Friday, February 14, 2020

Mike McCabe Unscrews America

Author/activist Mike McCabe answered a few questions for my State of the State blog for the Oshkosh Independent.  You can find it here

Below:  McCabe's recent interview with journalist Neil Heinen.


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ten Bold Cover Tunes, Part IV: Dare To Cover Johnny Cash Edition

Previous Editions of Ten Bold Cover Tunes:
Part I  
Part II
Part III: Guitar Hero Edition

In this next installment of the Ten Bold Cover Tunes series, we recognize artists who dared cover a song written by and originally performed by Johnny Cash. I say "dared" because Mr. Cash was one of those rare artists of such distinct vocal quality and overall style that it's almost impossible to imagine a cover of any of his tunes that would even come close to the original. This is quite a contrast with Cash's own covers of other artists' tunes (think of his versions of  Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus"), in which The Man in Black so completely took control of the songs that they pretty much became his.
The late Johnny Cash wrote some brilliant original songs over the course of his long career that are totally identified with HIM. Any artist attempting to cover these songs must truly be BOLD
None of the covers identified below actually surpass Cash's original. Some are in fact quite a bit inferior. But what I hear in all of them is a great love for Johnny Cash, and a willingness to risk ridicule to perform that love in public. For me, that's pretty bold.

Without any further adieu, our ten bold covers of Johnny Cash Tunes

#10:  Frank Zappa's Cover of "Ring of Fire." Okay, "Ring of Fire" was technically written by June Carter Cash, but there does exist some credible evidence that Johnny at least co-wrote it. 

In the late 1980s, Frank Zappa toured with a band that produced some remarkable live recordings, including 1991's "The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life" (on which "Ring of Fire" appears). The way Zappa told the story, Johnny Cash was actually supposed to perform the song with the band at a concert in Germany, but June Carter Cash got sick and so Johnny cancelled. Zappa's band performed it anyway, doing it in reggae style with some amusing Cash-imitation vocals. My favorite part is the always ironic Frank Zappa blurting out "Johnny will never know what he missed" near the end of the tune. 

#9: Everlast's Cover of "Folsom Prison Blues."
The great alternative rocker Erik Francis Schrody (Everlast) is one of the only singers alive who could tackle such a distinctly Cash song and give it a fresh touch. The official video cleverly splices video of Cash and his audience with Everlast. I suspect Johnny would have appreciated the effort. 

#8: Halsey's Cover of "I Walk The Line."  Johnny Cash purists might find this cover hard to take, as Halsey pushes herself as far away from the original as one can get. The first time I heard her version I did not quite know what to make of it, but it got more interesting and difficult to ignore with each listen. Johnny's original in 1956 was a kick in the ears to a music audience hypnotized by pop music mediocrity, while Halsey's cover is 21st century hypnotic

#7: Jorma Kaukonen's Cover of "When the Man Comes Around." Jorma Kaukonen is best know for his guitar playing with the Woodstock era Jefferson Airplane and then Hot Tuna in the 1970s, but he's had a remarkable solo career. His cover of Cash's Bible-inspired classic "When the Man Comes Around" has a kind of haunting quality to it that somewhat channels the Airplane's acid rock classic "Surrealistic Pillow." 

#6:  Charlie Robison's Cover of "Don't Take Your Guns To Town." Charlie's cover appears on "Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to Johnny Cash"--an album featuring a variety of better known artists like Dwight Yoakam, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. I give Charlie kudos for daring to tackle one of Johnny's signature country tunes, performing it with a subdued vocal and catchy guitar/organ combo that makes it a very fitting tribute indeed. 

#5:  The Secret Sisters with Jack White Cover of "Big River." If someone told you that a couple of country singers would team up with indie rocker Jack White to perform a Johnny Cash tune, you'd probably predict some chaotic fun. That's in fact what we get here: The Secret Sisters give "Big River" a vocal treatment right out of the old "Hee Haw" show, while Jack White uses the recording session as an opportunity to work out on his guitar with a ferocity characteristic of the early White Stripes albums. 

#4: D.O.A.'s Cover of "San Quentin." When Johnny Cash performed "San Quentin" live at the song's namesake prison, the anti-authority lyrics inspired a spirit of defiance among the inmates. Hardcore punk rock is primarily about defiance, and thus punk rockers D.O.A sound completely at home with the tune. 

#3: Norah Jones' Cover of "Cry Cry Cry." Specifically, the version of the song Norah performed at Miller Park in Milwaukee as part of the 25th anniversary of Farm Aid. The soulful voice and subtle guitar channel Johnny Cash quite poignantly. 

#2: Ry Cooder's Cover of "Get Rhythym." The remarkable Ry Cooder (ranked #31 in  Rolling Stone Magazine's list of greatest guitar players) performs one of Johnny's most ebullient songs quite ebulliently. 

