Thursday, December 01, 2016

Talking Trump in 2116

Media Rants for December 2016 

I had a dream I was transported into the year 2116. In the dream almost everyone was wearing open vent, wide brimmed hats, and half of all hospitals were dedicated exclusively to treating heat stroke. All the glaciers at Glacier National Park had disappeared by the year 2101, and as a result of the excessive rise of climate related deaths the governments of the United States and Canada signed a treaty making that territory a massive burial and memorial site. At its entrance were these words: “In Memory of the Victims of our Ancestors’ Denial.”

The people of 2116 told me that the United States government didn’t treat climate change as a  national emergency until 2052, when the 50th President of the United States Miranda deGrasse Tyson (daughter of the famous scientist) became the first US Green Party candidate to win the White House on a “Make America Cool Again” platform. But by then it was too late—after decades of denial and indifference, all the government could do was manage a traumatic relocation of millions of climate refugees—most from coastal cities—to areas still capable of supporting human life.

No president who served before 2052 was thought fondly of, but the people of 2116 held Donald Trump in special contempt. “How,” I was asked over and over again in the dream, “did a man who viewed global warming as a concept  created by the Chinese to make US manufacturing non-competitive  ever get elected?” Here is what I told the people of the 22nd century:

“The Trump phenomenon of 2016 was the result of  (1) an archaic 18th century electoral system, (2) benefiting a plutocrat running on a 19th century platform, (3) against a 20th century feminist carrying lots of baggage, and (4) all taking place in a 21st century media environment ripe for exploitation by a demagogue.” They asked me to explain:

An Archaic 18th Century Electoral System: In my dream I learned that in 2024 the Republican Party won the national popular vote for the presidency but lost in the Electoral College. They then immediately moved to replace the Electoral College with election by national popular vote.

The people of 2116 found it incredible that the population did not demand changes to the Electoral College after the 2016 election; they were well aware that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes. They also knew that in the 13 so-called swing states—the states that only really mattered in the days of the Electoral College—Donald Trump received more than 50 percent of the vote in only two of those states (Iowa and Ohio). “Why were the people so slow to change a system that not only made the voters of 37 states and the District of Columbia irrelevant, but didn’t even require a majority of votes to win individual swing states?,” they asked.

“Well,” I replied. “It was kind of like the way we dealt with the environment. Denial of reality was only part of the problem. Mostly we suffered from inertia; we just kept on doing what we were doing because we had always done it that way. And of course the power elite controlling Washington D.C. and the state capitols rejected change for as long as they could.”

Trump’s 19th Century Platform: The schools of 2116 primarily taught survival skills; the study of American history became mostly a celebration of what 22nd century culture saw as a small number of individuals and movements that had pleaded with global leaders to address the planetary crisis before it was too late. In fact one of the most vivid parts of the dream was walking around former public squares in which statues of mainstream political and war heroes had been replaced with busts of environmental activists like Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben.
Rachel Carson

Because of the lack of history education, the people of 2116 thought that Donald Trump’s plans to enforce immigration policies based on religion and ethnicity was unprecedented. In fact, I told them, his scapegoating and demonizing of immigrants and religious minorities had a long and ugly history in the United States. In many ways the Trump political reality show of 2016 was a throwback to the nativist movement of the 19th century—a movement rooted in xenophobia and bigotry that provide campaign fodder for many generations of unscrupulous politicians.

The allure of nativist appeals in rural areas of the 2016 United States cannot be denied. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin State Journal quoted a rural GOP activist who explained the appeal of Trump’s immigration proposals:

"When you are at war — and I feel we're at war — you close your borders. There's no way to tell the good people from the bad people. You can't just dump them into our society and think that we've got to take care of them now."

For people like that GOP activist, it didn’t even matter that Trump’s claims about the immigrant vetting process were repeatedly declared false. As with the most effective nativists of the 19th century, Trump brewed a toxic mix of straw man argument, fear mongering, and appeal to prejudice that ultimately proved too powerful for many to resist.  I explained to my 2116 audience that, contrary to what some establishment liberals of my era believed, those under the spell of Trump’s toxic brew were not deplorable as much as human. That they could be persuaded by appeals to fear and ignorance was a powerful condemnation not of them, but of the schools, media, and other cultural institutions that—long before Trump—had failed to call out, condemn, and educate against nativist tendencies in the civic culture of the time. Some of those institutions, especially the corporate media, enabled those tendencies in the name of ratings and profit—hate and resentment were big sellers.
The Baggage Carrying 20th Century Feminist:  By 2116 electing women to the presidency had become a commonplace. Those who had read up on the election of 2016 wondered if sexist double standards had helped defeat Hillary Clinton. One person put it this way: “Suppose Hillary Clinton had been divorced twice, had five children with three husbands, and was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting much younger men that she saw as prey. Wouldn’t she have been called a narcissistic sleeze—or something much worse? Would she have been taken seriously as a candidate for a local city council, let alone president of the United States?”

