Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Media Rants: Censored in 2016

Censored in 2016

When the late Sonoma State University Professor Carl Jensen founded Project Censored in 1976, he probably could not have imagined that 41 years later we would be living in a “post-truth” era featuring absurdities like presidential flacks citing “alternative facts” in a debate about the crowd size at an inauguration. The fact that we even have a national leader who obsesses over crowd size I am quite sure would have disturbed Jensen—as it should disturb any thinking person. The point is that given the troubling character of the times we are living in—and the deeply troubled characters leading the United States—fretting over corporate media censorship almost seems quaint and beside the point. Maybe it’s time for every patriotic citizen to find ways to connect meaningfully with the resistance movement started at the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, a march which I am sure the “size matters duo” of Trump/Bannon were horrified to learn may have been the largest demonstration in US history.
On the other hand, those grassroots activists sparking resistance to the Trump/Bannon regime cannot be successful as long as the body politic continues to distrust the establishment press as much as it distrusts establishment politicians. By pointing fingers at critical issues not be covered adequately—or covered at all—by the establishment media, Project Censored instructs said media on the easiest way to gain public trust: COVER THOSE STORIES! Even better, when covering the stories do not fall into the typical corporate media habit of filling the story with special interest “experts,” partisan hacks,, mainstream politicians, and others detached from the reality of the story being presented.

Annually Project Censored compiles a volume of news stories "underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the United States. New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller writes of the Project that “Most journalists in the United States believe the press here is free. That grand illusion only helps obscure the fact that, by and large, the US corporate press does not report what’s really going on, while tuning out, or laughing off, all those who try to do just that. Americans–now more than ever–need those outlets that do labor to report some truth. Project Censored is not just among the bravest, smartest, and most rigorous of those outlets, but the only one that’s wholly focused on those stories that the corporate press ignores, downplays, and/or distorts.” The legendary Walter Cronkite said that “Project Censored is one of the organizations that we should listen to, to be assured that our newspapers and our broadcasting outlets are practicing thorough and ethical journalism.”  Bestselling author and activist Naomi Wolf asserts that, “Project Censored is a lifeline to the world’s most urgent and significant stories.” 

Project Censored is famous its nontraditional definition of censorship, referring to it as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to have a free press.” They argue that censorship includes not just stories that were never published, but also “those that get such restricted distribution that few in the public are likely to know about them.” Going forward, I hope the Project includes another, more current form of censorship: those stories that are so contaminated by “alternative reality” frames that discovery of the “truth of the matter” becomes all but impossible. Unless the press finds a way uphold Journalism 101 values in this hostile Trump/Bannon atmosphere, expect many of the latter stories in the next 4 years.

Censored 2017: The Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Seven Stories Press) is dedicated to the late media scholar and critic Ben Bagdikian, who in his seminal work The Media Monopoly wrote that “Media power is political power . . . To give citizens a choice in ideas and information is to give them a choice in politics: if a nation has narrowly controlled information, it will soon have narrowly controlled politics.”  Censored 2017 continues the Project’s annual exploration of what a panel of judges determines to be the top 25 most censored stories of the year. The top five are: (5) Corporate exploitation of global refugee crisis masked as humanitarianism, (4) Search engine algorithms and electronic voting machines could swing 2016 election, (3) Rising carbon dioxide levels threaten to permanently disrupt vital ocean bacteria, (2) Crisis in evidence-based medicine, (1) US military forces deployed in 70 percent of world’s nations. Each is thoroughly summarized and explained and provides citations to the independent (and in some cases courageous) works of journalism that made knowledge of the stories possible.

My own personal choice for the most censored story of 2016 is, paradoxically, the one that received the most media coverage: the entire presidential campaign season. We expected third parties and even the Sanders campaign to be treated shoddily by the corporate press, so there was no surprise there. We also expected—and sadly got—the media obsession with horse race journalism featuring months’ worth of covering mostly polls and “insider baseball” interpretations of them. What was somewhat surprising this time was the extent to which the corporate media completely abandoned even a pretense of being concerned with issue coverage. As reported on in many sources, the respected Andrew Tyndall Report found that Since the beginning of 2016 to late October (about two weeks before the election), ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage.