#1: The Crash Test Dummies Cover of "Understand Your Man." Truth be told, the bass-baritone vocal style of the Dummies' Brad Roberts makes him uniquely qualified to cover Johnny Cash tunes. In this heavily engaging effort, Roberts goes into full Cash mode, purposely making the bass parts even bass-ier in a way that succeeds in making fun of both Cash AND himself. I'd love it if Roberts would do an entire album of Cash covers. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Impeachment Vote: A Resolute Romney Takes His Oath Seriously

Today Mitt Romney was the only Republican in the United States Senate to vote to convict and remove President Donald Trump from office. Watch his speech below for his reasoning, and/or read this interview Romney did with journalist McKay Coppins.

In essence, Romney was the only Republican member of the Senate to have what I call a "Margaret Chase-Smith Moment," a rare act of going against the "team." He will of course be trolled on social media, by all sorts of hacks and probably the president too. I wouldn't even be surprised if some Utah Trumpers launch a recall movement. Such are the times we are living in.

We're also living in a time when oaths are not really meant to be taken seriously. An oath today is more like a New Year's Resolution: a pledge that I really mean when I say it, but know deep down I probably won't keep it. And besides, who the fuck cares anyway? 

Romney today put loyalty to his oath ahead of loyalty to his team, and in the upside down country we are living in, HE will be thought as doing something strange or radical:

In the last several weeks, I have received numerous calls and texts. Many demand that, in their words, “I stand with the team.” I can assure you that that thought has been very much on my mind. I support a great deal of what the President has done. I have voted with him 80% of the time. But my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience. 

The fact of the matter is that what is strange, or at least what ought to be perceived that way, is the manner in which Senator Romney's Republican colleagues placed their allegiance to a MAN ahead of their allegiance to the Constitution. 

History will look kindly on Romney for his action today. And he might not even have to wait that long to be vindicated. More and more information about Mr. Trump will continue to be released, and it is only a matter or time before his most vociferous defenders will be running away from their vote.  

So today we saw a resolute Mitt Romney, a man that somehow never emerged during the presidential campaign of 2012. Apparently he did not want to be a Michael Cohen; the president's now jailed former fixer who came to understand how his blind following of Mr. Trump resulted in him selling out his conscience at every turn. Cohen warned Senators of the dangers of going down that path with the president.  

Romney today was the only Republican to heed the warning. Perhaps more would have done the same if they took their oaths seriously. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Censored in 2019: Minimizing Omnicide

Following the lead of Project Censored, I like to do an annual column on what was (in my view) the most censored story of the previous  year. Censored 2020 (Seven Stories Press) names the "Justice Department's Secret FISA Rules For Targeting Journalists" as the most censored story of 2019. 
Founded in 1976 by Dr. Carl Jensen of Sonoma State University, Project Censored remains a vital advocate for media literacy, rigorous journalism, and speaking truth to power
What I've always appreciated about Project Censored is that it frames censorship not merely as an effort by governments to silence citizens, but more importantly as a failure of the so-called free press to create a sense of urgency for stories that often carry life and death consequences.Project Censored writers understand that underreporting, ignoring, and/or misrepresenting critical stories is much worse than formal state censorship in the sense that the latter is relatively rare while underreporting and other "soft" methods of censorship are the norm.  

The horrific fires still raging in Australia (27 million acres burned and at least 1.25 BILLION animals killed) are the most unfortunate example of the consequences of what happens when a life-and-death story is inadequately reported for many years. University of Sydney Ecologist Chris Dickman states what should be--but tragically is not--obvious to most people by this point in history: 

"What we're seeing is the effects of climate change. Sometimes, it's said too that Australia is the canary in the coal mine with the effects of climate change being seen here most severely and earliest, as well. We're probably looking at what climate change may look like for other parts of the world in the first stages in Australia at the moment."

Perhaps the most powerful response to the Australian travesty so far is from University of Sydney Sociologist Danielle Celermajer. She argues that as of yet there has not existed an agreed upon term to describe the true nature of modern environmental devastation. "Ecocide," the killing of ecosystems, for Celermajer does not go far enough. She suggests "omnicide"--the killing of everything--as a term that should strike ethical human beings to action in the same way that "genocide" does when we become aware of its existence. (Celermajor is not the first scholar to employ the term omnicide. In 1990 Lisl Marburg Goodman and Lee Ann Hoff released a book that used omnicide to describe the consequences of nuclear annihilation.). 
Professor Danielle Celermajer argues that the term "omnicide"--the death of everything--should be used to describe the extent of environmental devastation occurring in the world today. She asserts that media industries aid and abet omnicide in a variety of ways. 
Celermajor acknowledges that the responsibility for omnicide is "various and layered" and as such not a simple case of pointing to one bad actor. Significantly and accurately, she identifies media as one of the primary bad actors aiding and abetting the crime of omnicide:

"We can identify the media owners who sponsor mass denial of the scientific evidence of the effects of a fossil fuel addicted economy on the climate. The same media owners who deploy the tools of mass manipulation to stoke fear, seed confusion, breed ignorance and create and then fuel hostile divisions within communities."

The mass denial of scientific evidence has been in place for a long time. For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that Dr. James Hansen's June 23, 1988 testimony before the US Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee was the first clarion call necessary to provoke action on global warming. Did the mainstream media at that point treat the issue as an emergency worthy of nonstop coverage until global leaders could be compelled to take meaningful action? 