And then another person chimed in: “Yeah, even many of the so-called progressives of your time seemed especially vicious when it came to Hillary. I mean, was she the only Democrat of her time that was Wall St. friendly, hawkish on war, and too cozy with Washington insiders? Were her email and other alleged ‘scandals’ really worse than anything that was typical of pretty much all nominees of the major parties up to that point?”

I wasn’t able to disagree with those comments, but I did say this: “I think that Hillary Clinton, who came of age in the 20th century feminist movement, understood the challenges facing women candidates. She knew she had to be twice as good just to be perceived as equal, and when she crushed and pretty much humiliated Trump in the three debates I thought she had done that and much more. When Trump was baited into calling her a "nasty woman" at the last debate, I thought victory for HRC looked certain. But ultimately, that fighting spirit of the 20th century feminist probably, for many voters, took a back seat to 30 years of baggage—which included being an apologist for Wall St., bad trade deals,  mass incarceration policies, and the disastrous Iraq War. Being buddies with thugs like Henry Kissinger didn’t help either. Presidential campaigns back then were won in part at the grassroots level, with millions of everyday people knocking on doors; excessive baggage just made it difficult for the grassroots to get fired up.”

The 21st Century Media Environment: The media environment of 2116 was oddly primitive. Hard copy newspapers and magazines had long disappeared. The energy crises of the late 21st century made electronic media unavailable for much of the world, and unreliable even in nations that were able to maintain some semblance of a middle class. It was explained to me that when the global population surpassed 10 billion in 2070, “the lights literally went out all over the globe.” Renewable energy sources, inadequate in large part because global “leaders” had delayed and/or undermined the development of them for many generations, just could not keep up with the demand. As a result, in 2116 news spread the old fashioned way: word of mouth, bulletin boards, and hand written flyers seemed the norm. Everyone knew what was going on in their immediate environment, but I heard not a word about celebrities, pro sports, or really anything trivial. As one person told me, “we reached a point where we basically said, ‘we just don’t have time for the bullshit anymore.’ When the lights went out, life got real.”

As someone who dabbles in media, I felt compelled to apologize to the people of 2116. “In the early 21st century,” I said, “our mainstream media were addicted to nonsense and the people at-large could not figure out a way to use digital media as an effective organizing tool. Corporate media had a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump. On the one hand, even the most right-wing among them knew that Trump was a narcissistic charlatan exploiting the worst in everyone; on the other hand, they drooled when they saw what wall-to-wall coverage of his campaign did to their profit margins. Here’s what CBS executive Les Moonves said about the 2016 presidential race: ‘It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.’”

Before I could utter the words "I'm sorry," a man who looked much like Dustin Hoffman in the old film "Papillon" approached me. He said, "Tony, please stop, we have enough depression in 2116 without being reminded of the stupidity of your time." 
"Fair enough," I said, and added "But please tell me, what message would you like me to deliver back to the people of 2016?" His face took on a devilish grin and he said this: 

"If I thought it would make a difference, I would tell you to tell your people to pressure governments to treat the climate crisis as urgent. I would say that at the individual level people should at least be more mindful of the everyday choices they make that impact the environment. I heard that back in 2016 there was a great site called Permanent Planet that helped make it easy to do that. But the fact that we are living in these miserable conditions in 2116 shows that your generation just did not have the moral courage necessary to do the right thing. So really I would just like to deliver a much simpler message to your people; I'll state it in the most clear and concise manner I can think of: FUCK YOU." 

At that moment I woke up from the dream in a cold sweat. I’d fallen asleep with the television on, and looking at the screen I noticed the news was playing. Turning up the volume, a reporter was talking about how Donald Trump had tweeted his belief that people who burn the flag should  go to jail or have their citizenship revoked. I remembered the Papillon man's two word message, and I yelled it at the TV screen.  

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Bad Man Speaking Poorly

Media Rants for November 2016

Note: An audio version of this column can be found here

My academic field is called Communication Studies. Scholars in the field identify and shed light on the many factors impacting human communication in any context, from face-to-face to social and mass media.

