Tuesday, March 31, 2009

April Media Rant: My Favorite Media Criticism Books

The column below will appear in the April issue of The Scene. --TP

My Favorite Media Criticism Books
Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

In celebration of the Second Annual Fox Cities Book Festival (April 14 – 19), I pay tribute to my five favorite media criticism books. My picks were all penned by middle-aged or older white guys, a fact that media critics of the Media Rants column might peg as Palmeri’s patriarchal tendencies. To such critics, I say that while I do find the work(s) of Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, Adolph Reed, Jr., Amy Goodman, Cornel West, Kathleen Hall-Jamieson and many others insightful and thought provoking, I refer back to the five listed below so frequently that it’s only fair that they make the top 5.

In no particular order:

*Witness to a Century by George Seldes (1987). When Gorge Seldes passed away in 1995 at the age of 104, he left behind a rich legacy of work representing the ultimate role model of media criticism as an anti-fascist and pro small-d democracy activity. The Media Rants column owes more to Seldes than any other author. Seldes newsletter In Fact, reviled by the press chains, remains the prototype of that all too rare form of journalism dedicated to telling the truth, exposing lies, and calling out the mainstream press for its shameful capitulation to power. Seldes’ autobiography Witness to a Century is a gem for conscientious media critics looking for encouragement in what often feels like a lonely and thankless task of taking on the goliath that is the mainstream press.

*The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967). The late Dr. McLuhan gained notoriety in the 1960s as one of the first television-era public intellectuals. Whereas most television critics viewed the medium as a mere channel through which content travels, McLuhan introduced popular audiences to the provocative idea that media technology radically transform human modes of thinking and acting. To this day he is misquoted as saying “the medium is the message,” but he actually meant something much more powerful: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without knowledge of the way media work as environments.” The Medium is the Massage, featuring brief bites of wisdom interspersed with photos and defying all linear rules of print literature presentation, was a kind of twittering blog decades before anyone knew anything about blogs or Twitter.

*Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (1985). In 1985, students of communication studies (me included) were mystified and even angry that President Reagan, who rarely displayed a firm grasp of his own administration’s policies, could somehow become known as the “Great Communicator.” Turns out that understanding Reagan required understanding television. Following in McLuhan’s footsteps, Postman argued that the technology of television had radically transformed our information universe: “Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information - misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information - information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.” Reagan in his time was the most televisual president in history, on our screens daily, yet we paradoxically “knew” little about him other than that he made some people feel good about America. Perhaps the same is true for Obama. In 1985 it was easy to think that Postman may have exaggerated his case, but by the time of the early 1990s and the reduction of war to a video game (i.e. the First Iraq War), it became clear that he probably had not gone far enough.

*The Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian (1983). I agree completely with The Nation’s Eric Alterman’s observation that “No book on the media has proved as influential to our understanding of the dangers of corporate consolidation to democracy and the marketplace of ideas as The Media Monopoly.” Like George Seldes, Bagdikian writes from the perspective of a working journalist fully aware of the difficulties of telling the truth in a media universe governed by the value of private profit. In a later edition of The Media Monopoly, Bagdikian wrote prophetically that, “As the world prepares to deal with the twenty-first century, United States society as a whole and the country's mass media find themselves in the same conflict-between what is good for business and what is good for the quality of life in society.”

*Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1988). This book presents the most compelling analysis ever written of the social, political, and economic forces constraining corporate news media. The five-step “propaganda model” provides consumers of media with a rigorous tool for understanding how the news we receive is filtered through ownership values (i.e. profit motive), advertising pressures, reliance on establishment sources, the threat of “flak” against truth-telling agents in media, and a rigid anti-communist (or uncritically pro-market) ideology. A must read for media ranters everywhere.

See you at the book fair!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oshkosh Issued Citation For Deer Overfeeding

I just got off the phone with a reporter from WBAY-TV, who asked me to comment on the DNR's issuing a citation to the city of Oshkosh for deer overfeeding. I had no comment, because I had not heard of this until his phone call. Apparently the city will be fined a minimum of $530. I'm sure the Northwestern will have more information soon.

Were it not for the efforts of citizen Amy Haberkorn, the overfeeding probably would not have been discovered. She went and dug up the DNR permit that allowed the culling, contacted the city's Parks Department to see if they were feeding in accordance with that document, and raised hay when it was discovered that the overfeeding was taking place. A good lesson for anyone who doubts the power of the individual to make a difference.

