Monday, June 30, 2008

An Open Letter To NBC

Tim Russert's passing provides NBC with the opportunity to remake "Meet the Press." That's the topic of the July Media Rant.

An Open Letter To NBC
Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the July, 2008 edition of The Scene

Dear NBC News Division,

I’ve been a regular watcher of “Meet the Press” (MTP) since the Bill Monroe days in the 1970s. When Tim Russert assumed control of the show in 1991, I was just starting to produce and host my own public access television newsmaker interview program in Oshkosh, WI. Mr. Russert’s preparedness, probing style, ability to hold politicians accountable to their past statements, and civil tone with his guests were all very influential to me. I considered it a great compliment whenever anyone said that my show felt like a local Meet the Press.

Mr. Russert’s untimely passing last month places you in the unenviable position of having to produce a new MTP. I hope that the outpouring of emotion on Mr. Russert’s behalf doesn’t blind you to the program’s shortcomings and your responsibility to address them. Moreover, I hope you give serious consideration to transforming the program from its current posture as the “voice of the establishment” to a more inclusive “voice of the people.”

Allow me to mention a few shortcomings of MTP. Though Tim Russert was undeniably an outstanding interviewer and engaged citizen, the program really should have been called “Meet Tim Russert.” No one person, however skilled, can be representative of the entirety of diverse viewpoints and worldviews that is the modern press. When “the press” did participate in the show, it tended to be establishment figures exclusively: David Broder of the Washington Post has appeared 396 times on MTP, while Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times clocks in at 247.

Similarly, the choice of regular guests on MTP seems establishment to the extreme: as of this month, the top 5 guests are Bob Dole (63 appearances), John McCain (52 appearances), Joe Biden (41 appearances), Dick Gephardt (41 appearances), and Dick Lugar (36 appearances). Mr. Russert’s occasional trotting out of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gwen Ifill, and other establishment women and minorities surely did not represent a meaningful step toward “diversity” on MTP.

But the major shortcoming of MTP under Mr. Russert was that the establishment power brokers always knew that while Tim might make them upset with some pointed questions, he would never upset the apple cart on which they feast. This criticism was brought across powerfully in the Daytona Beach News Journal by award winning writer Pierre Tristam:

“The truth is that on any night of the week Jon Stewart's ‘Daily Show’ does more in a two-minute segment to show in politicians' own words how venal, dishonest, contradictory and just plain dense they can be than Russert did in his Sunday services. Russert's master was always the political structure he grilled, but never fundamentally questioned. You always knew whose side he was on: power, not truth -- and, by power, I don't mean his own, of which he had plenty, but the powerful men and occasional women he invited to his Versailles. I mourn his death. But I wish I could mourn the death of the journalism he represented. To the detriment of journalism and malinformed citizens, that parody lives on.”

Tough words, but well worth contemplating if your intent is to provide the viewing public with a MTP appropriate to our modern times when the Internet and alternative media generally call into serious question the credibility of “establishment focused” programs. And since it would be unfair to any new host to expect him or her be another Tim Russert, I urge you to use this opportunity to change the format and focus of the program.

Why not bring the press back to MTP? The program could continue to feature interviews with Washington “insiders,” but they should face questioning from a diverse panel of interviewers that represent a genuine “Left-Center-Right” spectrum. Here’s my suggestion for a “dream panel” of interviewers:

On The Left: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. An authentic, independent, left-leaning journalist known for her stinging critiques of establishment power and the press.

Representing the Blogosphere: Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic Online. One of the first mainstream journalists to experiment with full-time blogging, Mr. Sullivan would bring the voice of the netroots to MTP in an articulate, provocative way. Though conservative, Mr. Sullivan’s independent and intellectual style has generated quite the liberal and progressive following.

Representing the Center-Mainstream: Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Respected inside the beltway, Mr. Robinson recently called Russert the “outsider’s insider.” Given his insights and civil tone, I think Robinson could serve that same role for MTP.