For all his brash talk about hating the media, especially television, Donald Trump exploited it more skillfully than any other candidate in the history of the United States. He did it by recognizing that, above all else, television is an entertainment medium. Back in 1985 Neil Postman in his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death (with the crucial subtitle “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”) wrote that “Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” (See Chris Teare's application of the book to Trump here.) That book was widely read in its time, and I thought it presented an ethical challenge to both the media and politicians: since Postman made it clear that the reduction of politics to entertainment always carried the risk of producing terrible public policy, politicians and media had to make the choice whether to inform or to entertain. For politicians and the media, making the choice to inform means risking less popularity and lower ratings. Making the choice to inform also carries the risk that the now informed public will put more pressure on the politicians and media to address serious issues in a meaningful way.

In 2016 Donald Trump and the majority of the establishment media made the choice to go into full-blown entertainment mode. Trump’s tweets, often incomprehensible if not just plain ignorant, were covered as if they were serious campaign documents. The networks repeatedly allowed Trump to call into programs, something that was historically rare for candidates and which was done for no discernible reason. When journalists did try to push back against Trump, he turned them into what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls a “hate object,” (scroll down to the 7th paragraph) something which only increased the entertainment value of the campaign.

It didn’t have to be this way. Major media could have talked less to Trump and his surrogates and talked MORE to the voters who found the campaign attractive. After the election, MSNBC did a town hall forum with Bernie Sanders surrounded by white working class Wisconsinites who voted for Trump. The forum was a fascinating exchange, with Sanders actually persuading a few of the participants to his side by doing nothing more than stating the same views he had espoused for over a year during the campaign. The questions I was left with were, why are the media only NOW talking to these voters? Would it have not made more sense to include people like them as REGULAR features in the news cycle? Do you think the major media will be more willing to talk (and listen) to average, everyday citizens in 2020? No, I don’t think so either.

We’re now at the point where even the Koch brothers think that we are moving dangerously close to authoritarian rule. The irony of that is incredible when you consider the fact that the over the years the Koch’s have coopted andexploited legislative bodies in ways that Trump/Bannon may not have even dreamed of yet. But don’t worry, Trump/Bannon will get there. The question is, can or will the media uphold their responsibility to stop them? 

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Media Rant From 2003: King Karma

Note: Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The essay below was originally published in the March 2003 edition of the SCENE. Because recent events in our country have made King's message more urgent than ever, I'm reproducing the piece in this space. -Tony Palmeri

King Karma: Yesterday and Today

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri 

On January 20, 2003 in Oshkosh, the Fox Valley Peace Coalition sponsored a "March For the Life and Ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr." About 80 people braved blustering winds while carrying signs with sentiments such as "Unity Against Racism, Justice Through Peace" and "War Is Not The Answer." On a big banner stood this Kingism: "Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete."

The march started at the downtown Opera House Square and ended at UW Oshkosh Reeve Union. Demonstrators listened to impromptu speeches and music by local folk singers Barry Weber and Jason Moon. My impromptu speech included another King aphorism: "Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men."

The feelings of goodwill made Dr. King seem eerily present. One woman called it "good karma." I said we should call it "King Karma" attributable to the fact that the slain civil rights leader visited this region in 1967. Puzzled, she said: "Martin Luther King was here?" In part because establishment media portray our region as uncomfortable with the kind of social justice Christianity preached by King, it is difficult to imagine that 36 years ago there would have been a constituency in place to invite him. Yet invited he was. In the remainder of this rant I'll describe the event specifics.

The Oshkosh Northwestern of Thursday, May 11, 1967 printed a brief announcement headlined "Broadcasts Set For King Talk." King would speak the next evening at 8:15 p.m. at the University of Wisconsin Fox Valley Center in Menasha. Radio stations WHBY in Appleton and WMKC in Oshkosh planned to broadcast the speech (entitled "The Future of Integration") live. Lawrence University's campus radio station WLFM planned to tape the speech for a Sunday broadcast. The announcement said King would speak also at the UW Marathon County Center in Wausau.

The May 12 Northwestern carried an item headlined "Large Crowd Expected For King Speech." UW Center English professor and event organizer David Price said that over 600 mostly students and faculty were expected to attend. Thirty-five Menasha police officers were assigned to the event.
Some time ago one of my undergraduate students named Heather Evert researched King's Menasha speech. She identified individuals in addition to professor Price involved with the planning. Communication professor Ken Anderson handled closed circuit television. Economics professor Val Kopitzke organized a reception. Cliff Miller, former Appleton Post-Crescent Madison Bureau chief, covered King's visit for the Twin City News Record along with his editor John Turinas. Lutheran Pastor Gerald Kissell's church held a reception for King. UW Menasha Campus Dean Jim Perry, who in 1967 was President of the UW Marathon County student government, shared the dais and introduced Dr. King at the Youth Building in Marathon Park. All were moved by the event. Dean Perry told me recently about King's influence: "I'm a firm believer that when people get to know people, be they African-American, Hmong, or Iraqi, Christian, Hindu, Islamic or Atheists, the insanity of war and political strife begins to come tumbling down. Dr. Martin Luther King started me on this path of personal conviction."