Tell Hintz To Co-Sponsor LRB 1256

My latest Media Rant column said that "In Wisconsin, State Representative Spencer Black (D-Madison) will soon sponsor legislation mandating that in all future Guard deployments the Governor, as Commander in Chief of the Wisconsin National Guard, would be required to review the federal order calling them into duty."

Well, that legislation has finally arrived. According to the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, LRB 1256 is sponsored by Black and Senator Jon Erpenbach. The legislation won't end the Iraq War, but:

The legislation directs the governor to review every federal call-up order of the Wisconsin Guard for its legality, and where there is no lawful basis for Guard federalization, to take action to keep the Wisconsin Guard at home.

This matter is urgent and we need to act by Friday March 27, each of us asking our State Representatives and State Senator to co-sponsor LRB 1256. Time is of the essence. Please call your state legislators TODAY!

Find contact information for your state legislators at

There are currently only 5 co-sponsors in both houses combined – all of them from Dane County.

I just contacted local representative Gordon Hintz's office to urge him to co-sponsor the legislation. Please do the same. Gordon can be reached at (608) 266-2254 or emailed at Rep.Hintz@legis.wisconsin.gov.

League of Women Voters Forum Tonight

There will be a Common Council candidate forum tonight, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The event will be held from 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. on the 4th floor of City Hall. It will be broadcast live on CitiCable10 and WOCT 101.9 radio. You can also come watch it live.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Response to Chamber Questions

The Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce recently asked Common Council candidates to respond in writing to 7 questions. Below are the questions and my responses.

Question #1: What is your hightest priority for economic development? What would you suggest the city do to achieve your priority?

My highest priority of economic development is attracting living wage jobs to the city. To achieve this priority, the city should (a.) compose a new request for proposals for the Marion Road/Pearl Ave. redevelopment area, explicitly to recruit living wage employers not already in Oshkosh; (b.) develop a point system for the use of Tax Incremental Financing so that projects for developments that pay living wages will be given highest TIF priority; (c.) develop a “NO BRAIN DRAIN” partnership with UW Oshkosh designed to come up with incentives for keeping young entrepreneurs in Oshkosh after they graduate from the university.

Questions #2: Issue has been raised with the manner in which the City's Inspection Department interprets the State Building Code. Many times, this interpretation results in increased construction costs. If elected, how would you propose to address this situation?

The City Council should hire an outside auditor to determine if the City’s Inspection Department is in fact interpreting the State Building Code in a manner that is arbitrary, overly harsh, and/or out of line with the manner in which the Code is interpreted in other Fox Valley or comparable cities. If the audit finds that our Inspection Department is out of line, then City Manager Rohloff must intervene to fix the situation. If at that point Mr. Rohloff failed or refused to make changes in the Department, then the Council should fire him and hire someone who will make the necessary changes.

Question #3: Recently, the City adopted a 29% Storm Water Utility rate increase that was needed to address storm water management issues, both quantity and quality. Many commercial and industrial property owners have addressed runoff issues to reduce storm water runoff to pre-development levels. In cases such as this, what is the appropriate storm water credit these property owners should receive?

According to current city policy, the current maximum peak flow control credit available for commercial and industrial properties is 40%. That strikes me as appropriate, though I am open to hearing arguments as to why the credit should be higher. I will not support additional credits for non-residential properties unless residential property owners are offered similar credits.

Question #4: Define the role of the City Council within the current City Council/City Manager form of government. Do you support the current separation of duties and accountability under the current form of government?

Under the current City Council/City Manager form of government, the Council’s role is similar to the Board of Directors of a corporation. As such, the Council should provide direction to the CEO (i.e. the City Manager) and provide the stockholders (i.e. taxpayers) with a suitable return on their investment. In a municipal context, suitable return on investment means wise and responsible use of tax dollars to protect core services like police and fire, rebuild and maintain infrastructure, stimulate economic development, and support quality of life items like parks and the public library.

The Council/Manager form of government works best in cities where there is a high degree of consensus on key issues related to how we should best use tax dollars. In Oshkosh we do not have such consensus, resulting in a frequently divided Council and a City Manager who is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The form of government in Oshkosh clearly is not working, but that can only be changed by a citizen led referendum movement. I am not interested in changing the form of government on the basis of a vote of 7 Council members.

Question #5: Do you support the City's use of Tax Incremental Financing to assist in development and/or redevelopment of areas within Oshkosh? Why or why not?