No. Global warming instead has been underreported, ignored, and (especially in the United States) misrepresented. In Europe, the United States and Australia there emerged a "climate denial industry" with extensive reach in mainstream media. In Australia, the Rupert Murdoch press has played an active role in downplaying any link between bushfires and climate change. 

Last year the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation started a "Covering Climate Now" initiative designed to get journalists to remember their "Paul Revere responsibilities--to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action." 

Given the standard climate censorship of 2019 and the thirty-plus years of mostly pitiful coverage of the environment, it's not clear that any journalistic initiative is enough to get us caught up to where we need to be to confront the gravity of the omnicide facing us. But I guess we have to start somewhere. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The 2019 Tony Awards

Welcome to another edition of the Tony Awards! Annually since 2002 I've dedicated one column to naming what was, for me, some of the most outstanding journalism and/or commentary of the year. I operate from no automatic set of criteria when deciding what media to honor, but in general I am drawn to:

  • insightful works that shed light on some important public issue.
  • creative works that deserve a wider audience.
  • informative works that provide eye-opening education on a difficult topic.
  • courageous works that speak truth to power.
  • humorous works that skillfully provoke laughter and thought at the same time.
  • local works that promote community and civic engagement.

I would like to dedicate this year's Tony Awards column to the memory of the late journalist William Greider. A former editor and journalist for the Washington Post, Greider died at the age of 83 on Christmas day 2019.  He wrote a number of important books, but his Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (Simon & Shuster 1992) remains, for me anyway, a classic examination of how our government was taken over by the very interests it was supposed to be regulating. The politicians did not listen to Greider, and of course the situation has become much worse. 

The late William Greider's 1992 Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy described the forces impacting government dysfunction in the United States. Greider's "speaking truth to power" style is unfortunately rare in modern mainstream journalism
Now let's get to this year's Tony recipients. If you don't like my list, the solution is simple: come up with your own! 

*Best Local Journalist: Miles Maguire. With this third consecutive Tony Award, Dr. Maguire has become the Bryan Cranston of the local press. (Cranston won three consecutive Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Walter White in Breaking Bad.). It's amazing that one person with a blog (The Oshkosh Examiner) can produce high quality, rigorous journalism that is more useful and credible than anything produced by the region's profit-driven newspapers, radio stations, and television networks
Miles Maguire's Oshkosh Examiner blog is a vital source of credible reporting in the Oshkosh region. 
A 2019 study by the Knight Foundation found that sixty percent of Americans believe that the local media do a "fair" or "poor" job of holding leaders accountable for their actions. My guess is that if every city and town had a Miles Maguire, the perception of the media would be much more favorable. 

*Best Media Criticism: William Arkin's Letter of Resignation from NBC News. In early January of 2019, NBC national security analyst William Arkin resigned from the network, and released a 2,228-word letter explaining why. In the letter he called the mainstream press "prisoners of Donald Trump," lamenting the stories missed due to the daily Trump obsession. More important, Arkin called out the huge error made by NBC in its uncritical promotion of national security state actors (generals, former CIA agents, etc.) to the status of mainstream media pundits

Bill Arkin's resignation letter from NBC expressed frustration at the network's inability or unwillingness to cover national security affairs truthfully and free from the influence of national security state actors. 
That "liberal" news organizations ended up embracing the chief architects of the disastrous national security policies of the last twenty years--in some cases even making these shady characters into anti-Trump "resistance" fighters--might go down as the single worst programming decision ever made by mainstream news outfits. Back in the day the national security establishment had to engage in behind-the-scenes manipulation of journalists and news executives to frame the major stories of the day. Now they do it right out in the open, often on stations supposedly representing some kind of small-d democratic opposition to the neo-fascist tendencies of the Trump Administration. As Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi put it: "The cause of empire has been cleverly re-packaged as part of #Resistance to Trump, when in fact it’s just the same old arrogance, destined to lead to the same catastrophes."

*The Tell Us Something We Don't Already Know Award: The Washington Post's The Afghanistan Papers. So it turns out that for pretty much the entire duration of the war in Afghanistan, government and military leaders have repeatedly announced progress, while off the record admitting the complete failure of the operation. I'll bet you're surprised, eh?

The Afghanistan Papers is award worthy not because of any new revelations, but because it confirms what critics of the war have been saying for years. Post journalists released six articles based on the revelations ("At War With The Truth," "Stranded Without A Strategy," "Built to Fail," "Consumed By Corruptions," "Unguarded Nation," "Overwhelmed by Opium"), all of which confirm the bleakest estimates of what has been going on over there for almost two decades. 

Someone in a position of power needs to apologize in public to Lt. Colonel Daniel Davis. Some of you may recall that in 2012 Davis put his reputation and career on the line when he released the report "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan" in the Armed Forces Journal.  Everything Davis concluded in that report about the deception of the war planners has been validated. He concluded that report by saying, "The American people deserve better than what they’ve gotten from their senior uniformed leaders over the last number of years. Simply telling the truth would be a good start." Seven years later, the Afghanistan Papers requires the same conclusion, though given our overall apathy it is not clear to me that WE actually "deserve better," though the Afghan people certainly do. 

