Sunday, December 14, 2014

The 2014 TONY Awards

The 2014 TONY Awards

Media Rants 

from the December 2014 edition of the The SCENE 

This 13th (!) annual TONY Awards column for excellence in grassroots media work is dedicated to those citizens who in a midterm election year provided alternatives to what was mostly shallow and shameful establishment press coverage of Wisconsin’s contests for governor, congress, attorney general, state legislature, and other offices. The SCENE’s collaboration with public access television’s Eye on Oshkosh was an example of how even a small group of interested people can use print media, television, and the Internet in ways that raise the bar for campaign discourse.  Maybe if more media activists do the same, we might at a minimum mobilize higher voter turnout. Kudos to Justin Mitchell and Cheryl Hentz for making the SCENE/Eye on Oshkosh partnership possible. 

In 2014 the TONY Award goes to Mike McCabe, who’s been a huge influence on this column and much other “small d” democratic work across the state and nation. In April, Mike announced that his fifteen year run as Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) would come to an end at the close of the year. I’ve known Mike for most of those fifteen years, during which time I’ve had the opportunity to interview him on television and radio.

WDC is most known for maintaining a user friendly database of campaign contributions received by partisan politicians across the state. I’ve consulted that data often, along with WDC’s eye-opening reports highlighting the connection between big money and public policy. WDC played an important role in advocating for the creation of an independent nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) that took the power of enforcing ethics code violations away from partisan hacks inclined toward sweeping ethical lapses under the rug. Not surprisingly, the Republican legislature is now threatening to eliminate the GAB or curtail its power significantly. 

McCabe may be stepping down from the WDC, but he’ll remain active in the movement to reform democracy. His recently released book Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics (Little Creek Press) reads like a manifesto for the “politically homeless” who are tired of having to settle, in election cycle after election cycle, for lesser evilism. 
McCabe’s manifesto is part history, part diagnosis of our political ills, and part organizing manual; kind of like a rabble rouser recipe calling for a half-cup of Fighting Bob LaFollette, two heaping tablespoons of Thomas Paine, and a dash of Saul Alinsky. The history part is what I think makes Blue Jeans in High Places ultimately an optimistic, hopeful book. In McCabe’s words: “We face nothing that hasn’t been faced – and defeated – before. Right on this soil. Defeated by people who had so much less going for them than we do now.”
A great example of our ancestors’ staring down greed and corruption concerns the now tourist trap city of Wisconsin Dells. I heard Mike tell this story at a Fighting Bob Fest gathering some years ago, and was thrilled to see it recounted in Blue Jeans (chapter 17: Hidden Treasure). In 1857 the territory that later became the Dells was named “Kilbourn” after Milwaukee railroad baron Byron Kilbourn, in need of land to build a railroad but not wanting to compensate land owners, bribed 13 senators, 59 members of the assembly  and Governor Coles Bashford (who owned a house in Oshkosh). Kilbourn got the legislature and governor to condemn the land and give it to him in a land grant. Only one senator, “Honest” Amasa Cobb, refused to take a bribe. A crusading journalist named Stephen Decatur Carpenter exposed the corruption and sparked a citizen revolt, leading to the defeat of Bashford. McCabe notes that “by the time Carpenter died several decades later, Wisconsin had enacted some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, giving birth to my state’s reputation for squeaky clean politics. For more than a century that followed, Wisconsin was known from coast to coast as a beacon of clean, open and honest government.”

There are a few parts of Blue Jeans I might quibble with. Writing about the Republicans and Democrats, McCabe argues that “we have one party that is scary and another that is scared.” I think that’s actually too charitable a description of the Democrats, and would argue instead that we have one party that has BAD ideas and another that has NO ideas. Neither party right now has BIG ideas. Democrats are presumably less scared in states where they hold huge majorities (e.g. California and New York), yet we see few bold policy initiatives in those places that might inspire Democrats in other states. As former Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb once said, “the Democratic Party is where progressive ideas go to die."

That leads to my second quibble. McCabe accepts the establishment mantra that votes for third parties are “wasted” or “spoiler” votes. He thinks we need a “first party insurgency.” My experience, for what it’s worth, has been that third party activism (a) creates a space for the development of BIG ideas and (b) helps bring together what Margaret Mead called the “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” that is the only force that has ever really changed the world.

Those quibbles are minor. For his many contributions toward promoting democracy and the common good, Mike McCabe is the 2014 TONY Award recipient. 