I support Tax Incremental Financing for projects that clearly meet the purpose of TIF as identified in state statutes, that have public support, and that would not be done “but for” the existence of the TIF. I supported the TIF for Brian Burns’ apartment development on Main St. because I was persuaded that the project met those criteria. What we need is for the City Manager to develop a point system to help in determining which projects are worthy of TIF support. So for example, a project that comes with the promise of living wage jobs would get more points than a retail project that doesn’t.

Question #6: How do you propose to bring City employees' benefit packages in line with that of the private sector?

City of Oshkosh employees’ benefit packages should be comparable with our peer cities. If our bargaining position as regards bringing employee benefits packages more in-line with the private sector is significantly out of line with the position of our peer cities, we will end up in a costly arbitration process and lose. It would be irresponsible to get us to that position in the first place. What we need to do is end the city’s current practice of paying an outside negotiator tens of thousands of dollars to handle our collective bargaining negotiations. Hiring the outside negotiator is costly, usually prolongs negotiations without getting a better deal for the city, and creates long-term resentment among the represented workers. Ending that outside negotiator practice would “clear the air” and allow for more open, collegial discussions of how to reform benefit packages in tight budget years.

Question #7: Oshkosh has traditionally relied on a strong public-private partnership for economic development programming. What would you do to enhance this partnership?

Public-private partnerships can be enhanced via greater transparency. Most citizens currently are not aware of the various ways in which the public sector assists the private and vice-versa. The public also suspects—rightly or wrongly—that much partnering takes place in secret. Lack of awareness and suspicion of secrecy breeds cynicism, and cynicism makes it more difficult to develop support even for worthwhile partnership projects like the Convention Center renovation. Consequently, the best thing I or any Councilor can do to enhance public-private partnerships is to demand that government is as open and transparent as possible according to both the letter and spirit of the law.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Lengthy Meetings Myth

Yes, it is true that some meetings of the Oshkosh Common Council have gone on too long. Yes, it is also true that each member of the Council (myself included) could do a better job of making their questions and remarks more concise. As I said at an Oshkosh Northwestern forum a few weeks ago, I certainly wouldn't mind seeing our Tuesday night meetings end early because I am a full-time teacher who teaches on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. (I teach from 9:10 - 10:10, 11:30 - 12:30, 1:50 - 2:50 and 5:00 - 8:00 on Wednesdays. On that day I also hold an office hour from 10:20 - 11:20 and usually have a faculty meeting from 12:40 - 1:40). So believe me, when the Council meetings go on a long time on Tuesdays, I'm not always the happiest of campers.

(For those who may not know, the Common Council meets on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month. Meetings begin at 6 p.m.).

Listening to those for whom the length of meetings is a big issue, you'd think that the Council always or even a majority of the time goes on for 4 or more hours. It ain't so folks. I just looked up the minutes of all of the regular meetings from the time I joined the Council (April of 2007) until now. Here's what I found:

45 Regular Meetings From April 24, 2007 - March 10, 2009

  • Number of Meetings Less Than 2 hours: 13 (29%)
  • Number of Meetings 2-3 Hours: 8 (18%)
  • Number of Meetings 3-4 Hours: 11 (24%)
  • Number of Meetings 4-5 Hours: 8 (18%)
  • Number of Meetings Over 5 Hours: 5 (11%)

That means that just under half of the meetings over the last 2 years (47%) have ended before 9 p.m., and almost three-quarters (71%) have ended before 10 p.m.

Are the 13 meetings (29%) that have gone on after 10 p.m. bothersome? Yes, but even those need to be placed in context. The majority of members on this Council have openly encouraged citizen participation at the meetings (not just in citizen statements but also on agenda items), and that does tend to lengthen meetings. I think citizen participation is a good thing so I would not support any effort to shorten the meetings that would limit it.

But I think the major reason we have had somewhat longer meetings than in the past is because, given the fact that we are often divided 4-3 without advance knowledge of which way that vote will go, for the first time in many years argument actually seems to matter on the Common Council. In the "old days" (let's say from about 1957 - 2007), the council so frequently featured 5-2 and 6-1 votes that it almost did not matter what anyone said.

Take, for example, the Council's discussion on whether or not to purchase the Chamber of Commerce building. Everyone had a sense that that was going to be a 4-3 vote, but since it was not a "done deal," lots of citizens came to speak and Councilors made substantive arguments for their positions. The same happened on votes related to compensating residents for water main damage, single-stream recycling and, yes, sidewalks on River Mill. Numerous other examples could be found.