On the Right: George Will of Newsweek/The Washington Post. You’d have to lure him away from ABC, but a thoughtful, establishment conservative like Mr. Will on the platform with Goodman, Sullivan, and Robinson would make for great television and enlightening debate.

My dream MTP panel would be perhaps the most politically diverse group of journalists ever to appear regularly on a broadcast network. Guests like John McCain and Barack Obama would be subject to a litany of questions from a variety of perspectives representing the divergent viewpoints existing within the press and the public at-large. You honor Mr. Russert not by looking for an exact replacement, but by solidifying your commitment to producing the best MTP possible.


Tony Palmeri

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Last Night's Council Meeting

Another long one last night--I don't think we got out of City Hall until around 1 a.m. or so. Oshkosh Community Media should have the entire meeting available online soon. The link is here.

Some highlights:

Pioneer Inn "Class B" License (Res 08-212): We voted 7-0 to not renew the license. Lack of development activity at the site really gave the council no other option. The Pioneer representative argued that a lengthy dispute with the DNR, along with a bad economy for condo/hotel developments, are the main reasons why there has been no progress. The discussion felt like "deja vu all over again," as we have heard these arguments in the past.

People often ask under what other conditions an establishment can get a "Class B" liquor license. According to state law, a city can go above its quota and issue "Class B" liquor license to establishments that are:
*a full-service restaurant with a seating capacity of 300 or more or
*a hotel with 100 or more sleeping rooms that has either an attached restaurant with a seating capacity of at least 150 or a banquet room with capacity for at least 400 persons.

My belief is that the nonrenewal of the license is more likely to spark some kind of action at the site. Even if it doesn't, the rep made it clear to us that nothing was likely to happen in the near future anyway. So now at least we have a license to distribute to an individual or group that might actually spark some economic activity in the city (I have no idea who that individual or group might be.).

Park Plaza Parking Ramp (Res 08-222). I was the only councilor to vote against spending $96,000 to give the ramp away. Seems to me a potential new owner of the Park Plaza Hotel ought to be able to take on that cost just in return for getting it. But the major reason I voted against giving the ramp away was because I believe not enough discussion was held over whether or not the ramp might actually be an asset for the city. Cities with thriving downtowns tend to operate municipal parking ramps. Lots of people seem excited about the river walk--if that does get off the ground in the next few years, we might wish we had that parking ramp to accommodate what will (hopefully) be lots of visitors to the area.

Perhaps giving the ramp away was the best thing, but to me it just seemed like one more example (kind of like the water filtration tower) of how we want to "get things off our hands" before even having any substantive discussion of what role those "things" might play for us. Since high fuel prices are making suburban living passe' and across the country we are seeing revitalization of urban/downtown living, I think it's entirely conceivable that in 5-10 years we'll wish we had that parking ramp back.

Allowance of Claim/Sanitary Sewer Damage (Res 08-230): David and Rene Young have had ongoing plumbing issues at their Otter Ave. home. Improper installation of a sewer lateral has cost them thousands of dollars in plumbing repairs. City staff agrees that the sanitary sewer lateral was damaged, but disputes that the damage was the result of any city action.

The city's insurance carrier disallowed the claim, putting the Youngs in the position of having to take their case to the City Council. I found Rene Young and the plumber (can't remember his name) to be credible and convincing. They could not decisively prove negligence on the part of the city, but on the other hand the city's records regarding the property in question were ambiguous. Seems to me that when factual evidence in a dipute is inconclusive and does not clearly support either side, we then have to look at factors like credibility and motivation.

In the end, 4 councilors voted to allow the claim (Palmeri, F. Tower, McHugh, Esslinger), with the 3 no votes concerned that we might be opening up the doors to more appeals to the council to allow claims. I'm not bothered by that possibility, as the city's insurance carrier disallows claims as a matter or course and the city council (especially for middle-class and poor people) might be the only remaining avenue left for justice and fairness. The vote in favor of the Youngs does not require that we vote in favor of any other parties that might come forward; the facts of each case will be different.