For many years Communication Studies went by the name Rhetoric. Rhetoric is still a major part of the field; modern rhetoricians examine the ways in which human beings influence each other through the sharing of symbols.

Back in the 1980s, Communication and Rhetoric teachers felt their heads exploding every time some partisan or pundit referred to President Ronald Reagan as the “Great Communicator.” I remember thinking, “how can someone be called a great communicator if he can’t offer coherent explanations of the policies of his own administration?”

In 1988 Dr. Kathleen Hall-Jamieson released Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking, a seminal work that explained, among other things, how the medium of television created a requirement that political speeches be suitable for viewing in the living room. Like a prime time drama, the political speech should grip the audience with an engaging story line. Thus Hall-Jamieson’s explanation of the power of Reagan:
“Although his ideas are unoriginal, his language often pedestrian, the structure of his speeches at times haphazard, Reagan . . . is a skilled storyteller. Better than any modern president, Reagan understands the power of dramatic narrative to create an identity for an audience, to involve the audience, and to bond that audience to him. Like all good storytellers, Reagan understands the importance of invoking sentiments in the audience through use of vivid detail and delivered conviction.”

In 2016 Communication and Rhetoric teachers again find their heads exploding as some suggest that Donald Trump’s winning the Republican nomination  must have something to do with he too being a “great communicator.” Like Reagan before him, Trump understands “the importance of invoking sentiments in the audience through use of vivid detail and delivered conviction.” But while Reagan invoked sentiments in the manner of a father-like figure finding great moral principles in stories of everyday heroism, Trump is merely an irascible Internet troll. In late October the New York Times dedicated two full pages to publishing approximately 6,000 insults leveled by Mr. Trump against his political opponents. They called it “The 282 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter.”

I don’t think we need modern Communication or Rhetoric theories to explain rancorous trolls like Trump. Let’s instead go way back to the first century C.E. and look at the Institutio Oratoria of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (I can imagine Trump tweeting “He has ‘anus’ in his name. Heh heh.”). Quintillian thought that the personal character of the orator was the most important element in the orator/audience relationship; he referred to the ethical orator as the “good man speaking well.”

Like all the early rhetoricians, Quintillian was under no illusion that people of character would necessarily prevail in public policy debates. Indeed, the good man speaking well is always in competition with the “bad man speaking poorly.” The bad man will bully, appeal to fear and prejudice, lie, threaten, mock, and manipulate. The bad man prevails in part when a society features high levels of what former Supreme Court justice David Souter in 2012 called “civic ignorance,” an inability to grasp the causes of societal problems coupled with a readiness to surrender freedom in order to allow some “strong man” to fix them.

Donald Trump, an incoherent blowhard sending out spiteful early morning tweets, is now the prototype of the 21st century bad man speaking poorly. Adam Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker on the first Trump/Clinton debate and Trump’s morning after attack on a former Miss Universe crystallizes what we are getting at here. Of Trump Gopnik says:
“His cruelty to Alicia Machado was unleavened by any apparent respect for her as a human being in any role other than as an envelope of flesh—an attitude he only doubled down on the following morning by complaining that she presented what he saw as an obvious problem as a reigning Miss Universe: she had gained ‘a massive amount of weight’ (by Trump standards, that is). Again, this wasn’t a problem of how he chose to present his beliefs; the problem is with the beliefs. This wasn’t a question of preparation. It was that the things he actually believes are themselves repellent even when coherently presented. This was not a bad performance. This is a bad man.” (emphasis added).

The Arizona Republic, a conservative newspaper in circulation since 1890, has NEVER endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president until this year. Kudos to the editorialists for recognizing the perils of handing over power to an objectively bad man. Of Trump’s actions towards women, they write
“They are evidence of deep character flaws. They are part of a pattern. Trump mocked a reporter’s physical handicap. Picked a fight with a Gold Star family. Insulted POWs. Suggested a Latino judge can’t be fair because of his heritage. Proposed banning Muslim immigration. Each of those comments show a stunning lack of human decency, empathy and respect."

Memo to Trump supporters: If your only response to the above is, “but Hillary Clinton is worse,” then with all due respect you just don’t get it.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Media Rants: The Kaepernickan Revolution

The Kaepernickan Revolution

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

Note: An audio version of this column can be found here

In the 16th century a Prussian astronomer, building on the work of prior thinkers, forever changed humanity’s view of the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus put forward the [for the time] radical theory of heliocentrism; the idea that the Sun and not the Earth stood at the center of the universe. When some years after Copernicus’ death the Italian scholar Galileo adopted Copernicus’ views, he fueled a shit storm within the ruling Catholic hierarchy. Guided by the lethal combination of a literalist interpretation of Biblical texts, arrogance, intolerance, and ignorance, the Church fathers succeeded in silencing Galileo and kept him under house arrest for the last nine years of his life.