Do I think we can do a better job of making the meetings shorter? Yes. Can I do a better job of keeping my own questions and comments more concise? Yes. But do I think our lengthier meetings are the result of excess babbling or time-wasting on the part of the majority of councilors? No. I think the reality is that we've had more small-d democracy in the last two years (not nearly enough it's true), and that takes time. But even with that, the fact is that majority of our meetings still end before 10 p.m.

Happy Anniversary Dark Side of the Moon

Maybe not as important as St. Pat's Day, but today is the 36th anniversary of the US release of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album. Dark Side is considered by many rock critics to be the epitome of the "progressive rock" genre, which is probably true, but I've always thought that the 1971-1979 Pink Floyd (the years in which they released Meddle, Obscured by Clouds, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall) had more in common with the Beatles than King Crimson. The later Beatles and Floyd in the 70s were kind of like Baby Boomer Folk Music; had Woody Guthrie been in either band he probably would have written a song called "This Head Is Your Head." See the first video below for Roger Waters' acoustic version of "Brain Damage."

Someone with too much time on their hands discovered that parts of Dark Side synchronize nicely with The Wizard of Oz. Note at about the 3:55 mark in the second video below that when "Balanced on the biggest wave you race towards an early grave" are sung. Dorothy falls as the words "early grave" are sung. You can find the entire album synched to the movie on YouTube.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Deer and School Safety

On Tuesday night the Common Council was asked to approve a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that would allow for the construction of a new elementary school on Ryf Road should the referendum pass on April 7th. City staff, including the city attorney, have argued over the years that requests for CUP can only be denied on narrow grounds, including whether a proposed structure would create safety issues related to vehicular traffic.

Therefore, it's not clear that the sustainability issues raised by Ron Hardy last year vis a vis the new school location could be used as grounds to deny a CUP. (Though if such grounds CANNOT be used to deny a CUP then the effort to devise a "Community Sustainability Plan" would appear to be at best a waste of time; if sustainability principles cannot be used as guides to help determine what is allowed in or out of a zone, then of what meaningful use are those principles?)
The majority on the council appeared satisfied with staff's interpretation of CUP guidelines, so we were left with thinking about the CUP in a more narrow traffic/safety sense. We don't yet have a traffic study, but were told that if we passed the CUP and a study later finds a problem, the applicants will be asked to make adjustments. We were told that it's common to approve CUP requests absent completed studies.

As the discussion was going on, I looked out into the audience and saw supporters and opponents of the recent deer cull. Then it hit me. The justification for the cull, in large part, was based on safety: Chief Greuel and Sgt. Sagmeister were especially insistent that deer/car accidents in the Osborn Ave. area present a clear and present danger to motorists. Meanwhile, Bryan Woodbury of the DNR, in an email to a cull opponent, said that Oshkosh will have to deal with deer overpopulation issues in a variety of areas, including Ryf Road. Citizens familiar with that area tell me that the amount of deer present there far outnumber the population found in the Quarry/Armory area.

Would the presence of deer near the school present a safety issue, not just for motorists but for the children? After all, not only have we spent an entire year hearing about the dangers of deer/car accidents, but last night we were presented with a scholarly essay suggesting that under certain conditions doe will attack and seriously injure humans. Given that we've consistenly had 6 council votes, the city manager, and the chief of police in favor of culling in large part on the basis of safety issues, I'm sincerely perplexed that they would not ask for a study of potential deer/human/vehicle interactions in the Ryf Rd. area before awarding a CUP.

D. Burich of the Planning Dept. and City Attorney Lorenson appeared to laugh off this concern, but deer interactions with schools are not that uncommon. Here's one example from Michigan, and another from New Jersey. A deputy police chief in Aberdeen, New Jersey, asked to explain why a deer would crash through a school window there, gave the obvious answer that too many humans do not want to hear: “Unfortunately, the area is so built up now that deer don’t have much place to go.”

For those willing to take the deer issue seriously, what this means is that we really do need to create a genuine deer management committee, charged with developing a serious deer management plan. The idea that we would build the school first and worry about the deer issue later seems backwards to me, especially given what we have been through in the last year.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

"Debate Under Dome" Tonight At OPL

Tonight at 7 p.m. candidates for common council will be participating in a "Debate Under the Dome" at the Oshkosh Public Library. The forum is sponsored by the OPL and Oshkosh Northwestern. Come to the library tonight or catch it on videostream at the Northwestern site.

Last week's debate between mayoral candidates Tower and Esslinger can be found here.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Media AWOL On National Guard Coverage

Below is the March "Media Rants" column for the Scene. I wrote the piece in mid-February. A few days after submitting it, we learned that Green Bay soldier Kris Walker is refusing to return to Iraq. He told the press,"I signed up to defend the constitution and defend the country against foreign enemies. But I’m not going to do something immoral and contrary to the contract I signed up for."

