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11.10.11

Occupy Wall Street: The New York Post's Bogus Coverage

How agenda-driven reporting turned a beekeeping Florida mother of four into an object of right-wing scorn. By Emily Atkin and Matthew DeLuca.

Continuing a monthlong spree of unfavorable Occupy Wall Street coverage, the New York Post must have thought it had hit tabloid gold when it found Stacey Hessler.

Hessler, thanks to the Post, is now the poster child for selfishness, immaturity, and irresponsibility at Occupy Wall Street. A mother of four children between the ages of 7 and 17 who left her family in Florida to join the protests in New York, she was described by the Post in three separate articles as a “middle-aged flower child” who “ditched her family to become part of the raggedy mob … keeping herself warm at night with the help of a young waiter from Brooklyn.” Fox and the right wing everywhere amplified the Post’s savage portrayal of Hessler as cheating wife, neglectful mother, and dirty hippie.

Hessler hadn’t originally intended to be part of any story, but, as she tells it, she fell into the Post’s net. According to Hessler, Post reporters first approached Rami Shamir, a 30-year-old Brooklyn waiter who, in the final story, was depicted by reporter Kevin Fasick and senior writer Bob Fredericks as Hessler’s protest boy toy. Fredericks, you will remember, was the author of the roundly criticized piece about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn accuser living in an apartment for people with HIV. When The Daily Beast reached Fredericks at the Post, the writer said he would forward requests for comments to the Post's public-relations representative, then forwarded reporters to a dial tone.

Hessler denies the Post’s insinuations that she and Shamir have a romantic connection. She said she originally accompanied Shamir to an interview with Post reporters for moral support. Hessler didn’t know anyone when she arrived at the protest, she said, and she and Shamir were part of a group of about five women and 15 men who slept in the same area and watched each other’s possessions. “Rami was just another person that was in that area,” she told The Daily Beast. She said she did not know Shamir before arriving at the protest.

The Post’s coverage was expanded to a second-day reaction story from Hessler’s Florida neighbors, authored by Bobby Martinez and Liz Sadler, and was picked up by the Fox News Network’s weekend show Fox & Friends, where co-host Alisyn Camerota referred to the “Occupy Wall Street gang,” repeated the insinuation that Hessler was involved with Shamir, and said that the mother was “clearly having a midlife crisis.”

The Post’s story about Hessler and the subsequent attention to it by Fox News, however, are examples not only of lazy, agenda-driven reporting but also of the double standard used frequently when it comes to parenting and politics. While Hessler was sardonically dubbed “mother of the year” by Fox & Friends, Tea Party moms who left their families to volunteer for a Fox-promoted political movement have been lauded.

But let’s take a closer look at Stacey Hessler. When The Daily Beast met the Long Island native at the Burger King across the street from Zuccotti Park on Oct. 29, she was guarded. She began to open up, however, when we started to ask about her activities at home. She may not be “mother of the year,” as Fox sarcastically put it, but she was, in fact, “Homemaker of the Year”—an award she received in 2009 from her county fair in Volusia, Fla., a suburban area near Daytona Beach where Republican women outnumber Democratic women by about 1,000. “There’s different categories,” Hessler explained of the homemaker award. “Canning, baking, sewing, arts and crafts, horticulture … They add up all the points and whoever has the most points is the homemaker of the year.” “It was pretty cool,” she added.

Hessler is also an active member of Volusia County 4-H, a youth-education program run by the Department of Agriculture, where, according to 4-H agent Laura Cash, she runs an African beekeeping cooperative called Bee Attitudes with local youth. The Bee Attitudes harvest honey and sell it at farmers’ markets. “She actually has beehives,” Cash says. Cash says she’s known Hessler for nearly five years.

“The money that we make from selling our honey we keep, and we buy more bee supplies,” Hessler explained. “Two of our kids have their own hives, so now they kind of have their own little business.”

Hessler said all her kids, except her eldest, are home-schooled. She and her kids do roller derby.

She said she organizes home-school activities for her own children and others who are home-schooled in the area. “We would do chess day, park day, game day, a book club, maybe a work day for the market, or a cooking day,” she said. “Sometimes we would just get together to play.”

