stretch, the complaint from the left was that news organizations had ignored the Occupy Wall Streeters. But as they did swing their gaze, journalists weren't quite sure how to characterize what they saw. Was Occupy Wall Street a movement, political theater, an expression of anguish?
Conservatives and liberals alternately attacked major news outlets for giving the protests gotten too much attention or too little, compared to the conservative Tea Party activists last year. NPR was not immune.
Some examples of rival strains of coverage surfaced on the same day earlier this month. CNBC's Lawrence Kudlow suggested the protests were unpatriotic.
LAWRENCE KUDLOW: Hi, Ms. Finlay. What's going on here? Is this just your basic green anti-capitalist, anti-bank, anti-Wall Street, anti-America demonstration?
FOLKENFLIK: The second, from CNN's newest host, Erin Burnett, mocked the protesters' eclectic mix.
ERIN BURNETT: It's not just a bunch of dancing hippies protesting. There are all kinds of people there: babies, teachers, cheerleaders, Uncle Samsa and...
FOLKENFLIK: Cue the shot of a freaky zombie guy.
FOLKENFLIK: And then Burnett questioned whether they even know what they're talking about.
BURNETT: So do you know that taxpayers actually made money on the Wall Street bailout?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was not aware of that.
BURNETT: They did. Not on GM. But they did on the Wall Street part of the bailout.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK.
BURNETT: Does that make you feel any differently?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, I would have to do more research about it, but...
BURNETT: If I were right, you might.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, sure.
FOLKENFLIK: Burnett was slammed as uncaring by liberals. Some media critics pointed to her previous jobs as a Wall Street analyst and a financial anchor for CNBC.
But it was hard to know precisely what to make of the protests. They started out nearly a month ago, and they had hundreds, not thousands of participants. They cited widely disparate complaints and causes. The common thread was the idea that powerful politicians have bailed out the banks and wealthy financiers, but that they left most Americans suffering badly during the economy's collapse.
Democratic politicians were initially keeping their distance. And for the media, lacking easy labels, Occupy Wall Street proved difficult to categorize and therefore to cover. Even early sympathetic columns in The New York Times and the Boston Globe were largely dismissive, and it was covered mostly as a local nuisance in the nation's financial center until September 24th, when New York City police forcibly penned in a small knot of protesters.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE AND SCREAMING WOMEN)
FOLKENFLIK: That's the sound of a senior police official spraying several women with pepper spray.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE AND SCREAMING WOMEN)
FOLKENFLIK: That attack was captured on video and forced the NYPD to backpedal, and it drew the media's attention. Coverage spiked after that and again after police arrested 700 demonstrators for attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism found coverage quadrupled last week. Liberal talk show hosts Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann vied to broadcast from the protests. And by last Sunday, ABC's Christiane Amanpour welcomed activist Jesse LaGreca to her political show, "This Week."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
JESSE LAGRECA: The most important thing we can do in our occupation is to continue to push the narrative that's been ignored by so many pundits and political leaders. I mean, the reality is I'm the only working-class person you're going to see on Sunday news, political news, maybe ever. And I think that's very indicative of the failures of our media to report on the news that matter the most to working-class people.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: We are trying our best, Jesse. And I want to...
LAGRECA: And I thank you.
FOLKENFLIK: As you heard, LaGreca's assertion drew some laughter from the other panelists. But the coverage has become more respectful. This week, CNBC has been live-blogging activities about the Occupy New York protests. And the financial news channel set up a speaker's corner there. Here's Mark Brown of Rochester New York.
MARK BROWN: Six hundred and fifty billion dollars per year going out to fund our various wars. Now, how many schools can we build for $650 billion in one year?
FOLKENFLIK: Still, reporters didn't always know what to make of this stuff. In Atlanta, consensus-driven activists decided not to allow Congressman John Lewis - a hero of the Civil Rights Movement - to address the throng. They said they didn't want to suggest that any one person carried more weight than anyone else.
So, reporters are trying to cram this nebulous new phenomenon into a more familiar template. Is it the Civil Rights Movement, the Tea Party, something else altogether? And they're stumbling around to figure out how enduring and how consequential it will be. David Folkenflik, NPR News.