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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Let's Impeach the System (Video)

Here's a short video version of "Let's Impeach Trump and the Corrupt System that Created Him."

Tony Palmeri's Media Rants #5 from Old Man River Storytellers Group on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Let's Impeach Trump and the Corrupt System That Created Him

First, let me be perfectly clear where I stand on the issue of whether or not the United States Congress should impeach President Donald Trump: Yes, Mr. Trump should be impeached. For me it has nothing to do with the President soliciting foreign assistance to smear Joe Biden, though that is certainly worthy of censure.
Tony Palmeri's Media Rants #5 from Old Man River Storytellers Group on Vimeo.

Mr. Trump deserves to be impeached simply because, as the pro-impeachment Congressmen in 1868 said of President Andrew Johnson, he has brought the office of the President of the United States into contempt, ridicule, and disgrace. He's mocked the responsibilities of the office almost daily since the inauguration, and has gotten away with it in large part because--like all abusive men at all times in history--he is surrounded by self-serving sycophants and enablers (think Lindsey Graham and Sean Hannity). Only blind partisans cannot see that.  Meanwhile the modern day, holier than thou money changers at the temple will tolerate ANY actions of the President as long as he delivers them their preferred judges and tax cuts.
President Andrew Johnson was frequently portrayed as a buffoon in the print media of the late 1860s. The Congress impeached him on a range of charges, including the manner in which he brought the office of the President into contempt, ridicule and disgrace. Sound familiar?
But here's the problem: For an impeachment proceeding to be successful, it has to be carried out by a United States Congress that enjoys some degree of public trust. The 1998/1999 Congress enjoyed no such trust, which is why the attempt to remove Bill Clinton from office was doomed from the start. Had Mr. Clinton been convicted in the Senate and removed from office, no thinking person would have thought of it as anything other than one corrupt institution (the Congress) carrying out a political hit job on another (the presidency).

We are in a similar position today: few people believe that the House of Representatives and US Senate, both of which for many, many years have been little more than what the late Frank Zappa called "the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex," possess the moral authority necessary to inspire the population to believe that removal of the President is necessary to ensure the sanctity of the Constitution. Our Constitution's been sullied, bullied and beaten up in bipartisan fashion for many decades now, in ways that arguably made a Donald Trump presidency inevitable.
How did we get to this pathetic point? Over the last 40 years scores of good books have addressed the dysfunction and moral turpitude of the United States government, but for me the one that has held up best is still journalist William Greider's 1993 classic Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy. Greider's book was one of the first to demonstrate, in the pointed and persuasive style of a seasoned reporter, how moneyed elites managed to take over our government and turn it into little more than an agent of those elites. Greider put it succinctly:

To understand the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter), it is most efficient to look directly at the clients — or as political scientist Thomas Ferguson would call them, the “major investors.” On that level, the ideological contradictions are unimportant. Political parties do function as mediating institutions, only not for voters.

Bill Greider's book is a classic expose' of everything wrong in Washington. Since its release in 1993, the problems described by Greider--most notably the complete takeover of government by moneyed interests--has gotten worse at the federal level and infected virtually all state capitals too. 
When a government serves elites to the exclusion of the everyday citizens that they purportedly represent, that's called corruption.  And to put it bluntly, political corruption is perfectly legal in the United States. 

Can a corrupt institution impeach, bring to trial, convict, and remove from office an equally or even more corrupt President of the United States? Sure, but only when enough of the bad actors in that corrupt institution become convinced that said President no longer helps them serve their "clients."
What's needed is some kind of mobilized, grassroots effort to impeach our entire government. By that I don't mean voting out most of the incumbents--though that could only  help. Rather, it's time for all of us--regardless of ideological leanings--to start getting more solidly behind the effort to amend the US Constitution to reassert that our government is of, by, and for HUMAN BEINGS, not faceless corporations and wealth.