Today we look back on the Copernican Revolution in science and say, “wow, how could his critics have been that stupid?” Really the problem is not stupidity as much as the human tendency to confuse custom with truth. Consider the comments of Giovanni Tolosani, a theologian/astronomer who was Copernicus’ biggest critic: “For it is stupid to contradict an opinion accepted by everyone over a very long time for the strongest reasons, unless the impugner uses more powerful and insoluble demonstrations and completely dissolves the opposed reasons. But he does not do this in the least." (Italics added).  Did you catch that?  Tolosani believed that the fact that everyone accepts an opinion over a very long period of time somehow made that opinion stronger. And given that Tolosani saw his own reasons as coming straight from the Bible, it’s not clear what evidence Copernicus could have put forth to “completely dissolve” them.

In the USA of 2016 we’re living through the Kaepernickan Revolution; a revolution challenging some long accepted opinions about the national anthem, about injustice and inequality in America, about the responsibility of athletes (and really all of us) as citizens and about a range of related issues. I’m talking of course about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit (and then take a knee) during the national anthem to protest injustice. Were it not for the fact that Kaepernick and others following his lead have received death threats and other types of harassment for their actions, the opposition to them might be funny; lots of modern day Tolosani’s insisting that everyone should stand for the anthem because, well, everyone has always stood for it and there’s no good reason not to. The Earth is the center of the universe. Period.
We have a better understanding the universe not just because of Copernicus, but because other scientists dared to challenge the church fathers and search for the truth. Kaepernick’s protest picked up steam when other players followed suit. As of this writing, players from the Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles and other teams have sat, taken a knee, or raised a fist during the anthem. We’ve seen high school and college football players raise their voices, along with athletes in other sports. While the majority of protesters have so far been African-American, it is significant that many white athletes have shown support, as have a growing number of fans.

The modern Tolosani’s, fearful of anything contesting their customs, will continue to try and belittle Kaepernick and others as spoiled, unpatriotic athletes. But what’s been refreshing is how reasonable and insightful the protesting players come across. Kaepernick’s actions succeeded in opening up a media space for athlete dissent that we can only hope stay open. Consider these comments from Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jared Odrick, part of his much longer opinion piece appearing in Sports Illustrated:

“As an NFL player, I’ve asked myself on multiple occasions, do I want to speak the truth or do I want to make money? (Brandon Marshall lost anendorsement deal for protesting.) The league pays lip service to the notion that its athletes are valued as conscientious community members . . . I can do a franchise-friendly interview in my sleep, but when we step outside the bounds of third-down efficiency, we are vilified and told to keep quiet . . . Exercising a First Amendment right isn’t an affront to our military. The notion that the flag is sacred and untouchable – or that it has pledged the same allegiance to everyone – is one of the great hypocrisies of our time . . . When Kaepernick bucked the system, he forced people to reflect on the constructs they accepted or, worse, had never considered.”  He might have added, “Yes, the Earth orbits the Sun. Deal with it.”

Or consider Kaepernick’s own reaction to the death threats he’s received: “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country and people don’t like to address that and they don’t like to address what the root of this protest is.” He’s going to be donating $100,000 per month to social justice organizations. A website will be set up to track how the money is spent.

If you’re still bothered by national anthem protests, reflect on the words of the great American revolutionary Thomas Paine: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”  Challenging custom moves society forward. That’s the Copernican Revolution. And the Kaepernickan too.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Media Rants: The Proud History of Wasted Votes

The Proud History of Wasted Votes 

Media Rants 

by Tony Palmeri

Note: An audio version of this column can be found here

Last month in Houston the Green Party nominated Dr.Jill Stein and human rights activist Ajamu Baraka as their candidates for president and vice-president. Given that I’d once run for state office as a Green, Wisconsin Public Radio invited me to spend an hour on the network to talk about the role of third parties in 2016. Predictably, the issue of voting for a third party being a spoiler or wasted vote came up. The idea that we only have two choices in elections, and that every other choice is worthless is so deeply ingrained and intoxicating that even brilliant people who show know better like NYU scholar Clay Shirky fall for it. He says: “The system is set up so that every choice other than ‘R’ or ‘D’ boils down to ‘I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens.’ It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.” Wow, how brilliant. Bet you never thought of that before.