Approve Combination "Class B" License/Fox River Pizza & Buffet (Res 08-231). This was the license for Jay Supple's restaurant proposed as part of the Akcess development. Some citizens told me that if we were going to deny the Pioneer license, we should deny Supple too since his license has not been used for several years. In the end we voted unanimously to approve Supple's license. I was persuaded by the fact that he is local and has a decent track record in the city and, more importantly, that he stated that if something does not happen soon with the Akcess development he will NOT be back next year asking for the license renewal.

Authorize sale of property at 120 Jackson St. to the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce (Res 08-234). This will make it easier for the Chamber to sell their building. I was the only councilor to vote against the deal, largely because it is being driven by Akcess' need to have the Chamber as a tenant in the proposed office building. Last year I asked for staff and the council to come up with a "Plan B" for riverfront development, and did not get support for that. We are now in the absurd position where a project (the office complex) that has little public support might get built on the strength of having the Chamber of Commerce and a law firm as tenants. Don't you feel fired up?

We had a workshop on stormwater management that started much too late. At some point in the near future I will blog about it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

EAA TIF Resolution Withdrawn

This just in from city attorney Lynn Lorenson:

"Per the request of the petitioner, Resolution 08-233 Authorize Preparation of Tax Increment District Project Plan for EAA is being withdrawn from the Council Agenda for tomorrow's meeting."

I'm sure we have not heard the last of this.

Many thanks to all the citizens who are making it very difficult for this common council to be a rubber stamp, business as usual outfit.

The Butt For Test

Turns out that the Department of Community Development solicited feedback from Ehlers & Associates, self-proclaimed "leaders in public finance," on the EAA -TIF proposal. In a June 20, 2009 (sic) "Dear Jackson" memo, Michael Harrigan of Ehlers writes:

"The statutorily required 'but for' test we believe would be met here, not because NO development would occur but because the level, type and QUALITY of development would not occur but for the provision of this assistance."

It gets better. Jackson Kinney's memo to Acting CM John Fitzpatrick says this: "It should be noted that EAA has agreed to cover the cost of Ehlers' services to the City."

I suspect that EAA agreed to cover the Ehlers' cost because of Mr. Harrigan's profound interpretation of the "but for" test. In fact, I would argue that Mr. Harrigan has actually created a new test, the "butt for" test. The butt for test goes something like this: "but for the lack of toilets to park butts if the TIF is rejected, would the development take place?" Clearly Mr. Harrigan agrees that the development would take place, but a place to park butts would greatly enhance the QUALITY of the development.

Under the "butt for" test, I can imagine that we will be seeing a great increase in requests for TIF assistance. "Sure we can build that training facility, but it won't be as nice without a toilet." "Our development group realizes that restaurants legally have to have bathrooms, but we will build much NICER bathrooms with TIF assistance."

As you can see, the "butt for" test really kicks ass--especially the taxpayers'.

RIP: George Carlin

Comedian George Carlin died yesterday. He was one of a vanishing breed of comics and social critics (most of whom came of age in the 1960s) that were irreverent, anti-establishment, free-thinking, and funny as hell. Lenny Bruce and Frank Zappa belonged in that that category, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert don't belong in it, Bill Maher has his moments.

Note: Please don't watch the video below if you are uncomfortable with coarse language.

Send Questions About Stormwater Management

After Tuesday's business meeting, the common council will hold a workshop on stormwater management. The timing is coincidental--the workshop was scheduled far in advance of the recent floods.

Last night at Fr. Tom Reynebeau's post-flood forum I asked citizens to email or call me with any questions they might have for that workshop. You can post questions here, email me at, call (920) 235-1116 or email the entire common council here.

