W “E CRACKED THE CODE OF AMERICAN MEDIA CULTURE. For a brief, shining moment, we outsmarted the system.”1 So claimed Merchant F. Arms. Photographed by Richard Avedon for the New Yorker, and featured in Art Spiegelman’s cartoon in that same magazine, as well as in hundreds of other print and broadcast media accounts, the Billionaires had surely mastered corporate news media. Or had they?
For a social movement, media attention is an “ambiguous gift.”2 The news media spotlight can help to publicize messages of dissent, mobilize followers, and influence target constituencies, thereby broadening political contestation beyond established players with abundant resources. On the other hand, dominant news organizations often ignore or trivialize protesters’ agendas while focusing on spectacle or entertainment value. And many protests get no media attention at all. That risk of invisibility prompts some activists to adopt ever more spectacular approaches. The Billionaires, as we have seen, have been at the leading edge of such innovation. But do they use the media—sneaking in substance through satire—or do media use them, as convenient entertainment? Is the relationship parasitic or symbiotic, or perhaps both? What does media coverage of the Billionaires tell us about the public political sphere and “struggles for visibility”3 in early twenty-first-century America?
The Billionaires played to both the superficiality and the power of the media world’s glittering surfaces. In jockeying for media visibility, the Billionaires participated in broader processes of creating new forms of nonstate