Monday, January 01, 2018

The 2017 Tony Awards

Welcome to the annual Tony Awards post. Every year since 2002 I've awarded a Tony to the best media of the previous year. Some years (like last year) there are a range of media recognized, but sometimes I recognize just one person.). I operate from no automatic set of criteria when deciding what media to honor, but in general I am drawn to:

*insightful works that shed light on some important public issue.
*creative works that deserve a wider audience.
*informative works that provide eye-opening education on a difficult topic.
*courageous works that speak truth to power.
*humorous works that skillfully provoke laughter and thought at the same time.
*local works that promote community and civic engagement.

(Just as an aside: Those criteria are in sync with what many of us professors in liberal arts colleges would articulate as the end goal of our respective degree programs. If students can graduate with the ability to be insightful, creative, informative, and courageous; if they can use humor to transcend the world's absurdities--and adopt civic engagement as a core life value--then maybe we are doing something in the academy worth fighting for. Our ability to produce engaged citizens is now much more difficult as political hacks and powerful interests threatened by a critical populace continue to look for ways to undermine any campus mission that does not meet the most narrow possible understanding of "training the workforce.".). 

My list of award recipients is of course incomplete (to mention all the work I admired during the year would require book length treatment) and obviously reflects my own values. I strongly encourage anyone bothered by my list of recipients to create their own. Start your own blog! 

And now the 2017 Tony Award recipients. Drum roll please. 

Best New Local Publication: The Oshkosh Independent Magazine. The Oshkosh Independent was founded by Justin Mitchell in 2015 as an online news source featuring original writings by active community members. Justin has done a remarkable job of keeping the online source updated, informative, and cutting edge. 
The inaugural issue of the Oshkosh Independent Magazine
In 2017 the Oshkosh Independent took a step forward and in November debuted a hard copy magazine. Edited by UW Oshkosh Journalism Professor Miles Maguire, the first issue profiles Greg Pierce, the man who "brought professional basketball back to Oshkosh." The entire magazine is professional in appearance and tone, highly informative, and manages to cheerlead for Oshkosh without being brain dead about it. In his inaugural Editor's Note, Maguire writes, "We need your support--whether it's in the form of an advertisement in these pages or of a subscription for home delivery. Our goal is to make the time you spend with us time well spent. If we can earn your support, then we can keep this caper going." Plans are to release 5 or 6 issues of the magazine per year. Individual subscription rates are reasonable ($22 for one year or $36 for two). For information on how to subscribe, go here

(Full disclosure: I write State of the State for the online Oshkosh Independent and may contribute occasionally to the hard copy magazine.). 

Best Local Journalist: Miles Maguire. In 2017 not only did Miles Maguire manage to get a new magazine off the ground, but he also wrote some of the most important local news stories for the online Oshkosh Independent. Local citizens' ability to come to grips with complex and emotional issues like the sale of the Lakeshore golf course, possible corruption involving the UW Oshkosh Foundation, the city's rental inspection program, and many others were enhanced by Miles' reporting. Finally, in addition to regular reporting and editing a new magazine, Maguire in 2017 somehow even had time to publish a fiction novel: check out A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter's Suspicious Death. You can find excerpts here
Miles Maguire had a busy 2017: Professor, Journalist, Editor, and Fiction Writer to name a few roles
Most Impactful Investigative Journalism of the Year: Ronan Farrow's "From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein's Accusers Tell Their Stories," New Yorker Magazine, October 23, 2017. Without exaggeration, I'd say that you would have to go back to Peter Benenson's classic 1961 article "The Forgotten Prisoners" (which launched a global movement to free political prisoners) to find a written work that had as much positive impact as Farrow's New Yorker piece in 2017. Researched over a 10-month period, Farrow managed to get 13 women to go on the record with horrific tales of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The piece helped jump start the #metoo movement which continues to knock down prominent power brokers in a variety of fields. I would not at all be surprised if Farrow earns a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. is keeping a running list of alleged harassers knocked off their perch. 

Investigative Journalism Honorable Mention: The International Business Times "Republican Senators Will Save Millions With Special Real Restate Tax Break."  Early in the deliberations on the Trump Tax Bill, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker announced that he was going to vote against it because he could not in conscience be for anything that increased the deficit. Corker grandstanded on this point for weeks, in the process managing to avoid the brunt of the criticism of thousands of citizens who flooded Washington to urge NO votes on the tax bill. 

As the move to an actual vote on the bill came nearer, Corker suddenly and inexplicably flip-flopped and announced he would vote for it. Journalists Alex Kotch, David Sirota, and Josh Keefe finally discovered why: at the last minute the tax bill writers added a provision that would allow real estate developers like Corker to benefit to the tune of multi millions of dollars from changes to the tax law involving their business. Outrage over the "Corker Kickback" almost succeeded in getting senators to change their votes, but alas it was not to be. 
Corker continues to insist that his vote had nothing to do with his personal finances, but he has offered no compelling explanation as to why he could vote for a bill that clearly violates the deficit principle he grandstanded on for weeks (actually for years.). The same is true for Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, by the way. 