State Representative Gordon Hintz attended the forum also. He can be reached in Madison at (608) 266-2254, or email him at:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

So Much For "Family Time"

In March, Republican Carol Roessler issued an "Open Letter to the Residents of the 18th Senate District" announcing her plans to retire from the state senate. In it she said: "It is time for me to focus on time with my husband, Paul, and our family."

Yesterday we found out that Jim "The New Democrat" Doyle will bring Roessler into his administration on July 7th as administrator of the Department of Revenue's Division of State and Local Finance. The job pays $95,000 per year, effectively doubling Carol's senate salary of $47, 413. According to the Journal Sentinel, "If Roessler holds the job for a few years, it will boost her state pension, which is partly determined by the person’s final annual salaries." Not a bad deal.

Assuming she has to work full-time for the 95 grand, Carol will probably have much less family time than was the case in the senate. Few state workers have as much family time as members of the Wisconsin state legislature. State lawmakers convened no more than 3 to 4 weeks last year, giving them plenty of quality time with spouses, kids, friends, pets, and (especially) lobbyists.

Give Blood

I just got done giving blood at Opera House Square. The Community Blood Center donation vehicle will be there until 5 p.m. today. You can make an appointment to donate (800-280-4102) or just walk-in like I did. Between filling out a questionnaire, getting a blood pressure check, and giving the blood, I was out in less than a half-hour.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Daisy" Ad Creator Dies

For better or worse (I think mostly worse), Tony Schwartz revolutionized televised political advertising with his 1964 "Daisy" ad for the Lyndon Johnson campaign. Schwartz died over the weekend at the age of 84. A history of the Daisy ad can be found here.

Communication scholar Kathleen Hall-Jamieson believes that the Daisy ad was actually the "cleanest" political ad of 1964:

"Tony's messages involve listeners and viewers in an intricate and subtle dance, that ultimately leaves you in a partnership. And so, in the typical Schwartz message you're left feeling very involved. And you're also left with powerful residual impact. The reason people read Goldwater into the 'Daisy' commercial was because everything in that ad is speaking to their fears about nuclear weapons, and everything in the campaign was magnifying Goldwater's stands about nuclear weapons. And so you naturally invest that into an open message that invites those fears. That makes that the most powerful ad of that campaign. It also makes it the cleanest ad of the campaign. Because to the extent that Goldwater is in the ad he was invested there by the audience. And the audience isn't going to indict itself for dirty campaigning. Tony's ad is absolutely clean."

I think Tony Schwartz was kind of like the Jimi Hendrix of political advertising. Hendrix, an electric guitar icon, inspired some great and some dreadful imitators. Schwartz, the icon of electronic media advertising, inspired some great imitators but can also be linked to swift-boating and other horrible muck based on sheer audience manipulation.

First Impressions

Everyone concerned about the future of Oshkosh should take a look at the First Impressions Report (in pdf) produced by the UW Extension. As reported in the Northwestern, last Fall LaCrosse and Oshkosh sent anonymous teams to each others' city to offer feedback on a range of quality of life issues. The First Impressions report says some nice things about our town, but the dominant picture is of an Oshkosh with a dreary downtown, a dilapidated infrastructure, and service that runs the gamut from enthusiastic and pleasant to rude and unhelpful.

The Northwestern editorialized that the Report is just one tool, but "a great tool in helping Oshkosh residents and leaders independently assess and address the eye sores that we easily overlook. We may program ourselves to look past these blights, but they are eye sores and drawbacks that may require a little faster, more serious investment and attention in town."

Will the First Impressions Report provoke some meaningful changes in Oshkosh planning and development? Local citizens who for years have made the same observations as those in the report have for the most part felt ignored or put down as "too negative." Maybe it will be more difficult to ignore a group of outside observers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Citizens Get TIF-ed Off

At last night's council meeting, two citizens spoke up about the Experimental Aircraft Association's request for Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) assistance to build an exhibition hall. Both opposed the request, as did former councilor and UW economics prof Kevin McGee in the June 8th Northwestern.