Jill Miller, a friend of Hessler’s for five years, calls her “remarkable.” They went to college together at Daytona State. “For anyone to say she ditched her kids and left [her husband] is ridiculous,” Miller says. As she describes it, when Hessler spoke to her about wanting to go to the Occupy Wall Street protest, “all of us said, ‘We can pick up where you left off.’”

Hessler said that while she’s been away, her children’s lives have endured few interruptions.

“I’m trying to schedule everything week by week,” she said. “This past week they had their canning on Wednesday, my friend Kim picked them up and they did the canning at her house … And on Thursday they extracted honey, and the people in my 4-H group came over and did that with them.”

While Hessler was sardonically dubbed “mother of the year” by Fox & Friends, Tea Party moms who left their families to volunteer for a Fox-promoted political movement have been lauded.

Hessler, who has been charging her cellphone and using the computers at Charlotte’s Place, a community center managed by Trinity Church near Wall Street, continued: “With Veda, my 7-year-old, my friend April took her for a sleepover one night. Next week I’ve got a few days at the beginning of the week planned.”

Hessler’s interview with the Beast wasn’t the first time she opened up to a media outlet about her vast network of friend-and-family caretakers. As it turns out, she mentioned it to the Post, which decided not to put it in the print article. It did, however, post a longer version of its interview with Hessler in video form on its website. In that clip she tells the reporter, “I do have a community of friends that, like, I put a plea out on Facebook asking them to support me so that I could be here, and they stepped up and a lot them said, ‘Yeah, I’ll help you, just let me know what I can do.'”

In the Oct. 21 Post story, this becomes: “Friends are taking care of them.”

It would be hard to verify every detail of Hessler’s life, but it merits mention that Hessler’s view of herself is radically different from the Post's portrayal of her. Which may be all well and good, except that the Post clearly had material from its own video that contradicted its in-print claims about Hessler. The Post went as far as to send a Florida stringer, Bobby Martinez—who has made a career running down such leads as whether or not Roberto Alomar exposed his wife to HIV and chasing down Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles—to Hessler’s neighborhood for a follow-up story published on Oct. 22, titled “Neighbors 'Not Surprised' 'Hippie' Left Family to Join Wall Street Protesters.” It seemed all Martinez could find were negative comments about Hessler in Volusia.

The Post’s follow-up article, written by Liz Sadler, featured such neighborly types as one fulminating resident of the Hesslers’ block who chose to make her feelings perfectly clear from behind a veil of anonymity. “I’m not disgusted that she took off [to protest]—because I’m not surprised,” the neighbor reportedly said.

When the Fox & Friends Weekend team picked up the story, they were focused on hammering home one piece of Hessler trivia they deemed essential (and hypocritical): the hosts managed to mention not once but three times—over the course of a four-and-a-half-minute segment—that Hessler’s husband, Curtiss, does, in fact, make his living as a banker. Curtiss Hessler works as a branch manager at SunTrust Mortgage, near the couple’s home in DeLand.

Camerota, the Fox weekend co-host, and Sadler, the Post reporter, have their own connections to the banking industry. Sadler’s husband, Kevin Cryan, is the vice president of Jefferies & Co., the CEO of which was the highest-paid chief executive of a Wall Street bank in 2010, according to The New York Times. Her father, Robert E. Sadler Jr., was president and CEO of the M&T Bank Corp. and is now a director at the company. M&T Bank is the 27th-largest bank holding company based in the United States, according to the Federal Reserve’s National Information Center, with more than $77 million in total assets.

As for Camerota, a 2009 New York Times profile says the mother of three is married to Tim Lewis. There is a Tim Lewis who works for Atlantic Street Capital in Stamford, Conn., a venture-capital firm that invests in companies with between $25 million and $150 million in revenue. This same Lewis appeared on Fox Business in October 2008 while working at CRG Partners Group, an equity fund that consults with companies with $100 million to $1 billion in revenue. In a comparison of a photo of this Tim Lewis on Atlantic Street Capital’s website and his appearance on Fox as a CRG representative, a photo obtained by The Daily Beast appears to show Camerota and Lewis along with their twin girls and young son.