Shirky and others are correct of course that major party candidates will probably always win the presidential election. But does he seriously believe that third party votes are nothing more than deference to the judgement of major party voters; i.e. wasted votes? If so, that’s an absurd position reflecting a profound misunderstanding of the historic role of third parties in America as both symbols of resistance to corruption AND as advocates for public policy ideas that (when we are lucky) the major parties eventually take up. Kevin Zeese believes third party candidates are often "democracy heroes," a view I have much sympathy for.  Examples:

In 1844 the major party candidates were Whig Henry Clay and Democrat James Polk. Clay was the “lesser evil” because unlike Polk he was hesitant to call for annexation of the Republic of Texas, a position that would inevitably lead to war with Mexico. Significantly, both Clay and Polk were slave owners. That year James Birney ran on the Liberty Party ticket on a strict abolition of slavery platform, sixteen years before the start of the Civil War.

Did Birney voters waste their votes?

In 1892 the Democrats and Republicans fielded two mediocrities: Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. That year the new Populist Party nominated James Weaver who ran on a platform that boldly called out the major parties complicity in enabling the corrupt capitalism of the time: “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.”

Did Weaver voters waste their votes?

In 1920 women could for the first time vote for president in all of the states. What were their establishment party choices? Republicans nominated lightweight Warren Harding who urged a “return to normalcy” after the tumultuous World War I years. Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox, a man who supported many progressive causes but caved in to the anti-immigrant sentiment of the time and endorsed the “Ake Law” which banned the teaching of German in the schools. He said that teaching German was “a distinct menace to Americanism.”

In 1920 the Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president from the prison cell where he was serving time for speaking out against the war. He received over 900,000 votes, a dramatic symbol of resistance to the establishment’s war on the Constitution.

Did Debs’ voters waste their votes?  

In 1924 Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob LaFollette ran an inspiring third party campaign against Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis (a Democrat who supported the “separate but equal” doctrine that kept the schools segregated). LaFollette stood against child labor, for progressive taxation, and for a wealth of additional measures we today either take for granted or still have not got to.

Did LaFollette’s voters waste their votes?

In 1948 another Progressive, former Vice-President (serving under FDR from 1940-144) Henry Wallace, challenged Democrat Harry Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey, and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. Wallace earned less than 3 percent of the national vote, but his campaign courageously called for an end to the disgraceful "Un-American Activities Committee." Moreover, he insisted on speaking at integrated rallies, a radical position in racist Jim Crow America. 

Did Wallace's voters waste their votes? 

There are many other examples, from environmentalist icon Barry Commoner’s 1980 run with the Citizens Party to Ralph Nader’s much maligned 2000 Green Party effort. Say what you want about Nader “spoiling” the election, but the fact remains that a quarter million registered Democrats in Florida voted for George W. Bush. Moreover, Nader remains as the only candidate to call for a Marshall Plan to revive America’s inner cities, a position that the major parties better take up soon lest we see the continuation of the despair leading to unrest and chaos.

Most of you reading this rant have probably spent your lives voting for Democrats and Republicans. You’ll probably be scared into doing it again this year. All I ask is that you consider what voting for the establishment has gotten us over the last 30 years: the bipartisan invasion of at least four countries, trade deals that decimated the USA’s manufacturing base and wages, the abandonment of almost every New Deal and Great Society program, tax policies that support urban sprawl, deregulation mania that wrecked the economy, mass incarceration and the militarization of the police, a massive and unaccountable Homeland Security apparatus, Soviet style assaults on whistleblowers, health reform written by private insurers and pharmaceutical companies, and the virtual elimination of competition for most congressional seats. Meanwhile media censorship of third parties and consequent low vote count for them keeps reform platforms out of the public eye.

Maybe YOU have been wasting your vote? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Media Rants: Still Photos After All These Years


Still Photos After All These Years

What medium best captures the essence of an event or even an entire movement? In a YouTube era that gives us all the chance to go “viral” with our amateur films, it’s tempting to give the nod to privately made moving images. Indeed the amateurish, grainy cell phone video in the 21st century seemingly has the power to define moments in ways that the more slickly produced establishment newspapers, television, radio, and Hollywood films never could. The fact that the YouTuber, or the live Facebooker, or some other multimedia video maker generally doesn’t seek monetary profit gives their creation a kind of authenticity and credibility no longer enjoyed by the greedy corporate media. Writing for, Daniel D’Addario argues that the disturbing Facebook live video of Diamond Reynolds narrating the police murder of her boyfriend Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN may “change how we experience news” and is a “defining testament of how we live now.”