Impeach President Trump? Yes, but until we reform the corrupt system that gave birth to him, we'll still be fighting a steep uphill battle to make our government responsive to the needs of the masses.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Ten Bold Cover Tunes, Part III: Guitar Hero Edition

In our first post on Ten Bold Cover Tunes, we defined "bold" this way: 

*In choosing to cover a song already identified with another artist, the cover artist risks professional humiliation. Just DARING to cover certain songs is an act of boldness.

*Taking the original version of the song and performing it in a unique way is one of the boldest moves an artist can make. When done well, the cover version takes on a life of its own and almost sends the original into obscurity.

Part II can be found here

In part III we venture into a new area of cover tune boldness. Specifically, we examine cover tunes performed by standout guitar greats. As we will see (hear?), in each case the guitar hero(ine) brought some new life to tunes that were not even in particular need of it. That's bold. 

Instead of a drum roll, let's have a Bo Diddley Beat

#10: Leo Morachioli's and Mary Spender's Cover of Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" : If guitar god Mark Knopfler had never recorded another song after 1978's "Sultans of Swing," that tune by itself would have been enough to cement his status as a rock legend. Instead he and his band Dire Straits went on to become one of the powerhouse rock bands of the 1980s. 

Norway's Leo Morachioli, a zany multi-instrumentalist, performs heavy metal versions of classic songs on his popular YouTube channel. He recruited guitar goddess and YouTuber Mary Spender for a rockin' duet cover of "Sultans of Swing." At around the 3:40 mark the two of them just start to wail on lead guitar. 

#9:  Brian Setzer's cover of Santo and Johnny Farina's "Sleep Walk": Santo and Johnny's 1959 classic emerged at a popular time for instrumental music. The great rockabilly revivalist Brian Setzer, who coincidentally was born in 1959, actually won a Grammy Award for his performance of "Sleep Walk." I personally like the version of it he did at Woodstock '99, a guitar and big band tour de force that unfortunately got overshadowed when dumbassification and dickheadism--in the audience and on stage--ultimately took over that concert weekend. 

#8:  Les Paul's and Chet Atkins' cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan"Juan Tizol composed the jazz standard "Caravan," and it was first performed in 1936 by Duke Ellington and his orchestra. 

Les Paul and Chet Atkins, two of the most innovative and groundbreaking guitar players of all time, recorded two albums together in the 1970s. By that time period numerous guitar gods--from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton, had received votes for guitar GOAT (greatest of all time.). My belief has always been that Les and Chet, already in advanced years by the mid-1970s, recorded together at least in part to show the world who were the REAL monsters of guitar. 

#7: Steve Vai's Cover of Frank Zappa's "Sofa": The late musical genius and activist Frank Zappa passed away in 1992. A wonderful tribute album featuring many of his former band mates, "Zappa's Universe," was released the following year. One of the most stunning pieces on the recording was Steve Vai's rendition of Zappa's "Sofa." 

Steve Vai ended up winning the Grammy that year for best rock instrumental performance. Much deserved for such a bold performance. 

#6: The Samantha Fish Band's cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You": Hawkins' 1956 original of "I Put A Spell On You" is widely considered to be one of the foundational songs in the history of rock-and-roll. And considering the spectacular covers of it by Nina Simone and Creedence Clearwater Revival, it's amazing that anyone else would even DARE approach the tune. 

Kansas City born Samantha Fish, an award winning blues guitarist, does a blistering live version of the tune that has become a staple of her performances. She's even got all the right guitar heroine facial expressions. It's too bad that modern FM commercial radio is so awful, because Samantha Fish ought to be on it every day. 

#5:  Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart's cover of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions' "People Get Ready": Released at a time when the twin evils of racism and white supremacy seemed determined to defeat even modest strides toward equality, Curtis Mayfield's 1965 soul classic "People Get Ready" became an anthem of the civil rights movement. 

Twenty years later Ronald Reagan provided a lifeline to those still yearning to "make America great again." Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck's version of "People Get Ready" did not become an anthem of a resurgent civil rights movement, but it did honor the spirit of the original and exposed Beck's guitar theatrics to a whole new generation of listeners.