Cryan, reached at his Jefferies office, said “no comment” and hung up. Repeated attempts to reach Sadler at the Post and at home were unsuccessful, as were calls and emails to Lewis at Atlantic Street Capital. Calls and emails to senior press contacts at Fox also went unanswered.

Of course, Hessler is not the only activist mom to get a mention on Fox in the last few years. Tea Party matrons have gotten plenty of favorable coverage on the network. One of them, Jenny Beth Martin, cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots, was named one of Time’s most influential people in the world in 2010. She’s appeared several times on Fox programs and is always cast in a favorable light.

Martin continued writing a personal blog as her Tea Party involvement deepened. On the blog, “Jen’s Genuine Life: Tips, Tales, & Thoughts From a Peach State Mom of Twins,” Martin wrote about life with her family, including her twins, now 8 years old. In her last post, dated June 15, 2010, she wrote about the struggle to keep domestic order while becoming an increasingly public figure. “I did my best to be a good mom and wife, unpack, keep up with my blog, earn money through cleaning houses and repairing computers, and plan the next Atlanta Tea Party, which was on April 15, 2009,” Martin wrote in one post. “I’m not sure I did very many of those things as I would have liked to do.”

In other words, political involvement strains the duties of mothers across party lines. During the period that Martin is writing about—between her first involvement after Rick Santelli’s February 2009 rant and July 2009—she was organizing for the Tea Party on a volunteer basis, according to her public-relations representative. She later wrote that she was often working 20 to 22 hours a day. “My husband began to take on most of the work so I could focus on building the Tea Party movement,” she wrote.

Martin told The Daily Beast that she continues to make frequent concessions in her current role organizing full-time for the Tea Party Patriots. “The role that I envision playing as a mom is a little bit different than the reality,” she said.

Ana Puig, cofounder of a Pennsylvania Tea Party group founded by two mothers, and the mother of four young children, said she’s had her own balances to strike. “It is a full-time job, 60 to 70 hours a week,” said Puig, who, like Martin, has enjoyed consistently fair coverage during her appearances on Fox News. “At the time I was just a stay-at-home mom. Things are completely different now … I spend three days a week in Harrisburg lobbying representatives from all over the state. That’s 120 miles from my house, so it takes me about two hours on a good day.”

“This has thrown my life upside down,” she continued. “There are days when I stay the night, but there are days when I need to get back for my kids. My husband travels, and it's very complicated.”

Fox and the Post will tramp through Florida neighborhoods looking for a tawdry tale but will ignore the litigious laundry-airing right under their noses, such as the details of Martin’s ongoing feud with another Tea Party organizer and mother, Amy Kremer. Kremer, once a Tea Party Patriot, is now chair of the Tea Party Express, one of the major Tea Party groups. Martin and the Tea Party Patriots filed suit against Kremer in 2009 for rights to the Tea Party Patriot name, which Kremer had allegedly continued to use in materials not associated with the Tea Party Patriots. Now Kremer’s daughter Kylie is suing Jenny Beth Martin and her husband, Lee Martin, alleging that the Martins created a fake Facebook account under the alias “Dale Buttersworth,” according to Courthouse News Service. According to the complaint, the Martins allegedly wrote a Facebook post under the alias stating that Kylie Kremer “had been raped, reported the rape to the police and was kicked out of her home by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend as a result of reporting the rape.”

"Throughout this litigation process, Ms. Kremer has exhibited a focused desire to harass the Tea Party Patriots for personal reasons,” Martin said in a statement sent through her public-affairs representative. “The court issued a temporary restraining order against her, an uncommon occurrence in civil litigation. The same court found her in contempt of a later order, also uncommon. Both actions against her have not been lifted, and we expect the court to rule in favor of the Tea Party Patriots similarly in future proceedings."

And while Kremer’s case and Occupy Wall Street continue, mother of the year is still up for grabs.

Emily Atkin and Matthew DeLuca are research assistants with Newsweek/Daily Beast investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, who has been covering New York life and politics for 40 years. Research assistance was provided by Kelly Knaub, Fausto Giovanny Pinto, and Andy Ross.