And now the Media Rant:

Media AWOL on National Guard Coverage

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the March, 2009 edition of The Scene

As I write in mid-February, the Iraq War has claimed the lives of over 4,200 US soldiers (including 87 from the Badger State) and many more thousands of Iraqis, cost almost $600 billion, and wreaked havoc in the lives of military families throughout the land. Indeed, no war in history has demanded as much sacrifice from National Guard troops and their families.

Mainstream media coverage of the Guard is usually limited to two main story lines. The first features warm farewells and celebration of troops headed off to war. The second gives us moving obituaries of the fallen.

Consider the February 17th deployment of 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The Brigade includes 75 soldiers in the Guard’s Appleton-based Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment. The Appleton unit is going on its second tour in five years. Sgt. Dan Lederhaus of Fremont, a married father of two whose first deployment was from June of 2005 to August of 2006, told the Post Crescent that, “It was kind of rough because no one knew what to expect. But we anticipate this second tour will be a little easier, but it’s still hard on the families. I just want to get this over with, come home and hopefully retire from the military within two years."

Wisconsin’s major media portrayed the send-off of what represents the largest deployment of Wisconsin Guard forces since WW II as a morale-booster and celebration of the soldiers’ sacrifices. Senators Kohl and Feingold, along with Governor Doyle and other establishment pols, were on hand to show support. Not surprising given the mainstream media’s track record on veteran’s issues, Feingold’s recent call for the Veterans Administration to establish more Vet Centers in Wisconsin received little ink or TV space.

What’s received even less space is the peace movement’s credible case for challenging the legality of continued Guard deployments to Iraq. “Bring the Guard Home” grassroots movements have sprouted across the nation, with legislation challenging the legality of the deployment already introduced in three states (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont) and being prepared in two others (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). According to the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice (http://www.wnpj.org/), the legal case against the deployments can be summarized as follows:

In 2002 the Congress passed an Authorization For Use of Military Force in Iraq (AUMF) based on a limited, two-part mission for our military in Iraq:

  1. To eliminate the alleged threat posed by Iraqi WMDs; and

  2. To remove Saddam Hussein from power.

The WMDs did not exist. Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. The mission authorized by Congress is over, and Congress has never voted to reauthorize the mission to Iraq on any other basis. Therefore, the 2002 AUMF – which is the only legal basis by which the President can demand National Guard troops for Iraq – has expired. Any continued deployment of Guard units to Iraq is now unlawful.

In Wisconsin, State Representative Spencer Black (D-Madison) will soon sponsor legislation mandating that in all future Guard deployments the Governor, as Commander in Chief of the Wisconsin National Guard, would be required to review the federal order calling them into duty. If the Governor determines that the order is not proper, he or she would take the matter to federal court to get a determination of legality.

Representative Black told me that the legislation, if passed, would not apply to the recent deployment of the 32nd Infantry. That’s unfortunate, but at least if passed if might help prevent soldiers like Sgt. Lederhaus from going on a third tour. Black also said that he does not expect any difficulty in getting representatives to cosponsor the bill. Governor Doyle has not indicated yet if he supports such legislation, though one hopes he would see it as an opportunity to assert his powers under Article V, section 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution (“The governor shall be commander in chief of the military and naval forces of the state.”).

The Wisconsin Action Alliance (http://wiscaction.org/petitions/) is sponsoring an online petition to bring our Guard home. The petition says: “We petition the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor to oppose the illegal deployment of Wisconsin National Guard units to Iraq. We ask them to join with legislators in dozens of other states who are submitting similar legislation recognizing that Congress' 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq has expired and has not been renewed, and is therefore no longer a legal basis for Guard deployment to Iraq. “

Vermont Representative Michael Fisher led the effort in that state to get the legislature to approve a bill urging Governor James Douglas to bring the Guard home. Fisher told the Vermont press that far from being “anti-Iraq War” legislation, the bill merely ask that war planners “follow-the-laws-governing-the-Guard.” What could be more conservative?

Mainstream media do a decent job of sending off troops and mourning their deaths. Absent are stories or editorials challenging the legality of Guard deployments. Such challenges represent real attempts to save lives. Yet instead of real reporting on such challenges, mainstream media continue the six-year pattern of cheerleading. The Guard and their families, not to mention the general public, deserve better.

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Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.