Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Politics and Guns

Wisconsin's 2010 US Senate race between then incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold and eventual winner Republican Ron Johnson provided a good example of why little progress on gun safety is likely to happen in the current political environment.

In June of 2010, then candidate Johnson was asked by a Tea Party group what kind of gun restrictions he might support. As we might expect from any decent human being with common sense, Johnson gave a perfectly reasonable response: "You know, like we license cars and stuff, I don't have a real, I don't have a real problem in minimal licensing and stuff. I mean I don't."

New to politics, Johnson had not a clue as to the extent to which the gun lobby controls (this is the real "gun control") the modern Republican Party. He was forced to retract the comments, said he used the "wrong word," and by July of 2012 he was framing ownership of high capacity clips and magazines as a constitutional right.  In other words, by July of 2012 Johnson on the issue of gun safety had become just one more hack Republican: no resolve to do anything about the problem, no courage to stand up to extreme elements of the gun lobby; talk of licensing now a distant memory.

But I don't think anyone, including Republicans, ever expected much more than party hackery from RoJo on most issues. What was more disturbing, rather, was Feingold's response at the time of Johnson's 2010 pro-licensing comment. The campaign put out a radio ad attacking Johnson, with Feingold saying "I approve this message because you shouldn't have to wait in line at the DMV to get a license for your constitutional rights and freedoms." That was the Democrat.

After Johnson flip-flopped and groveled at the feet of the NRA, the Feingold campaign said, "Russ Feingold has never needed a do-over when it comes to opposing gun registration." That was the Democrat.

In essence, Feingold was attempting to run to the right of Johnson on gun control. This was not unique to Feingold; since guns became a wedge issue in the 1980s, the typical Democratic response has been to "position" themselves in ways that might maintain the party base while not alienating independents.

The result? The so-called gun debate in the United States, when it does happen (usually after horrific tragedies like Columbine, Virgina Tech, Aurora, and Newtown), is skewed way to the right. Policy items like licensing and registration, which would be prerequisites for any serious attempt to do something legislatively about guns, are off the table from the start.

As long as Republicans are easily intimidated and bullied by the gun lobby, and as long as Democrats choose positioning over principle, we are not likely to see any meaningful changes in gun policy coming out of Washington or the state capitols.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Fox Valley Media in 2022: Hopes and Expectations

Fox Valley Media in 2022: Hopes and Expectations

Media Rants 

from the December 2012 edition of The Oshkosh Scene 

If in 2002 I’d been asked to prognosticate about the state of Fox Valley media in 2012 I would have been optimistic. In 2002 I started the “Media Rants” column, produced and hosted a local access television program, published an Internet newsletter, and even did some radio. I sensed a real disgust with big corporate media, and thought it realistic to expect that developments in new media technologies would minimally create more competition for the corporates and consequently improve the overall quality of journalism and editorializing across the board.

Sadly Fox Valley media in 2012 turned out to be worse than what existed 10 years ago. Corporate television and radio continue to be advertiser driven nightmares, with news programming on the major issues of the day doggedly biased in favor of the political and commercial establishment. The Gannett press turned out to be, well, the Gannett press; commitment to market domination not matched by a commitment to nurturing a marketplace of ideas.

The SCENE, some blogs and social media, and other alternatives attempted heroically to open up space for dialogue and dissent, but lack of resources and lack of unity made it difficult to sustain the kind of independent media MOVEMENT necessary to progress beyond the stale status quo. In 2002 I reckoned independent media producers might link up and create some kind of visible alliance beyond linking to each other’s webpages. Never happened.

As we look forward to 2022, we can hope and hopefully struggle for the best, but must also have some realistic expectations about where we are headed.

We can hope that corporate media will take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies to minimize the profit motive in favor of a rejuvenated public service ethic. There's an Italian Newspaper called Il Fatto Quotidiano (The Daily Facts) currently doing well without excessive advertising. Online content is free and not blocked by paywalls. The paper makes profits from subscribers and newsstand sales. Why are they succeeding? Because readers perceive them as independent and not as flacks for the government or corporate interests.
We can hope that by 2022 independent Valley bloggers, social media activists, cable access producers, and others will unite. They have nothing to lose but their current marginalization and irrelevance. They have a more vibrant public sphere to gain.

We can hope that the institutions of higher learning in our region, especially the UW, revive a “Wisconsin Idea” spirit. That means placing an emphasis on helping citizens to tell their stories and encouraging students to see community civic engagement not as occasional volunteer activities, but as the essence of being an educated person. In the 21st century civically engaged people almost by definition must be media activists.

We can hope that the trillion hours per year citizens today collectively spend on digital media creation can be focused more on civic engagement. In the Fox Valley, greater digital activism could do wonders for producing the kind of grassroots political culture needed to challenge the old boy network that has ruled the roost in these parts for way too long.

We can realistically expect that the corporate media will continue to suffer from addiction to maximal profit business models that will further lower the quality of journalism in our region. I’m not sure we can realistically expect that the majority of citizens will take the step necessary to change this: stop supporting financially any media that allows pursuit of the almighty dollar to trump its responsibility to serve the cause of democracy.

We can realistically expect that independent media producers will proliferate. Productions will of course be of mixed quality, but I expect that advances in new media technologies will make it easier for people sincerely interested in bettering our communities to get their messages out clearly and unfiltered by corporate gatekeepers.

We can realistically expect our institutions of higher learning to engage in more community outreach than is currently the case. I expect Departments of Communication, Journalism, and others to become more visibly partnered with Valley communities, hopefully helping citizens to communicate their needs clearly and assertively.  

We can realistically expect that social media will become, much more than today, a key tool in the effort to rebuild our neighborhoods. In small neighborhoods like Middle Village (where I live in Oshkosh), residents are slowly but surely using Facebook and YouTube to keep citizens informed and promote neighborhood identity. We have a long way to go in using social media productively in this fashion, but given the inability of the corporate press to serve a meaningful civic role, we may have no choice.

Moving forward my major fear is that an abundance of new media technologies could just as easily alienate us from each other as opposed to the unifying possibilities I’ve outlined. Folk singer Tracy Chapman eloquently framed this fear: “We have more media than ever and more technology in our lives. It's supposed to help us communicate, but it has the opposite effect of isolating us.”

We all can cite an ample number of examples to support Tracy’s point. By 2022 we can be better, but only if we act. As the late management guru Peter Drucker once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”