But just because amateur moving images are pervasive, often powerful, and perceived as credible does not mean they best capture the essence of events or movements. That essence, I would argue, is captured more provocatively by a much older art form: the still photo. The best recent example is freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman’s photo of 35-year-old Ieshia L. Evans, a nurse and mother who calmly yet assertively confronted Baton Rouge riot police during a protest of the police killing of Alton Sterling. The photo, which is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying in its display of an unarmed African-American woman in a sun dress preparing to be arrested by officers dressed in full occupying force gear, will many years from now be seen as a profound example of how the militarization of America’s local police forces played a key role in the creation of #BlackLivesMatter and other resistance movements.

After the photo went viral, Ms. Evans issued a statement: "When the police pushed everyone off the street, I felt like they were pushing us to the side to silence our voices and diminish our presence. They were once again leveraging their strength to leave us powerless. As Africans in America we're tired of protesting that our lives matter, it's time we stop begging for justice and take a stance for our people. It's time for us to be fearless and take our power back." [Note: In virtually every online story about Ms. Evans, the comments sections features a slew of fiercely racist remarks that in their ignorance end up proving what #BlackLivesMatter and other activists have been saying about race in America.]. 

Some observers referred to the photo of Ms. Evans as “iconic,” and I would agree. Visual rhetoric scholars John Lucaites and Robert Hariman defined iconic photographs: “photographic images produced in print, electronic, or digital media that are (1) recognized by everyone within a public culture, (2) understood to be representations of historically significant events, (3) objects of strong emotional identification and response, and (4) regularly reproduced or copied across a range of media, genres, and topics.” The authors analyze a number of iconic photos including Joe Rosenthal’s raising of the flag on Iwo Jima (taken in 1945), John Filo’s1970 capture of the tragic killing of a 

student by the National Guard at Kent State, Nick Ut’s 1972 Vietnam War photo of the “napalm girl” fleeing the American assault on her village, and Jeff Widener’s 1989 Tiananmen Square photo of a 

single protester in China going up against a tank. Each one of these photos not only captured the essence of the historical moment in question, but also provoked necessary conversations about 

America’s commitment to democracy and human rights. Go to the website to see Lucaites’ and Hariman’s (and other writers’) takes on a wide range of contemporary and older photos.

The 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil reminds me of my all-time favorite iconic photo: John Dominis’ brilliant capture of USA track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly engaged in the Black Power salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City. The athletes’ action and the photograph of it occurred in the context of the Cold War in which the United States promoted itself as the land of freedom and equality in contrast to the oppressive Soviet Union. Smith and Carlos blew up the USA image, in the process getting themselves suspended from the games.

John Carlos recently reflected on his Olympic activism for Even though the aftermath was “hell” for him and his family, Carlos expresses no regrets. In fact he urges contemporary Black athletes and celebrities to be activists. Of the iconic photo he says this:

“That picture of me and Tommie on the podium is the modern-day Mona Lisa — a universal image that everyone wants to see and everyone wants to be related to in one way or another. And do you know why? Because we were standing for something. We were standing for humanity.”

If John Carlos is correct, it suggests that Ieshia Evans’ photo will be featured in books, documentaries, and other media for many years to come.

Photographer Sally Mann once said that “Photographs open doors into the past, but they also allow a look into the future.” The beauty of the iconic photo is that it provokes wide ranging conversation about the past and future. When we look at John Carlos in 1968 we can see Ieshia Evans in 2016 and vice versa. Will the photos motivate us to create a better future? Time will tell. 

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Media Rants: Media Criticism Brain Drain


Media Criticism Brain Drain

From the July 2016 edition of the SCENE 

The Walker Era in Wisconsin has witnessed an unprecedented brain drain as UW faculty and staff actively seek opportunities to work in states where government leaders value teaching excellence and the search for truth.

The brain drain recently hit media studies as Dr. Christopher Terry, a former student of mine who has been teaching and doing research at UW Milwaukee’s Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies announced that he had taken a position as an assistant professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Chris is an outstanding teacher who also does cutting edge research in media law and other areas. He’s exactly the kind of young teacher/scholar that Wisconsin should be trying to keep.

I asked Chris to respond to some questions. 

Media Rants: What will you miss most about the UW Milwaukee Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies? 

Chris Terry: I will miss the relationship I had with my students. I feel that one of my strengths as an instructor is that I can speak to students on their level, and as a result, I can convey the complicated concepts of media law and policy to them in a practical way that makes it useful to them. 
Media Rants: Describe your new position at the University of Minnesota. 
Chris Terry: I will be an assistant professor of media ethics and law in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

In addition to teaching media and advertising law, this position is a research appointment. My appointment at UWM was primarily a teaching position.