Previous TONY Award columns: 2002,   2003, 2004, 20052006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Campaign 2014’s Biggest Loser: Debate

Campaign 2014’s Biggest Loser: Debate

Media Rants 

by Tony Palmeri  

From the November 2014 edition of the The SCENE

Friday night in Wisconsin means fish fry, brandy old fashioned happy hour, family gathering, dinner and a movie, party after a long week of work, high school sports, and just about anything other than potentially depressing political discussion.  Even citizens deeply engaged in elections have Friday night lives. So why did the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association (WBA), the establishment media outfit for some reason empowered to sponsor the only two formal gubernatorial debates, schedule them on Friday nights?

With the possible exception of a Doogie Howser, M.D. rerun marathon, it’s hard to imagine what besides political debate would get lower ratings on a Friday evening. As a further slap in the face, the WBA only allowed Scott Walker and Mary Burke on stage. Dennis Fehr of the Peoples’ Party and the Libertarians’ Robert Burke (no relation to Mary), articulate candidates standing for something other than business as usual, were excluded.  

But the WBA’s sham Friday night blah blah fests represent just one part of what has been a miserable debate season in Wisconsin. Locally, the SCENE partnered with Cheryl Hentz’s “Eye on Oshkosh” program to produce debates for as many local and state wide races as possible. Transcripts of candidate shows appeared in the Oshkosh SCENE. Cheryl asked me to cohost along with UW Oshkosh journalism student Emilie Heidemann. Here’s a summary of our experience: 

Guv Candidates Flip Us The Bird: Cheryl did all of the hard work involved in scheduling candidate appearances for Eye on Oshkosh. She knew the demands on the mainstream governor candidates would make it difficult for them to commit the time, but never expected them to be so dismissive of the invitation. The behavior of the Burke campaign puzzled us, as she needs to do well in northeast Wisconsin to win the race. One might think the campaign would jump at the opportunity to get some local free media time. Instead, her Communications Director communicated hostilities to Cheryl, angry that she sent repeated requests to schedule a taping with us. 

54th AD Candidate Flip Flops Invitation: Cheryl invited 54th district incumbent representative Gordon Hintz (D) and his challenger, political newcomer Mark Elliott (R) to appear. Hintz came on and answered allquestions put to him. Elliott initially seemed excited to talk, then withdrew because, as he told Cheryl, our September interview schedule was “too early” in the campaign to start doing interviews. This in spite of the fact that he had already been on WOSH radio in Oshkosh on May 21st to answer questions and announce that he needed to “speak to every group that I can.”  Perhaps he meant “too early to answer anything but softball questions on WOSH.” 

6th CD: Grothman Flips His Lid: Of all the candidates running for office this year Glenn Grothman, the Republican seeking to replace the retiring Tom Petri, has been the most contemptuous of debate. Not only has he refused to appear at a number of forums, but he and his political operatives have questioned the integrity of debate sponsors. Imagine Stephen Douglas in 1858 refusing to debate Abe Lincoln because “those liberal abolitionists won’t be fair to me.” Shame on Grothman, and shame on the establishment media for allowing him to get away with his strategic non-participation. Mr. Harris appeared on Eye on Oshkosh and all other venues interested in voter education. If you read this column before Election Day, be sure to check out his campaign’s page. 

Attorney General: Flippin’ Unbelievable. Cheryl invited Attorney General candidates Brad Schimel (R) and Susan Happ (D). Currently Jefferson County DA, Happ like Burke needs to do well in northeast Wisconsin to win a statewide race. Yet her campaign just could not find a way to get her to Eye On Oshkosh; eventually they just stopped responding to Cheryl’s outreach attempts. 

Waukesha County DA Schimel graciously accepted the invitation, and respectfully answered every question put to him in clear, concise terms that were conservative but not Van Hollen wingnut. The Democrats could not find a way to get their candidate on the program, yet they managed to get Eye on Oshkosh national attention by sending out a press release attacking Schimel for the way he responded to a question I asked about the proper role of an Attorney General in the 1950s, when some states outlawed interracial marriage. That one clip of the interview ended up on the websites of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Eye, The Young Turks, Talking PointsMemo, and others. Unbelievable.