#4: Johnny Winter's cover of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 
Revisited: Speaking of great recordings from 1965, Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album that year represented the folk singer's most overt move into blues inspired rock. The title song, filled with biblical imagery and colorful characters, became an archetype of the kind of song Dylan would write for the rest of the 1960s, and remained a staple of his live performances for many years. 

Blues/rock giant Johnny Winter's 1976 version of the song from his "Captured Live" LP is quite simply ten minutes of pure, unadulterated guitar anarchy. The tune became a staple of HIS live performances more than Dylan's. 

#3: Carlos Santana's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman": Few other than wonky rock-and-roll nerds realize that before they became the Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham led pop sensations, Fleetwood Mac was actually a kick-ass blues-rock band. Founder and lead guitarist Peter Green is a rock and roll Hall of Famer and recognized as one of the greats. Green's "Black Magic Woman" charted in the UK in 1968. 

Two years later Carlos Santana tackled the tune, and the results helped define FM rock radio for the next decade. I would argue that the last 90 seconds or so of Santana's version, with its frenetic guitar wailing over a Latin rhythm, might be the most spectacular ending to a rock song in history. 

#2:  The Art of Noise Featuring Duane Eddy cover of Henry Mancini's "Theme From Peter Gunn": Renowned conductor and jazz giant Henry Mancini claimed that the 1958 "Theme From Peter Gunn" was actually a rock and roll song. However we define the theme, it surely set the standard for what a TV spy drama intro tune should sound like. 

In 1986 the English synthesizer-pop band The Art of Noise recruited Duane Eddy, the legendary king of "twang" guitar, to join them for a rendition of the "Theme From Peter Gunn." They ended up winning a Grammy that year for best rock instrumental performance. Watching that 1980s collaboration between an old-school guitar legend and an MTV dance band is still highly endearing. 

#1: Orianthi Panagaris' cover of Jimi Hendrix "Voodoo Child":  Jimi Hendrix's 1968 album "Electric Ladyland" and especially the song "Voodoo Child" were so far ahead of their time in terms of rock music innovation that they still put most of what's today called rock-and-roll to shame. Ladyland is one of those albums that gets more "HOW THE FUCK IS HE DOING THAT?" responses than any other piece of recorded music in history. 

Imagine then the shock when Orianthi, the Australian female guitar wiz brought into the public sphere when Michael Jackson recruited her for his band, performed a blistering version of "Voodoo Child" that almost outdid Hendrix's own live performances of it. I'd place Orianthi's version slightly ahead of Stevie Ray Vaughn's, which is amazing because his was pretty great too. 

There you have it: ten bold cover tunes by guitar heroes and heroines. Music appreciation is of course subjective, so I completely get that you might place different guitar centered covers on your list. These are simply ten of many that I find myself coming back to frequently. 

Friday, September 06, 2019

America's Children Need UN Intervention (Update)

Here's an update of a rant originally posted in March of 2018, with a new video added: 

America's children are traumatized by gun violence, the FEAR of gun violence, and many other things that we as a society are not willing to address meaningfully. 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States government needs to be brought before an international body to answer for its shameful inattention to the physical, mental, and emotional health of its  youth. The situation should be considered desperate. 

TONY'S MEDIA RANTS from Old Man River Storytellers Group on Vimeo.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Bernie's Media Rant

Lots of politicians will tell you that they understand and appreciate the problems confronting modern American journalism, but rarely do they do more than provide lip service toward solutions. 

At some level it makes sense that fixing what's wrong with journalism is not at the top of the priority list for mainstream pols. Think about it: if journalism was truly fixed, it would be eminently pro-democracy and hold all elected officials and candidates--from village and town boards to president of the United States--to much stricter and rigorous standards of accountability. Few pols want that, even those who self-identify as liberals. 

The Hill's Krystal Ball exposes some pretty clear anti-Bernie media bias. Sanders' media reform proposals, if enacted, would not mean criticism of him would be reduced. Rather, the criticism of him and ALL candidates for president would more likely be grounded in real journalism values as opposed to entertainment and trivia.