Media Rants:  Back in June of 2014, Alec MacGillis of the New Republic wrote an article called "The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker." Your quotes in the piece on how Milwaukee area right-wing radio operates ended up getting you trashed in the wingnut echo chamber. What has it been like to be the target of the animus of people like Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling? If you had to do it over again, would you still talk to MacGillis?

Chris Terry: I would do the article/interview again. Although I was heavily criticized for the things I said, I certainly think that time has proven my prediction about Walker correct. Although the talk radio hosts (and others beyond Belling and Sykes) suggested the article and my comments were an attack focused on them, they missed my larger point. Talk radio in this town has supported Walker most of his career, and although he is an experienced politician, he hasn't had to regularly deal with a hostile press. I suggested that because Walker had done such a great job using the friendly outlets that when the scrutiny of the national press was focused on him, it would be a difficult challenge for him. By the way, that's exactly what happened.

The hardest part of the whole experience was having people I worked with for more than a decade pretend they didn't know who I was on the air. It was a bit surreal, and at one point I actually was texting back and forth with one of my old co-workers during commercial breaks in an hour where he was in full outrage mode about the things I was quoted as saying in the piece.
Media Rants: Many people enjoy your Facebook posts that start off with, "I know journalism is hard work, but . . ." before you launch into a scathing critique of media sloppiness, under reporting, etc. Why do you think modern mainstream journalism has so much trouble doing the hard work? 
Chris Terry: I don't believe there's an easy answer to this question. Having been a member of that media for some time, I can tell you there are always gaps in the items that will get coverage due to resources or space, but my point in the "I know journalism is hard work" posts are to point out that journalism isn't really hard at all. The questions the press should be asking are very easy to identify, but I think our current class of pundits fears asking them.

Journalists have a social responsibility to act as a check and balance on our elected officials. The best way to do that is ask tough questions of those officials, and not accept the answers when those answers are obviously spin or worse. Our current media seems to have forgotten this basic principle.
The questions the press should be asking are very easy to identify, but I think our current class of pundits fears asking them.
Media Rants: Donald Trump is openly contemptuous of the media, and is the first presidential candidate in my memory to suggest he might push for limits on the First Amendment. What in your judgement would a Trump or Clinton presidency mean for media and the First Amendment? 
Chris Terry: Both of the major party candidates give me substantial pause when it comes to free speech issues. Trump has been very forthcoming with his opinions that libel protections are too strong. When he said that a few months ago, my response was that I wasn't laughing anymore.

Clinton gives me a different concern. Her husband signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which fundamentally restructured our media system by allowing for massive consolidation of broadcast ownership. In doing so, their was a substantial loss in the availability and diversity of viewpoints, and the voices of minorities and women were also heavily reduced. Our society is best when we, as citizens, have access to the widest range of the diversity of viewpoints, and a healthy marketplace of ideas can flourish. I'm concerned that Clinton, like her husband would choose media economics over public service, and in today's day and age, logically that would mean a reduction in viewpoints on the internet.
Media Rants: Your main areas of expertise are media policy and regulation of new media. What's happening on those fronts that the average media consumer should be aware of? 

Chris Terry: There are three. The first is very wonky, but the spectrum auction that the FCC is executing is going to restructure our media system over the next 3-5 years.

The second is the decision about two weeks ago in Prometheus Radio Project vFCC. This case, which is the third round in court, could have the potential to shake the foundations of the broadcast licensing system to its core, essentially resetting the last 90 or so years of media regulation. The Third Circuit warned the FCC that there was a short timeline to develop a new policy to increase ownership of stations by women and minority groups. The FCC has been dragging its feet for a decade on this policy, and there's little chance they can wrap up the proceeding and repair 20 years of regulatory negligence in a few months. The Circuit suggested that if the agency can't meet the deadline (essentially the end of this year) the panel would consider throwing out all media ownership rules, relying on Section 202(h) of the Telecommunication's Act.

But the most important will be the DC's Circuit recently released net neutrality decision. Every Tuesday and Friday, the collective telecom nerds gathered waiting for the decision. The FCC's move to reclassify broadband under Title II was a major move, and the court's upholding of the policy will dictate, probably more than any other single factor, what the internet will be moving forward. Because the rules were upheld, citizen access to the internet content will not be controlled by non-state actors. That's a huge deal. You have no first amendment protection against a private company limiting your speech or your access to speech. This regulation, which is not without its problems, will provide a social democratic approach to regulating the relationship between you and your ISP, and make it hard for them to keep you away from legal content.