State Treasurer’s Race: Flippin’ Awesome. By far my favorite Eye on Oshkosh experience of the campaign season was the debate that Cheryl and Ihosted between Green Party candidate Ron Hardy and the Constitution Party’s Andrew Zuelke. As third party candidates shunned by the establishment media, Hardy and Zuelke enthusiastically accepted the invitation to debate. The debate exposed serious disagreements between them on the role of the State Treasurer (especially over Hardy’s call for a publically funded state bank), but they treated each other with the utmost respect. Indeed, it was probably the most civil and educational debate I have ever helped moderate. 

Notice that neither Hardy nor Zuelke are in the grips of the special interests that control the establishment party candidates. Chew on that fact at next Friday’s fish fry. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Media Rants: Interview With Sam Mayfield

From the October 2014 edition of The SCENE

Interview With Sam Mayfield

On Tuesday, October 14th at 6 p.m. in Reeve Union 307 on the UW Oshkosh campus, the student Communication Club is sponsoring a screening of independent filmmaker Sam Mayfield’s Wisconsin Rising. Sam will be there to introduce the film and engage in conversation afterwards. Admission is free and open to the public. You are invited!

Wisconsin Rising is a 55-minute feature documentary about the popular uprising against Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill. Here’s what Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman said about the film: “This slice of life, a moment in movement history, captures the struggles of the American Middle Class confronting the corrupting power of money over democracy. Don’t miss it.”

Sam Mayfield resides in Burlington, Vermont. Her video reports have been filed with Democracy Now!, Free Speech TV, and other Progressive media outlets. Her video footage has been aired on PBS and MSNBC. To get some background about her and Wisconsin Rising, I asked her to respond to some email questions:

Media Rants: Why did you decide to make Wisconsin Rising?

Sam Mayfield: I was sent to Wisconsin to cover the uprising and report for a media outlet based in Minneapolis. When I got there and saw for myself the power of the people gathering I knew that American history was unfolding in front of me. I knew that I wanted to keep covering the story. I was sent out there for four days but ultimately stayed for seven months.

I made the movie because I wanted to share the incredible story of what was happening. I did not want the movement to go undocumented and I knew that the commercial American media was getting the story wrong much of the time when they bothered to talk about it at all.

Media Rants: What kinds of challenges did you face while filming on location in Wisconsin?

Sam Mayfield: I come from a community media background so when I got to Madison the first thing I did was connect with the local community radio station. Community media people stick together and support each other. The good people at WORT Radio in Madison gave me a desk to work from, an ethernet cable and a cup of coffee. I was set up and well connected the minute I landed in Madison. So, I can't really say that getting to know the locals was a challenge.

When I made the decision to move to Madison to continue shooting the film I rented an office space near the capitol. A major challenge during the many months I spent on the ground there was in knowing which story to cover for the film.

Wisconsin was a lot like a circus in 2011. Many wild events happening all at once, knowing which part of the story to cover was always a hard decision to make.

Media Rants: What surprised you most during your time living in Madison during the height of the protest activity?

Sam Mayfield:  I was surprised by the openness and kindness people demonstrated toward each other.
Media Rants: What kind of response has Wisconsin Rising received so far?

Sam Mayfield: The film has been doing great. The most common reaction to the film is "I can't believe he still won in the recall election" and from there the conversation continues about how struggle takes time and how no movement has ever triumphed after one election (failed or won).

Media Rants: What do you see as the broader significance of the Wisconsin protests and recall movement? Are we on the brink of seeing the "USA Rising?"

Sam Mayfield: I think what we saw in Wisconsin in 2011 is proof that people are aware that the political system is not put in place to always serve their best interests. People relied on each other for information and for decision making. They did not wait to be told what to do by leaders or politicians and they did not wait to hear the latest report on the nightly news. They were the news and they were the leaders of the movement.

Media Rants: In 2014, how important is independent journalism and film making?

Sam Mayfield: In this country, our media system is owned by corporations and the "news" we are fed represents the values and interests of those companies. With this system in place we cannot expect to hear alternative viewpoints expressed and we cannot expect that these corporations will be challenged or held accountable by the same media outlets they own.