That's why it was somewhat refreshing to see Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reveal a plan to fix journalism that is rooted in a clear comprehension of the problem, that proposes wide ranging solutions, and that is unapologetically pro-democracy. The fact that Rupert Murdoch's New York Post immediately bashed the plan as "horrible" ought by itself be enough evidence to show that Sanders is on to something. 

Sanders' plan is outlined in an op-ed he submitted to the Columbia Journalism Review. In laying out the problem, Sanders is in Media Rants mode, saying things that have been articulated in this blog for many years. Some of my favorite quotes from the piece: 

*Real journalism is different from the gossip, punditry, and clickbait that dominates today’s news. Real journalism, in the words of Joseph Pulitzer, is the painstaking reporting that will “fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, [and] always fight demagogues.” 

*When we have had real journalism, we have seen crimes like Watergate exposed and confronted, leading to anti-corruption reforms. When we have lacked real journalism, we have seen crimes like mortgage fraud go unnoticed and unpunished, leading to a devastating financial crisis that destroyed millions of Americans’ lives.
*At precisely the moment when we need more reporters covering the healthcare crisis, the climate emergency, and economic inequality, we have television pundits paid tens of millions of dollars to pontificate about frivolous political gossip, as local news outlets are eviscerated. 

*Today, after decades of consolidation and deregulation, just a small handful of companies control almost everything you watch, read, and download. Given that reality, we should not want even more of the free press to be put under the control of a handful of corporations and “benevolent” billionaires who can use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny. 

*We need to rebuild and protect a diverse and truly independent press so that real journalists can do the critical jobs that they love, and that a functioning democracy requires.

Watch the heads of the Fox Business News' "conservatives" explode as they talk about Sanders' media reform plan. Sanders' plan would actually strengthen the First Amendment, and in that sense is quite conservative (thinking of conservative in its original sense as those policies which uphold the Constitution and Bill of Rights.). 

Sanders specific plans for reform (summarized by Jake Johnson) include: 

  • Impose an immediate moratorium on federal approval of mergers of major media companies; 
  • Require media corporations to disclose whether their corporate transactions and mergers would cause significant layoffs of reporters;

David Sirota is a long time progressive journalist now working as a speech writer for the Sanders campaign. Not sure if Sirota ghost wrote Sanders' Columbia Journalism Review op-ed, but the piece does reflect ideas that progressive journalists have been espousing for many years now. Many can be found on FreePress.Net

  • Require that employees "be given the opportunity to purchase media outlets through employee stock-ownership plans";
  • Block federal merger and deregulation moves that harm people of color and women;
  • "Reinstate and strengthen media ownership rules" with the goal of limiting "the number of stations that large broadcasting corporations can own in each market and nationwide";
  • Enforce anti-trust laws against tech behemoths like Facebook and Google "to prevent them from using their enormous market power to cannibalize, bilk, and defund news organizations";
  • Increase funding for federal programs that support public local media "in much the same way many other countries already fund independent public media."

Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur are favorable towards Sanders' plan. While the plan may or may not be "amazing," it does represent the first attempt by the the candidate for president of a major political party to make media consolidation and other threats to the First Amendment a campaign and future governing priority. 

Near the end of his op-ed, Sanders links his proposal explicitly to our founding documents: "Our constitution’s First Amendment explicitly protects the free press because the founders understood how important journalism is to a democracy. More than two centuries after the constitution was signed, we cannot sit by and allow corporations, billionaires, and demagogues to destroy the Fourth Estate, nor can we allow them to replace serious reporting with infotainment and propaganda." 

The Columbia Journalism Review has invited all candidates to submit media reform plans. I have not yet endorsed Sanders or any candidate, but it will be difficult to support anyone who cannot enthusiastically support reform proposals that could rescue journalism from the grasp of greed. 

So far, not one other candidate has submitted a plan to the Columbia Journalism Review or any other source. Should such plans arrive, I'll update this piece.