Media Rants wishes Chris Terry the best of luck in his new position! 

Friday, June 03, 2016

Media Rants: Gun Debate Free Zone


Gun Debate Free Zone

From the June 2016 edition of The SCENE 

How much gun violence needs to occur in northeast Wisconsin before the mainstream media forces meaningful debate about the issue? Public officials openly sweep the matter under the rug, as in this statement from Governor Scott Walker after 18-year-old Jakob Wagner opened fire at Antigo High School and was then himself shot and killed by police:

"It's really trying to address everything from bullying, to mental health issues, to just how we deal with anger and aggression in society today. And, again, there's no one thing. There's not one easy solution. It appears to be a rifle, so unless people are going to ban hunting, which from even the most extreme I haven't heard much of that talk in the past, it's pretty clear that that route wouldn't be the answer.”

While waiting for the legislature and governor to “address everything,” recent history suggests we will continue to address nothing.

Lest you think the Jakob Wagner tragedy was unique in our region, let’s review other local gun events for which we are still waiting for Mr. Walker and his legislative minions to “address everything”:

*In September of 2013 two men openly carried AR-15 assault rifles to the Appleton Farmers Market for “self-defense.” Shortly after, a “cluck or duck” campaign showed the absurdity of the fact that a Wisconsin city can ban live chickens or other animals at special events, but not guns.

*In March of 2014 a gun was fired at UW Oshkosh Reeve Union during an evening social event. Thankfully no one was hurt.

*In May of 2015, 27-year-old Sergio Valencia del Toro killed Adam Bentdahl, Jonathan Stoffel, and Jonathan’s 11-year-old daughter Olivia on the Fox Cities Trestle Trail bridge. As with Jakob Wagner, del Toro displayed obvious warning signs to his family and acquaintances, but nothing that would prevent him from owning firearms.

*In October of 2015 a man was shot in a downtown Oshkosh parking lot; he survived but sustained serious injuries.

*In September of 2015, 31-year-old Samson Gomoll committed what prosecutors called “straight-up, cold-blooded murder” when he shot his girlfriend Stacey Strange at the couple’s apartment on West 10th Street in Oshkosh. Gomoll had multiple firearms in the apartment including an AK-47 assault rifle.

*In December of 2015, 46-year-old Brian Flatoff held hostages at gunpoint at the Eagles Nation Cycle Club in Neenah. The resulting chaos led to the police killing of the club’s owner Michael Funk. Attorney General Brad Schimel whitewashed Funk’s death, but a Post-Crescent editorial lambasted the so-called good guys with guns: “Something is broken in the Neenah Police Department. The department is dysfunctional. The leadership is absent.”

*In December of 2015, a man was shot outside of a business on the 700 block of Oregon St. in Oshkosh. The victim survived but the identity of the shooter remains unknown.

These northeast Wisconsin gun tragedies are not atypical; what’s chilling is just how typical they are. And it’s not just adults we are talking about. The internet rumor busting website found this statement to be true: “Toddlers killed more Americans than terrorists in 2015.”

Why do we live like this? Or maybe the better question is why do we allow our citizens to die like this? From a media perspective, the short answer is that the establishment press is unable or unwilling to sustain a debate about gun rights and the Second Amendment that might last longer than an evening of local or cable news. A missing airplane or the latest Donald Trump inanity can get weeks or even months’ worth of obsessive reporting and commentary. Gun journalism appears mostly after a tragedy, but then usually to remind us why nothing can be done given the politics of the issue.

What would a sustained debate about how to handle gun violence look like? I think a great starting point would be the position taken by former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his 2014 book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. After presenting an exhaustive look at the history of the Second Amendment, Stevens demonstrates persuasively that the Amendment was designed to prevent the federal government from interfering with the power of each state to ensure that its militias were “well regulated,” and to protect the individual right of gun ownership for persons actually serving in a state militia. Stevens then suggests five extra words that can “fix” the Second Amendment (Stevens changes are in italics):

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

Many NRA members and others who continually obfuscate any meaningful gun discussion will insist that Stevens is wrong on his Second Amendment history. But what if he is right? The function of an ethical media (I realize “ethical media” is somewhat oxymoronic in our time) is to break through the obfuscation and provoke intelligent debate. If Stevens’ provocative suggestion could get more national media attention, candidates for state and federal office could continually be challenged to argue for or against it. That won’t solve our gun problem overnight, but it would at least put an end to the “gun debate free zone” that’s held sway for too long.