The May 13th, 1967 Northwestern carried two stories about the speech, headlined "Racial Injustice Still Negro Burden: King," and "Police 'Cover' King Speech." In an accompanying photo, two young women are carrying signs saying "There's no link between the Vietnam War and Civil Rights" and "King Let Your People Go!!" The Northwestern photo caption said, "Approximately one dozen local high school students marched outside the Fox Valley Center Friday night protesting the anti-war views of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They refused to reveal which school they attend. King barely touched on the subject of Vietnam in his speech." The paper reported expectations of 3 separate demonstrations, but only the one materialized.

The King Center in Atlanta does not have the Menasha speech, nor unfortunately did any of the Valley media keep copies of recordings. I spoke to Cynthia Lewis of the King Center Library and Archives who said that in 1967-68 King delivered "The Future of Integration" often. She sent me a manuscript delivered at Kansas State University in January of 1968. The Northwestern Menasha speech coverage and the Kansas speech indicate that King's main points centered on providing a history of racial injustice in America, a progress report on the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, a debunking of myths that get in the way of creating change, and calls for guaranteed employment and income. The Vietnam War he identified as not only "unjust and ill-considered," but a diversion from our domestic problems.

As I write it is February 16th, the day after millions of peace demonstrators in over 600 cities on 5 continents said a resounding NO to the George Bush, Tony Blair Iraq policy. One of the million protesters in Rome, 56-year-old Tommaso Palladini, expressed the King Karma: "You don't fight terrorism with a preventive war. You fight terrorism by creating more justice in the world."

Knowledge of King's visit enables contemporary peace and justice advocates in the region to hold one hand out to the past and reach out to the change agents of that time. The task then is to take the other hand and extend it into the future so that change agents 36 years from now can tap into the King Karma anew.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Palmeri on WPR Week in Review

On Friday, January 6th I was a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio's Week in Review program. You can find the link here. Also a guest on the program was Marion Krumberger, Chair of the Brown County (Wisconsin) Republican Party.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The 2016 Tony Awards

The 2016 Tony Awards

Media Rants

I’ve been a consumer and critic of American journalism since the Watergate era of the early 1970s. With some notable exceptions like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting and the Boston Globe’s expose of the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church (chronicled powerfully in the great film “Spotlight”), national reporting/commentary on politics in that time has never been the CRUSADING FOURTH ESTATE we read about in Journalism 101 textbooks. But in only two years did American journalism sink to a level of badness that might with some justification be called “evil.”

The evil years of American journalism? Let’s call them 2003 and 2016.

For those who don’t remember (or choose to forget), 2003 was the year that American journalism not only failed in its basic watchdog responsibilities in the run up to the Iraq War and beyond, but even sunk to the level of pathetic cheerleaders.  The ultimate responsibility for that foreign policy fiasco rests with the Bush Administration and bipartisan majorities in Congress who went along for the death ride, but the sleazy politicians and war profiteers were aided and abetted every step of the way by a servile press that refused (and refuses to this very day) to allow arguments for peace to compete fairly with war mongering in the marketplace of ideas. As noted by journalism prof Christian Christensen: “The one-sidedness of coverage, particularly in the US, bordered on the morally criminal.”  

In 2016 Donald Trump—a narcissistic huckster, conspiracy monger, and public policy lightweight—took on the Republican establishment with a political shock and awe operation that took the typically subtle bigotry and intolerance of GOP campaigns and put it right in our collective face. The Donald’s entry into the race called for principled, courageous journalism; instead, a man who was probably the most divisive candidate in the history of the country received literally billions of dollars of free advertising. Trump’s tweets—which almost always demonstrate that he really is as delusional and dumb as you think—generated (and continue to generate) countless hours of “analysis” from the same pundits who assured us that Hillary’s “blue firewall” would rescue us from four years of orange hued oafishness.