The request is fascinating in that it's the first time I've seen an applicant acknowledge that the development will take place even without the TIF. One of the foundation principles of the state's TIF law is that TIF should only be granted if development will not take place without it. The EAA proposal says: "The situation is atypical in that development will occur with or without TIF, it just will not occur at the cost outlined in this proposal without it . . . EAA has committed to this project. It will occur with or without TIF assistance . Without TIF assistance, however, EAA will be forced to cut costs from the Project because it was conceived based on certain assumptions, including securing TIF . . . Without TIF assistance, EAA would cut costs on the Exhibit building, which would result in it being less desirable for non-Air Venture events . . . The Exhibit building without amentities/TIF will not have bathrooms, meeting space, climate control, or aesthetic upgrades. The building with TIF will."

After McGee's piece appeared, a man approached me in the grocery store and asked, "Is the bottom line that if we want people to be able to take a crap at the Exhibit hall, we'd better approve the TIF?" We were near the aisle where they sell Immodium, so I told him to pick some up to bring to the Exhibit Hall in case the council votes down the proposal.

Please contact councilors if you have views on the EAA TIF plan.

During the Sammy Hagar era, Van Halen did have a good song with airplanes in the video. If nothing else, this post at least allows an opportunity to share that.

Monday, June 09, 2008

High Expectations, Short Honeymoon

As everyone knows by now, the common council over the weekend hired Grand Chute's Mark Rohloff as new city manager. As water drenched city residents survey their wet basements, they might draw a tiny bit of comfort from the fact that Rohloff was the first chair of the Northeast Wisconsin Stormwater Consortium.

The council offered Mr. Rohloff a very generous compensation package (including a $125,000 per year salary). Expectations are very high, and I predict (and I would predict the same for any new executive in Oshkosh) the honeymoon period will be very short. Citizens have made it clear to this council that they want to see the elected officials and the city administration make real progress on economic development, neighborhood improvements, budget reform, green reforms, and other initiatives. If Mr. Rohloff cannot deliver, the public rightfully will and should hold the council accountable.

Mark strikes me as a very effective communicator in interpersonal, small group, and public settings--skills that will allow him to present an executive leadership image that we have not seen in Oshkosh for some time. I believe he'll be able to deliver the kind of "state of the city" address that the council had in mind when they created it a few years ago.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Tower in 1995

While cleaning up some old files today, I came across the city of Oshkosh 1995 Annual Report. Interestingly, the soon to be deceased water filtration plant tower figures prominently on the cover. This is a great and sad example of "you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

The year 1995 is referred to in the historical evaluation of the tower that was prepared fof the city of Oshkosh by Cornerstone Preservation Research & Planning of Cross Plains, WI. They say this:

"In 1995 while work was being planned for the construction of the free-standing water treatment plant, it was suggested that the tower be demolished. Apparently the option was presented as fiscally motivated by Gilbert Pollnow of the city's Energy and Environment Advisory Committee. However, Public Works Director Gerald Konrad asserted the tower was "in very sound shape," and further reported the city recently had spent $70,654 on a new roof for it, and also had undertaken tuck pointing and selected brick replacement. At that time, the precedent established by the city in 1989 for saving a 100 foot smokestack from the former Pluswood Plant and maintaining it in Abe Rochlin Park was cited by Konrad, who was reported to say, "The city went to great lengths to save the smokestack on the old Pluswood property, so we thought that maybe we shouldn't be too quick in demolishing that tower."

See also Justin Mitchell's excellent post on Main St. Oshkosh.

Monday, June 02, 2008

RIP: Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley died on Monday at the age of 79. What a fabulous guitar player. Bo's early recordings were for Chess Records, the legendary Chicago blues studio. Chicago landmarked the building in 1990 (thank goodness it wasn't in Oshkosh as it would have been razed by now).

The famous Bo Diddley riff has been appropriated by countless artists in countless songs. The Rolling Stones' cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" is just one example.