*Best Wisconsin News Site: The Wisconsin Examiner. Back in August I wrote about the Wisconsin Examiner for the Oshkosh Independent. Thanks to the Wisconsin Examiner, Wisconsinites FINALLY have a daily news source rooted in the Fighting Bob LaFollette tradition of searching for the truth and then speaking that truth to power. Sign up for the newsletter here

*Seriously Fun Baseball Site: Jomboy Media. Thanks to Jimmy O'Brien ("Jomboy"), I had more fun following baseball in 2019 than at any time since the 1970s. Jomboy takes video and audio feed from games and offers "breakdowns" of what we are seeing and hearing. What I find appealing is Jomboy's almost deadpan style as he narrates situations that are sometimes absurd. And it's not all just entertainment: Jomboy's video sleuthing has provided important evidence to show how the Houston Astros used a video system to steal pitch signs in 2017.  

Not surprisingly, the higher ups at MLB have threatened to shut Jomboy down (or at least make it more difficult for him to use video clips), even though it's pretty clear that what he does helps baseball connect to a younger, more social media savvy fan base. 

*Investigative Journalism of the Year. The Guardian's "How Monsanto's 'Intelligence Center' Targeted Journalists and Activists."  For more than twenty years, journalist Carey Gillam has been researching and reporting on the safety (or lack thereof) of the nation's food supply. As she dug into the topic, she learned of the disturbing ways in which science is corrupted for the benefit of corporate chemical producers. Her great 2019 book Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, details her experience with uncovering Monsanto's attempts to marginalize any critique of their cash cow herbicide glyphosate (i.e. Roundup). The World Health Organization classifies glyphosate as a "probable human carcinogen."

As revealed in the Guardian piece, Monsanto has actively tried--in deeply deceptive ways--to discredit journalists like Gillam and activists (like rock singer Neil Young) who have cast doubt on the safety of their toxic product. Says Gillam in the Guardian piece: “I’ve always known that Monsanto didn’t like my work … and worked to pressure editors and silence me, but I never imagined a multi-billion dollar company would actually spend so much time and energy and personnel on me. It’s astonishing.”

Though Monsanto has now lost three jury trials that charged them with malice in the way they minimize the toxic qualities of glyphosate, they continue to wield enormous power in the halls of Congress. 

*Musical Activist of the Year: Mavis Staples. At the age of 80, that blues/soul great Mavis Staples is still recording and performing is amazing. That her performances and recordings are keeping the spirit of activism alive in a time when all of our freedoms are under threat is inspiring. In 2019 she released "Live in London" and "We Get By" (studio recording), both of which feature Mavis' powerful vocals communicating themes of love, hope and change in the face of despair.

Honorable Mention: The Who's "Ball and Chain." Rock gods The Who in 2019 released their first studio album in thirteen years. In their 50+ years of recording and performing, the Who have occasionally made political statements, though I would argue the bulk of the band's output dedicates itself to an exploration of guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend's various neuroses (NOTE: It is entirely possible that ALL rock-and-roll is primarily a vehicle for working out the artists' neuroses). But in their 2019 album, the Who feature an overtly political song, "Ball And Chain," that makes a statement about the continuing nightmare at Guantanamo Bay. It is quite possible that Townshend saw the New York Times article on "Guantanamo Bay as Nursing Home," in which we learn disturbing details of the methods the CIA has used to keep us safe: 

"Mustafa al-Hawsawi, 50, a Saudi man accused of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers with travel and expenses, has for years suffered such chronic rectal pain from being sodomized in the C.I.A. prisons that he sits gingerly on a pillow in court, returns to his cell to recline at the first opportunity and fasts frequently to try to limit bowel movements . . ."  Bet that makes you proud to be an American, huh? 

It's also worth mentioning that in terms of energy, melody, and vocals, "Ball and Chain" holds up rather well against the band's classic recordings of the 60s and 70s. Always nice to see old guys still rockin'! 

Journalistic Achievement of the Year: The New York Times' The 1619 Project. Appearing originally in August in the New York Times Magazine, the 1619 Project is a series of essays and other works designed to reframe the experience of slavery in the United States from the arrival of the first slaves from West Africa in 1619. The Project is supervised by award winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. 
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the driving force behind The 1619 Project, an effort to rethink the role and legacy of slavery from the pre-revolutionary colonial years until today. Not surprisingly in our social media age, the Project has generated intense angst from people who have not even read it. 
The Project has been attacked by scholars and pundits from across the political spectrum, on factual and ideological grounds. Unfortunately, we live in a time when many people will read criticisms of works before they engage the work being critiqued, to the point where they will feel confident lambasting or praising something that they have no intention of actually reading. Here's my suggestion: READ THE 1619 PROJECT. (If it's behind a paywall you should be able to find it in your local public library.). I find it to be an achievement not because I agree with all of the authors' linking of our modern woes to the legacy of slavery, but because it is a rare example of a mainstream news source providing a credible, serious challenge to conventional thinking on matters related to our national character. I find it amusing that critics of The Project are worried that it will be used as "propaganda" in the nation's public school history curricula, as if what has passed for American history teaching all these years has been anything BUT propaganda. (See James Loewen's classic Lies My Teacher Told Me for some insight as to just how awful K-12 American history textbooks have been over the years.). 