But I digress. The purpose of this month’s column is not to condemn the year’s worst journalism, but to praise some of the best. Every year since 2002 I’ve awarded a “Tony” for journalism, commentary, and/or other media productions that, for some of us at least, went above and beyond the call of journalistic duty during the year. The winners for 2016 are:

Journalism as Creating Urgency: Rachel Maddow’s Flint Reporting. 2016 was a rough year for cable television liberals. Their acceptance of the legitimacy of the faceless, corporate controlled bureaucracy running the nation’s capital made it virtually impossible for them to come to terms with the populist insurgency represented by the Trump and Sanders movements.  Having disavowed grassroots activism as a viable political strategy, establishment liberals and their cable tv cronies were left with mocking Trump, ignoring Sanders, and monitoring Nate Silver’s 538 blog to reassure themselves that “moderation” (or at least lesser evilism) would ultimately prevail. Oops.

Like all other cable tv liberals, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow had a rough time covering the presidential campaigns. Hopefully that will not detract from what for me was the single greatest act of journalism we’ve ever seen on cable television: I’m talking about Maddow’s shocking revelation of the racist politics that led to the poisoning of the water in Flint, Michigan. Ancient rhetoricians coined the term “kairos” to describe the act of giving urgency to an issue. Thanks to Maddow, the issue of excessive lead levels in public water supplies now has kairos in scores of cities. What made Maddow’s reporting especially powerful was the fact that she connected the dots and showed how the poisoning of Flint’s water was the DIRECT result of Michigan’s “emergency manager” legislation that robbed the city of its democracy.

The investigations sparked by Maddow’s reporting have led to criminal charges against two of the “emergency managers.” Both were thrown under the bus by Governor Rick Snyder—the mastermind of the emergency manager policy who-- if justice is to prevail in this tragedy, should at a minimum be removed from office and possibly face charges himself.

Best Trump Coverage (Tie): The New York Times’ David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Megan Twohey on Trump’s taxes; The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold on the Trump Foundation.  Not all mainstream media coverage of Mr. Trump was awful. When it became clear that Trump had no intention of releasing his taxes, and that he would continue to lie about the reason why (“I am under audit.” Right.), four New York Times reporters were able to get access to a portion of Trump’s 1995 tax return. Through some deft research, they discovered that Trump’s “net operating losses” from that year would have theoretically made it possible for him to avoid paying any federal taxes until 2010.

Did Trump respond to the New York Times report by pledging more transparency in his personal financial reporting? No. He claimed instead that the real story of the report was that the reporters illegally obtained the 1995 tax return.

Of all the mainstream journalists covering Trump, none is more forceful or important than the Washingon Post’s David Fahrenthold. Called “nasty” by Trump himself, Fahrenthold worked tirelessly in 2016 to try and hold Trump to account for his many claims and promises. Trump’s late December announcement that he would be closing down his Foundation was a direct result of the numerous irregularities in its operation uncovered by Fahrenthold. Not surprisingly, Trump’s alt-right minions claimed a partisan political agenda in the reporting, but as noted recently by Fahrenthold:

“The point of my stories was not to defeat Trump. The point was to tell readers the facts about this man running for president. How reliable was he at keeping promises? How much moral responsibility did he feel to help those less fortunate than he?

In 2017 we will need many MORE reporters asking such basic questions.

Best Tweetstorm: Jay Rosen’s “Winter is Coming”.  NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen’s writings, including his PressThink blog, have for years been invaluable resources for those seeking to figure out ways to make real world journalism live up to its promise of serving the cause of small-d democracy.

In 2016 Rosen took to Twitter to warn of the unique threats posed to press freedom by Donald Trump. The mindfulness of Rosen’s tweets run in perfect contrast to the mindlessness of Mr. Trump’s. Rosen’s 20-part tweetstorm, “Winter is Coming,” laid down what is (or should be) THE question for journalism in the Trump era: “The problem is not at the level ‘how to cover Trump,’ but how to recover conditions in which anything journalists do makes a difference.

Best Mea Culpa: Charlie Sykes on Where the Right Went Wrong. It took the specter of a Trump presidency to do it, but in August Charlie Sykes, the Dean of Right Wing Radio in Wisconsin, in an interview with journalist Oliver Darcy finally took some responsibility for the contemporary right wing’s alternate reality. Sykes followed up with a December op-ed in the New York Times in which he expanded how the situation had gotten so bad:

“One staple of every radio talk show was, of course, the bias of the mainstream media. This was, indeed, a target-rich environment. But as we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.
Sykes still insists that political con men like Paul Ryan and Scott Walker somehow represent a coherent “conservative” philosophy, and his many years of flacking for some terrible people and policies should not be easily forgiven or swept under the rug. But to have someone of his status and influence in conservative circles argue for the existence of reality is an important step in helping to reform partisan politics in this country.