Most Insightful #metoo Testimonial: Brit Marling's "Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent," The Atlantic, October 23, 2017.  Brit Marling is an actress, screenwriter, and film producer. In 2014 she had a hotel room encounter with Harvey Weinstein in which she was fortunate to be able to repel his advances and leave. The brilliance of her Atlantic piece is in the way it brings to the forefront what is typically marginalized or ignored in most writing about sexual harassment: The Harvey Weinsteins of the world are in large part the result of an unjust economic system that makes the financially vulnerable prey for the "gatekeepers" like Weinstein who decide quite literally who gets to work and who doesn't. From her conclusion: 

"The real danger inside the present moment . . . would be for us all to separate the alleged deeds of Cosby, Ailes, O’Reilly, or Weinstein from a culture that continues to allow for dramatic imbalances of power. It’s not these bad men. Or that dirty industry. It’s this inhumane economic system of which we are all a part. As producers and as consumers. As storytellers and as listeners. As human beings. That’s a very uncomfortable truth to sit inside. But perhaps discomfort is what’s required to move in the direction of a humane world to which we would all freely give our consent."

Song of the Year: Jessie Reyez' "Gatekeeper."  In 2017 Columbian-Canadian singer-songwriter Jesse Reyez wrote and recorded what may become the anthem of the #metoo movement. The song "Gatekeeper" features Reyez' voice and the voice of a devilish sounding Weinstein figure who says: 

Oh I'm the gatekeeper
Spread your legs
Open up
You could be famous
If you come up anywhere else, I'll erase you
Drink up, bitch, we got champagne by the cases
Don't you know? Don't you know?
We are the gatekeepers
Spread your legs
Open up
You could be famous
You know we're holding the dreams that you're chasing
You know you're supposed to get drunk and get naked

Best Trump and the Press Explainer: Jay Rosen's "Normalizing Trump: An Incredibly Brief Explainer," PressThink Blog, September 17, 2017. NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has been almost alone among press critics in recognizing the true civic emergency brought on by the election of Donald Trump. Last year he won a Tony for his "Winter is Coming," a Twitter thread on what it will be like for the press under Trump that has unfortunately turned out to be frighteningly accurate. 

"Normalizing Trump" needs only 400 words to explain why the mainstream press insists on finding something "normal" in Trump in spite of all evidence to the contrary: 

If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.

This is “normalization.” This is what “tonight he became president” is about. This is why he’s called “transactional,” why a turn to bipartisanship is right now being test-marketed by headline writers. This is why “deal-making” is said to be afoot when there is barely any evidence of a deal.

What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect. So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.
Jay Rosen is one of the few media critics who refuses to minimize the extent of our current civic emergency
Best Comic Explainer of Threats to the Media: John Oliver's "The Trump Presidency" From a November episode of Last Week Tonight. Viewers of John Oliver's program know that he consistently mixes belly laugh jokes with serious, well supported evidence to back up his claims. His November statement on the strategies Donald Trump uses to insulate himself from attacks on his incoherent public statements was one of the most brilliant pieces of political communication criticism I have ever heard. Mirroring much academic criticism on how politicians scapegoat media (but stating his case in a language that everyone can understand), Oliver highlights three strategies used by Trump to deflect attention away from his incoherence: 

1. Delegimitizing the Media (i.e. the "Fake News" canard) 
2. Whataboutism (i.e. answering every criticism by claiming that Obama or Clinton did something worse). 
3. Trolling (i.e. substituting intentional personal attacks against political enemies for any kind of real argument)

These strategies are not unique to Donald Trump. They can be found among hyperpartisans on all sides of the political spectrum, but there is no doubt that they've most infected the so-called conservative movement in America. Once a respected force for ideas in American political life, the conservative movement is now dedicated almost entirely to media delegitimization, whataboutism, and trolling. The one-time Dean of Wisconsin Conservatives, Charlie Sykes, has written an entire book on this topic. We don't know if the Republicans will lose control of the House and Senate in 2018, but if such a loss happens it would at least force a reflection on how their current argumentation runs counter to virtually everything that conservatism should stand for. 

Best Bitcoin Explainer: Doug Henwood, "What's Behind Bitcoin Mania?" Jacobin Magazine Online, December 26, 2017. If you're like me you are probably fascinated with the Bitcoin phenomenon and other "cryptocurrencies" but find yourself unable to explain them and maybe even more confused after reading mainstream articles on the topic. 

Doug Henwood, longtime editor of the Left Business Observer, in my opinion provides a huge public service with his readable piece on Bitcoin. He shows the roots of the cryptocurrency fetish in a particular brand of libertarian economics. Any social good that could come from Bitcoin appears to be outweighed by the interests of some to make huge profits in speculation. For Henwood, the Bitcoin bubble "shows that some people have too much money. Our society — and I mean that broadly, since a lot of the money going into Bitcoin looks to be coming from Asia — has plenty of cash for speculation and not much for human need."
Doug Henwood cuts through the Bitcoin BS
There you have it, the 2017 Tony Award recipients. Honorees receive no actual award, and most of them will never even know that they were so recognized. But so what? The entire point really is to urge my readers to take a look at the works I've mentioned. I hope you find them as provocative and enlightening as I did. 

Let's hope that 2018 is a great year for media that is insightful, creative, informative, courageous, thoughtfully humorous, and civic minded!