Movie of the Year: Dark Waters. I've never given a Tony to a movie before, but Dark Waters so brilliantly portrays the (literally) toxic results of what happens when profit driven corporations face limited push back from a compromised government and impotent media that it became almost impossible for me not to recognize it. Based on the real life story of Rob Bilott, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare," the film has put the toxic chemical PFAS on the map and might hopefully lead to more activism designed to hold corporate polluters accountable.

There you have the 2019 Tony Awards, the last for this decade. Interested in learning about all the award recipients from the 2010s? Follow the links below. 

Sunday, December 01, 2019

On Trumpism, Media, and Paradigm Shifts

When I was in graduate school in the 1980s students in all academic programs read the late physicist Thomas Kuhn's 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 2016 economist Elliott Green compiled data demonstrating that Kuhn's was the most widely cited book in the social sciences. Not a bad accomplishment for a guy who was actually denied tenure at Harvard University in the mid-1950s.

Kuhn's book remains popular among scholars for two main reasons. First, he demonstrates that progress in the sciences over time isn't the result of the application of "objective" methods carried out by always rational, emotionless Mr. Spock-like collegial scholars happy to admit  error when new evidence challenges their preferred theories. Instead, scientific progress results from an often contentious, highly subjective clash among HUMAN BEINGS heavily invested in having their methods and findings perceived as authoritative and current for a variety of personal, social, and political reasons.
Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996) released The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. The book has exerted much influence in most academic fields of study, and can also be used to shed some light on the way we do politics and media. 
Second, Kuhn popularized the concept of "paradigm shift" to explain periods of time when the basic concepts of a scientific discipline undergo rigorous rethinking and ultimately get replaced by a new paradigm that becomes the dominant way of studying and talking about the subject matter of that discipline. What I have always found appealing about Kuhn's paradigm shift concept is its assertion that followers of the dying paradigm do not merely retreat in the face of new thinking. Rather, they often remain doggedly committed to a school of thought long after it has lost intellectual justification or practical use. In my field of Communication Studies for example, Kuhn's paradigm shift concept resonated in the 1970s and 1980s in part because our introductory course undergraduate textbooks at that time still featured "sender-receiver," one-way models of communication as respectable ways of talking about human interaction even though such models could not account for the ways in which dialogue makes meaningful interaction possible.

What has all of this got to do with Trumpism and modern mainstream media? Quite a bit, actually. Trumpism and mainstream media, which on the surface appear bitterly opposed, are actually wedded to the same dying paradigm. The adherents and practitioners of each, like the church fathers of the Dark Ages and Renaissance who persecuted anyone who dared challenge biblical accounts of creation and planetary movement, invest themselves in a view of reality that inflates their status as guardians of all that is good and true.

So how could we describe the dying paradigm that is as the root of Trumpism and modern mainstream media? The paradigm features three parts: (1) it accepts hierarchical forms of leadership as legitimate and even preferred, (2) it is profit-driven, (3) it is backward looking. Let's explain:

Hierarchy: If the 20th century taught us anything, it was that in any society, the drive to elect or appoint a "strong man" to fix problems that the unruly masses cannot was and is a blueprint for epic scale tragedy. Trumpism reinforces the strong man myth in dangerous ways, from members of his base mouthing nonsense like "only he can get things done," to members of congress suspending their sworn oath to uphold the Constitution in order to pledge allegiance to The Man.

Above Video: Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently called President Trump "the Chosen One." Perry's statement was just one more example of the president's followers falling prey to the "strong man" myth that continues to plague modern societies despite the devastating lessons of the 20th century. 
Modern mainstream media has its own hierarchy issues, most notably in the way it largely serves and is controlled by elite commercial interests. As once noted by Ben Bagdikian, the late Dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and author of the classic The Media Monopoly: "With the country's widest disseminators of news, commentary and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world's wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics."
Originally released in 1983, Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly remains an indispensable work on the corporate domination of news media. 
Profit Driven: Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Donald Trump phenomenon is the manner in which the president has managed to make greed, naked self-interest, and lack of transparency about personal finances into minor infractions--at least among core parts of his base. Somehow a president who ran on a promise to "drain the swamp" has been able to surround himself with a guileful group of swampy sycophants.  Writing in GQ, Jay Willis stated the case succinctly: "If the people in the Trump administration share one thing in common (other than the obvious), it is their inspiring passion for the art of the grift." Writing for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Peterson argued that "Trump is still an embodiment of the American dream, but of a particular version of it that has far less to do with bootstraps and hard work and far more to do with working the system." She argues further that for Trump's base, rejecting revelations about Trump's shady dealings has become a "point of pride," in part because such revelations come from "elite" journalists who've "rejected Trump all along." 