Media corporations are good at doing what they do, making money and serving their own interests. We should not expect the extreme corporate media to change what they are doing or to serve us. We need to make our own media and create our own news outlets. We need to support community radio stations, community television stations, independent newspapers and magazines. Essentially, we need to create the media we want to see in the world. A media that reflects the values of a community is a revolutionary act at this hour in American politics, when so many outlets serve up ideas of who they think we should be and what they think we should buy. A media that is representative of the values of a community is essential for our democracy.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Media Rants: Wisconsin's Sterling Reputation

Wisconsin’s Sterling Reputation

Media Rants 

From the September, 2014 edition of The SCENE

In mid-August the town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in protest after a police officer killed an unarmed African-American teen. A troubling legacy of the so-called “War on Terror” is the militarization of local police forces, so law enforcement officials responded to the protest by treating Ferguson like Fallujah. Even journalists on the scene from establishment sources like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Al Jazeera America found themselves being assaulted, tear gassed, and arrested for having the audacity to report on the events.

Trying to avoid accusations of a hurricane Katrina style of management by indifference and incompetence, Barack Obama and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon did their best to avoid allusions to George Bush and Kathleen Blanco. The President was forced to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to make a banal statement about police transparency and protecting press freedom. Nixon came out of his own slumber sounding about as un-Nixonian as an American politician can get. He said that Ferguson "looked like a war zone and that's not acceptable . . . Literally, the eyes of the nation are upon us."

Nixon’s comments beg some important questions. Why does it take a tragic murder or a natural disaster to get the “eyes of the nation” on cities and towns already struggling under the weight of economic depression and neglect? Why do national, state, and even local media consistently minimize, ignore, sweep under the rug or (worse) sensationalize race issues? How can we defuse time bombs if we tune out the ticking?

Sadly, the state of Wisconsin is one of the worst offenders when it comes to refusing to deal with race issues. Not just our media, but our politicians, educators, business leaders, and even the clergy cannot or will not bring themselves to say WE HAVE A PROBLEM HERE. Some do speak out, but their voice always sounds like the glaring exception to the rule. From incarceration rates to health care outcomes, the racial disparities in Wisconsin are wide enough to drive a Country USA camper through. Yet somehow we managed to complete the recent primary campaign to choose nominees for state offices and, to my knowledge, not one candidate was asked any serious questions about race issues.

Wisconsin’s dreadful record on race reached a shameful low point last month when the journal Health Affairs circulated a major study on the “life expectancy gap” in the United States. According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on the study: “The discrepancy in life expectancy between black and white Americans is improving — but not in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the only state in which the life expectancy gap between blacks and whites has grown significantly, particularly for women . . .” 

Think about that: Wisconsin is the ONLY STATE in which gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites grew significantly from 1990-2010. For men, the gap increased only slightly, from 7.7 to 7.9 years. But for women, the increase was dramatic: from 4.9 years to 6.4 years. The story also pointed out that Wisconsin is now the worst state in the country for childhood opportunities for black children, a fact that correlates strongly with the life expectancy figures. 

Dr.Marshall Chin is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Finding Answers: Disparities Research initiative.  He says that “our country has been good at documenting disparities in care but poor at delivering solutions.” I think Chin is correct in terms of national trends, but in Wisconsin we do a horrendous job of documenting disparities in a way that creates the sense of urgency necessary to begin the hard work of delivering solutions. The Journal Sentinel report of the life expectancy gap findings resulted in no sustained follow up reporting or persistent editorializing [Note: This essay was completed on August 15th; The Appleton Post-Crescent did editorialize about the life expectancy gap on August 21st.), no calls for action from think tanks or interest groups, and no attempt by the press or politicians to make the issue a part of this year’s political campaigns.  Go to the websites of the major candidates for governor and attorney general (the two offices that could probably have the greatest impact on race issues in the state) and you’ll find little evidence that the candidates have any interest in talking about race in any meaningful way.

Earlier this year the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team Donald Sterling was forced to give up ownership after tapes of him making racist comments were released. Sterling lives in California, the most diverse state in the nation. If he had been the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, one wonders if the Wisconsin press and politicians would have even summoned up the energy to condemn his remarks.

For many years we’ve needed a domestic Marshall Plan to deal with the roots causes of the kind of turmoil ignited in Ferguson and the racial disparities existing in Wisconsin and other states. Instead, politicians in a bipartisan manner have spent the last 30 years giving us a “martial” plan; they’ve built more and bigger jails, turned what used to be minor infractions or misdemeanors into felonies, and militarized the police. Throw in the excessive state surveillance bureaucracy and we’re left looking like a kind of East Germany 2.0.

As for us Badgers, we need to begin the work of changing our “Sterling” reputation.