Wisest Explanation of the Trump Phenomenon: Gary Younge’s “How Trump Took Middle America.”  In the 19th century the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America offered what was for its time an insightful interpretation of the United States from a European perspective. In 2016 it took another European, this time British journalist Gary Younge, to explain the Trump phenomenon. In a lengthy but gripping piece for the Guardian, Younge recounts his interaction with Trump supporters in the Midwest and shows just how completely out of touch were the establishment Democrats:

Trump, and his counterparts, are often described in Europe as a threat to democracy. But in truth they would be better understood as the product of a democracy already in crisis . . .

You can pin it on the Russians, WikiLeaks, the FBI, the media, third parties, and they all played a role. But sooner or later moderate liberals are going to have to own the consequences of their politics. In this period of despair and volatility, their offer of milquetoast, market-led managerialism is not a winning formula. For a political camp that boasts of its pragmatic electability, it has quite simply failed to adapt.

Carefully scripted but complacently framed, the Clinton campaign emerged from a centrist political tradition at a moment where there is no center, offering market-based solutions at a time when Clinton’s own base has begun to see the free market as part of the problem.

The Occam’s Razor Award for the Simplest and Most Cogent Statement of Why Hillary Clinton Lost: Lou Cannon’s “On the Importance of Just Being There.”  At some point establishment Democrats will get over their fixation with Putin, Comey, Jill Stein, and WikiLeaks and start to come to terms with some of the shortcomings of their 2016 campaign. They should start by reading Lou Cannon’s short but insightful essay, “On the Importance of Just Being There.” Cannon’s a long time political writer and operative who’s written five biographies of Ronald Reagan. He shows in his piece how Reagan almost lost the 1980 nomination because early in the campaign his handlers had calculated—inaccurately as it turned out—that he could run a kind of “Rose Garden strategy” and not have to do any street level campaigning. After losing the Iowa Caucuses, the Reagan people shifted gears and their candidate became more visible in key counties.

Hillary Clinton, who won the national popular vote by almost 3 million ballots, lost Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by less than 80,000 votes. Cannon argues that Clinton simply needed to spend more time in those states: “What we do know suggests that Hillary Clinton might now be preparing to take the oath of office if she and her team had been less confident of victory and campaigned full time in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the firewall states that weren’t. Instead of blaming Putin or Comey for their discomfort, Clinton and her advisers should take a peek in the mirror.

The Guilty of Committing an Act of Journalism Award: Amy Goodman’s Dakota Access Pipeline Reporting. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman has been one of the MVP’s of citizen based journalism for many years. In 2016 her courageous reporting on the brutal corporate suppression of Dakota Access Pipeline protesters got her arrested. Charges were eventually dropped, and the Obama Administration did respond to the protest pressure by halting construction of the pipeline.

Without Amy Goodman’s reporting, the true nature of what was happening at Standing Rock would never have been known. She’s done that kind of reporting on numerous citizen movements, almost single-handedly challenging the narrative that the masses are apathetic or completely brainwashed by government and corporate propaganda. As noted by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi: “she's as close to the ideal of what it means to be a journalist as one can get in this business.

Best New Critical Thinking Tool: Indiana University’s “Hoaxy”. One terrible consequence of the social media age is the rapidity with which completely unverified, false stories can spread. With hyperpartisans on all sides all too ready to accept the absolute worst about their opponents, the preponderance of so-called “fake” news will only get worse.

What’s needed is training in media literacy at the earliest possible age, probably middle school. Teachers involved in such training will need resources that can help them demonstrate to learners what constitutes an unverified story and how it spreads. In 2016 researchers at Indiana University launched “Hoaxy,” an online resource that allows users to visualize the spread of unverified information. According to the site’s creators: “The World Economic Forum ranks massive digital misinformation among the top future global risks, along with water supply crises, major systemic financial failures, and failure to adapt to climate change. Social news observatories such as Hoaxy have the potential to shed light on this phenomenon and help us develop effective countermeasures.”

Can Hoaxy and similar resources help reduce the spread of misinformation? Maybe, but only if we can find a way to restore trust in journalism and do what we can to spread the critical work represented by this year’s Tony Award recipients.