Above Video: When in October acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the Trump Administration had decided to host next year's G-7 Summit at one of the president's privately owned resorts, it was an extraordinary display of the grifter values of the administration that even Republican elected officials in the House and Senate were forced to speak against. The administration finally relented and agreed to have the Summit somewhere else, but not before the president released some angry tweets blaming the media and his political opponents. 
Modern mainstream media cannot credibly expose grift and greed because its own bottom line, profit-driven orientation oozes hypocrisy. Professor Victor Pickard of the Annenberg School For Communication astutely connected the dots linking Trumpism and commercial media: "Much of what ails our media system stems from its extreme commercialism. The always-controversial Trump was irresistible for ratings-driven news outlets, and their endless profit-seeking helped legitimize a dangerous politics. While it’s tempting to blame audiences for lapping this up, this coverage didn’t just reflect popular demand. Media are beholden to their owners and to the advertisers who pay them."

The extreme commercialism of corporate media has even filtered down to smaller, independent outlets. As noted by journalist Nitsuh Abebe, a form of media con with origins in the far-right fringe is now also part of a neo-leftist "resistance grift" that exploits anti-Trump sentiment for profit:

"On the news site Splinter, the writer Alex Pareene has characterized much of modern conservatism as a grift gone wrong — pulling from the historian Rick Perlstein’s 2012 Baffler article 'The Long Con,' which traces out just how much of the movement’s far-right fringe was born and nurtured in self-enriching direct-mail and media operations. The game here is simple: Persuade people that everything they value is under attack, and they can be soaked for donations; feed them conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve and civil unrest, and they will become extraordinarily receptive to ads for bunker supplies and gold. A solid scheme, Pareene suggests, right up until you find that you’ve overagitated the marks, and they’ve started deciding party primaries."

"The personality type that responds to this sort of thing is, naturally, not restricted to the right. Trump’s election opened the field for a parallel play among liberals, spurring the rise of the 'Resistance grifter' — a type of social-media personality who shovels forth alarmist news and wild speculation about the president’s perfidy, posing as a lonely hero standing against it and raking in donations or subscription money along the way. Telling people what they wanted to hear used to be part of the average grift; lately, thanks to social media and crowdfunding, it works beautifully as a grift in itself."

Backward Looking: While arguments equating Trumpism with fascism often seem overly partisan and overblown, for me the two ideologies are similar in one critical respect; the longing for a return to some golden era of "greatness" that was somehow lost because of some scapegoat(s). Yale philosopher Jason Stanley puts it this way"The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative."

Trumpism's rise was facilitated in part by a backward looking mainstream media stuck in the past. Then CBS Chairman Les Moonves justifiably took a lot of flak in 2016 when he declared that Trump's candidacy "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." But if you think about it, Moonves was merely expressing the value system of the 20th century American mainstream media that survived into the new millennium: a phenomenon is "good" if it keeps eyes glued to content and thus generates more advertising revenue. When in 2016 the corporate media covered virtually every MAGA rally and ended up giving Mr. Trump nearly $5 billion in free advertising, they were simply acting on a more extreme version of the old time doctrine of "if it bleeds, it leads." Guess what: they are poised to do it again in 2020.

Conclusion: Do we have the courage to advocate for a paradigm shift?  

In this post I've tried to show how Trumpism and modern media--on the surface in opposition to each other--each operate according to the dictates of a dying paradigm rooted in hierarchy, profit-motive, and looking backward. It is important to keep in mind that dying paradigms--whether in the sciences or in politics/media as I've described here--do NOT just go away. From a Thomas Kuhn perspective, dying paradigms can dominate for a heck of a long time; when adherents feel under threat, they double down and struggle to retain status.

The dying paradigm of hierarchy, profit motive, and looking backward has been questioned for many years by a new paradigm rooted in an opposite set of values. Hierarchy has long faced the challenge of small-d democracy, those motivated by profit have had to contend with those who want to see decisions made on the basis of principle, and it's been clear for a long time that survival of the planet requires a critical mass of people to be forward looking instead of obsess over the past.

Will there be a time when democracy, principle, and looking forward are the values that dominate politics and media? Will there actually be a recognized paradigm shift in the way we do politics and media? Maybe, but only if enough of us have the courage, in both word and deed, to advocate for it. Here are some questions you should try to answer to determine your level of readiness to advocate for the new paradigm:

*Are you willing to support and become part of small-d democratic movements that abhor top-down, strong man approaches to problem solving, even when other participants might not look like you, sound like you, or agree with you on EVERY issue?

*Are you willing to refrain from supporting a mainstream media that enables and by design profits from top-down, strong man political movements? Will you support independent media that search for truth?

*Are you willing to defend people, in politics and media, who make principled judgments and decisions not just when doing so supports their political/professional agenda, but especially when doing so does not? Are you yourself principled in that way? 

*Are you willing to support forward looking policies and media outfits even it if might require you to make some personal sacrifices to benefit the future? 

When a clear majority of us say "yes" to those questions, AND back up what we say with visible actions, we will accelerate the demise of the dying paradigm and help bring about a paradigm shift that might leave behind a livable planet for future generations.

Friday, November 01, 2019

An Interview With Dr. Chris Terry

Commercial and other media in our society operate within a legal framework that is complex, heavily influenced by well-connected special interests, and largely ignored by media consumers. Whenever I want to understand vital issues in media law, I go to my former student Chris Terry for clarification and insight. Dr. Terry is an assistant professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Chris is an active scholar in the areas of administrative law, media regulations, and the real world impacts of media policy. Below are few questions for Chris about a range of current issues, from "net neutrality" to what we should be paying attention to as campaign 2020 approaches. A prior interview I did with Dr. Terry can be found here
Dr. Chris Terry earned his Bachelor's degree in Radio/TV/Film at UW Oshkosh, his MA in Mass Communication at UW Milwaukee, and PhD in Mass Communication Law at UW Madison. He worked for more than a decade in radio production before starting his career in academia. He's published numerous scholarly articles on media and law (scroll down this link to find a list) and is a frequent participant on media podcasts and blogs. 
Media Rants: You anxiously awaited a result in the Mozilla v. FCC case. What is that case about? What was the result? And why should people care?

Chris Terry: The anxious wait in the case was because the time between oral arguments and the release of the decision was a long one. The case was about the FCC’s decision in 2017 to repeal the agency’s 2015 decision that implemented Title II rules on internet service providers. The 2015 rules had been upheld in court 3 times (twice at the DC Circuit, and an appeal by US Telecom was denied cert by SCOTUS). The current FCC, led by Ajit Pai none the less repealed those rules in favor of ones more friendly to ISPs.

US Court of Appeals Judges Robert Wilkins, Stephen Williams, and Patricia Millett handed the FCC a partial victory in Mozilla v. FCC, a case dealing with the important issue of "net neutrality." At the heart of the case, according to Chris Terry,  is whether your Internet Service Provider should have the power to block you from online content as long as they tell you they are doing so. 
The FCC won the case on a basic legal principle of deference by the court to the agency’s decision, (commonly called Chevron Deference). The FCC did lose on a couple of key points, including having power to preempt state laws that are designed to implement Net Neutrality. The agency’s Republican majority crowed loudly for a few days, but this week reality caught up with Ajit Pai, and he’s now asking Congress to get involved.

People should care because the FCC is giving your ISP the power to throttle or block you as the consumer from content online as long as the ISP tells you they are doing so. The 2015 Title II rules put the consumer in charge of content access decisions. The other reason people should care is that the decision is going to lead to a long and complicated series of litigation.

Ajit Pai, former Verizon Corporation lawyer, was appointed to the Federal Communication Commission by President Barack Obama at the request of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. In 2017 President Trump appointed Pai as FCC Chair. He has openly opposed government attempts to enforce net neutrality. 
Media Rants: Another important case is Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC. What is that case about? What was the result? And why should people care?

Chris Terry: Prometheus Radio Project v FCC was the 4th time the FCC’s media ownership rules have gone to court in the 3rd Circuit since 2004. The issue is whether or not the agency’s rules about media ownership, including the ownership of broadcast stations by women and minorities are valid. For the 4th time, the court reviewing those policies has said no because the FCC cannot defend the effects of those rules empirically.

“Here we are again.”

This is the opening of the recent decision written by Judge Ambro in the latest judicial review of media ownership rules, in what is now Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC (IV). The FCC is 0-4 in court, in what amounts to another wipeout of the agency’s decision.

The election of Donald Trump, and the promotion of Ajit Pai to the head of the FCC had a trickle-down effect to media ownership policy. Although the agency had finally made a decision in August of 2016, before the legal challenge to that decision reached oral arguments, a new Pai led FCC issued a new decision, entirely overturning the August 2016 decision in the form of the November 2017 Reconsideration Order which I discussed in great detail here and in this Podcast

On September 23, 2019, the Third Circuit sent the FCC packing, again, in what amounts to close to a complete defeat for the agency. From judge Thomas Ambro's opinion:

Here we are again. After our last encounter with the periodic review by the Federal Communications Commission (the 'FCC' or the 'Commission') of its broadcast ownership rules and diversity initiatives, the Commission has taken a series of actions that, cumulatively, have substantially changed its approach to regulation of broadcast media ownership. First, it issued an order that retained almost all of its existing rules in their current form, effectively abandoning its long-running efforts to change those rules going back to the first round of this litigation. Then it changed course, granting petitions for rehearing and repealing or otherwise scaling back most of those same rules. It also created a new 'incubator' program designed to help new entrants into the broadcast industry. The Commission, in short, has been busy.”
Appointed by President Bill Clinton, Judge Thomas Ambro of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has repeatedly challenged the FCC to defend its media ownership rules in a more evidence based, rigorous manner. 
Problematically, the FCC is not embarrassed to admit, that this failure is their own, failing to even argue the point as it had at least tried to do in the past:

“Problems abound with the FCC’s analysis. Most glaring is that, although we instructed it to consider the effect of any rule changes on female as well as minority ownership, the Commission cited no evidence whatsoever regarding gender diversity. It does not contest this.”

No evidence whatsoever. None. Zip. Zilch, and as a reminder, this has been at the core of FCC ownership decisions since 2002. Not bad for an agency that is staffed largely by economists.

Judge Ambro again: 

“The only 'consideration' the FCC gave to the question of how its rules would affect female ownership was the conclusion there would be no effect. That was not sufficient, and this alone is enough to justify remand….Even just focusing on the evidence with regard to ownership by racial minorities, however, the FCC’s analysis is so insubstantial that it would receive a failing grade in any introductory statistics class.”

Importantly, the Third Circuit is forcing the FCC to recognize the outcomes of ownership policy are not natural effects, but rather the results of choices (bad ones) made by the agency. 

So, we remain where we have been for over 15 years…with an agency that can’t pass basic stats nor do what it has been told to do 3 times in the past. Going 0-4 at the plate is bad by any metric in any sport, and at this point this situation would be comical if the stakes were not so high. The FCC regulates the industry that delivers information, a key component of that thing we like to call democracy. We, regardless of one’s viewpoint or ideology, need this to work. But the circuit says no…again:

“Accordingly, we vacate the Reconsideration Order and the Incubator Order in their entirety, as well as the 'eligible entity' definition from the 2016 Report and Order. On remand the Commission must ascertain on record evidence the likely effect of any rule changes it proposes and whatever “eligible entity” definition it adopts on ownership by women and minorities, whether through new empirical research or an in-depth theoretical analysis. If it finds that a proposed rule change would likely have an adverse effect on ownership diversity but nonetheless believes that rule in the public interest all things considered, it must say so and explain its reasoning. If it finds that its proposed definition for eligible entities will not meaningfully advance ownership diversity, it must explain why it could not adopt an alternate definition that would do so. Once, again we do not prejudge the outcome of any of this, but the Commission must provide a substantial basis and justification for its actions whatever it ultimately decides.”

Media Rants: In 2010 the FCC released a National Broadband Plan. What is the status of that? What’s your take on why progress in expanding broadband access is so slow?

Chris Terry: Not good. The agency has not met a single of the six stated goals of the plan more than 3500 days since the plan was launched, and in many cases, has even moved the goal posts on those goals. Notably the plan was supposed to be fully implemented by the middle of March of 2020, and there is no chance the goals of the plan will be met.

In terms of why…it is all about ideology. The FCC is (and has been) relying on competition theory to resolve the broadband deployment issue, instead of say, subsidies, and the results are quite awful. The FCC is now throwing small batches of money at places in hopes to generate some positive headlines, but the amounts are insignificant compared to the actual needs, and are often 10 year grants.

I wrote about the status of each of the goals in this Benton Foundation piece to mark 3500 days of the plan:

Media Rants: Politifact recently sought out your expertise to help judge the truthfulness of a claim bySenator Elizabeth Warren. What was that all about?

In this Facebook ad, Elizabeth Warren said that "If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it. But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks." Politifact found that claim to be "mostly false." Chris Terry provided Politifact with the legal framework controlling the regulation of political advertising. 
Chris Terry: Senator Warren had made an inaccurate statement about the obligations of stations and networks to take down/not air political ads with inaccurate information in them. I was consulted by Politifact to help explain how the regulations, many of which are quite old and archaic work. I handled political advertising materials when I was a radio producer and I’ve done some extensive research on political advertising since becoming a professor.

Media Rants: You’re a resident of Minnesota. Apparently tons of money are being spent in an effort to unseat Representative Ilhan Omar. Can you shed some light on that? Is what is happening in that Congressional district typical around the country?

Chris Terry: The large quantity of money (more the $550k) spent in the Twin Cities recently was actually about Angie Craig in MN-2. Craig, as a DFL candidate, won a Twin Cities Metro district that tends to lean conservative in the 2018 elections. She’s obviously a target in a race for a House seat the GOP and GOP leaning groups consider to be competitive. I suspect the ads which were run were test ahead of some internal polling to assess the district.

Ilhan Omar draws a great deal of ire from national conservatives, but she represents a very blue district. It would hard to unseat her outside of the primary. One of her Republican challengers was recently charged with shoplifting.

Media Rants: As we head toward the 2020 elections, what are the critical issues in free speech, media law, etc. that voters should be concerned with as they go about deciding on what candidates to support?

Chris Terry: I’ve done multiple interviews and consults with people interested in the regulation of deceptive political advertisements, especially online. Setting aside the fact that such rules are nearly impossible to produce consistent with the 1st amendment, I suspect this will be an issue in the early part of the year, but not get much traction with the Federal Election Commission lacking a quorum and the split between the House and the Senate. Net Neutrality, or at least the idea there may be some Congressional action on the issue is certainly up there. Media ownership policy will be on a time out for a bit after the loss in the Prometheus case.

Given the heated nature of our current political climate, I expect to see lots of attempts to ramp down, or at least control and limit, political demonstrations in public as we approach the election. We’ll hear the usual excuses about public safety concerns, but if we ever needed a time for protected expression, this coming election cycle is going to be it.