A majority of American adults avoid participation in
public discussion of issues. Given that so much of what passes for public
discourse is infected with the twin poisons of prepackaged partisan talking
points and mindless put downs of opposing views, avoidance behavior should not
Unfortunately, citizen withdrawal from the public
sphere has real consequences. When uncontested bad ideas dominate, policy
makers feel empowered to make them into law.The fact that the 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list have more wealth than the bottom 150 million
Americans combined is a testament to the power of narrow monied interests to
get “reverse Robin Hood” economic policy ideas taken seriously.
How can people become more engaged in solving the
problems caused by an unhealthy public sphere? Clearly education has to be part
of the solution. As a teacher in a Department of Communication at UW Oshkosh
that states as its mission helping students to “find their voice,” I am always
looking for ways to encourage public engagement. The rest of this rant
describes a Seminar I taught in the spring of this year designed to provide
students with some tools necessary to analyze and evaluate discourse in the
public sphere, and hopefully “raise the bar” for such discourse when choosing
to enter that sphere themselves.
My main criteria in selecting the writers were: (1)
the writer needed to be engaged consistently in writing about major public
policy issues, (2) the writer needed to write for a mainstream source, and (3)
the writer needed to have a substantial following. Obviously many writers meet
those criteria, so I tried to arrive at a balance of liberal, moderate, and
conservative voices. My own familiarity with the 22 writers was also a
consideration; knowing about the writers in advance made it easier for me to
determine if students were representing them accurately in their assigned
papers for the course.
textbook wasThe Rhetorical Act:Thinking, Speaking, and Writing Critically by professors Karlyn Campbell,
Susan Huxman, and Thomas Burkholder. The writers conceptualize a successful
rhetorical act as one that employs the resources of evidence, argument,
organization, and language to overcome challenges making persuasion difficult.
Those challenges arise from audience (they often misinterpret messages and are
resistant to change), subject and purpose (subjects can be complex and saying
yes to the purpose might cost too much), and the rhetor him or herself (a
writer’s prior reputation might get in the way of accepting his or her current
wrote many short papers analyzing how their assigned writer tried to overcome
specific rhetorical challenges, leading to wonderful classroom discussions
about public issues and the manner in which mainstream writers frame them. As
the semester went on most seemed to be disturbed by how little the writers
address issues of concern to young people; debt, lack of enough good paying
jobs, and the environment to name just three examples. I found myself reminding
them frequently that the answer was simple: write and speak about the issues
you care about. Make a commitment to the public sphere.
The final assignment was a lengthy paper requiring
the student to evaluate his or her assigned writer based on artistic quality,
effectiveness, accuracy, and/or ethics. These were some of the most intelligent
and enjoyable papers I’ve read in a while. A good number of students were drawn
to the ethical standard, which looks favorably on rhetoric that promotes social
harmony and unfavorably on that which promotes discord. One student told me
that a politiEthics.com website would be more valuable than politiFact. I told
her she should start it.
As a result of this course, one student was
motivated to publish his own op-ed (on the topic of student debt) for the student
Advance Titan newspaper. Another
submitted her final paper (arguing that the NYT’s Frank Bruni weds a sense of
comic, tragic, and history like a modern Shakespeare) to the Oshkosh Scholar journal of student
Like the majority of liberal arts courses offered at
the UW, “Rhetoric in Action” provided students with a meaningful opportunity to
think critically about civic responsibility. Such opportunities make it more
likely that graduates will pay critical attention to what is going on in
Madison and Washington. Perhaps that is why so many politicians want to reduce
the UW mission to mere concern with job skills.
My dear mom Gertrude “Trudy” Palmeri passed away on May
11, 2015 at the age of 79. She and my Korean War vet dad Frank would have been
married 60 years (!) in October. All but the last two years of her life were
lived in the borough of Brooklyn, NY. She was an Italian-Catholic Brooklynite in the most honorable sense: heart as big as the borough, fiercely
protective of her immediate family, charmingly blunt and witty, and proud of
her accent. Oh how I will miss the accent that typically left me feeling
nostalgic during our phone conversations; conversations that always started
with “yeah Ant, howya doin?” and ended with “alright I’ll letcha’ go, Love you.” (I don’t think my mom ever
called me Tony. It was “Ant” from day one.).
Trudy Palmeri was not an activist in the traditional
sense. She did not organize or otherwise participate in rallies, she did not
lobby public officials (though she rarely missed voting in elections), and she did
not make her political views widely known. And yet there was something
remarkably motivational about her. I think it had much to do with the fact that
she would much rather “walk the walk” when it came to some core values that the
so-called activists love to TALK about. So for example, for Trudy Palmeri
“family values” was more than a bullet point in a Madison Ave. set of talking
points constructed for some political phony. For Trudy, family values were a
lifestyle of unconditional love for those closest to her. Family values meant
being there in body and spirit during the good times and bad, always ready to lend
helping hands and supportive hugs. My two brothers and I became respectable
members of society by having the good fortune of being in the daily presence of
a role model of human decency. The world might be a kinder, more loving place
if everyone had the benefit of being raised by someone who walks that walk.
If you think about it, a child’s parents are in a
real sense the first “media” that she or he is exposed to. Scholars
traditionally think of mass media as serving four major functions: communicating
news, encouraging us to interpret the news in a certain way, communicating
lifestyle values, and entertainment. Parents do all of that in ways that leave
long lasting impressions on their children.
Without exaggeration, I’d say that pretty much every
value that has guided my life is a direct result of being raised in my
parents’ “Palmeri Today” show, which ran 24/7 growing up. Every day on that
show the “news” featured acts of gratitude, caregiving, and patience, with an
overarching sense of love controlling the scene. When I think of why I
ultimately became a teacher, I’m sure it had everything to do with exposure to
the Palmeri Today show values. Mom especially went out of her way to keep her
own ego in check so as to be in a better position to recognize the
accomplishments of others, an approach toward life that all teachers reading
this will recognize as key to success in our profession.
Here’s an example of how she walked that walk: It
was the 4th of July 1983, and young Dave Righetti of the New York
Yankees was pitching against the hated Boston Red Sox on an extremely hot
90-plus degree day at Yankee Stadium. Righetti no-hit the Sox that day, striking out the great Wade Boggs to end the game. A no-hitter had not been pitched at
Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen hurled a perfect game in the 1956 World
Series.The next day I got home from my
summer bank teller job and saw mom at the dining room table writing a letter.
On the table was the New York Daily News
with Righetti on the cover and “A no-Hit Fourth” headline. Mom explained that
she was writing Dave Righetti to congratulate him. I remember we had a
conversation that went something like this:
Me: “Mom, I know it was exciting and all, but it’s
just a game. He probably won’t see your letter anyway.”
Mom: (sounding disappointed in my attitude). “No
Ant, not just a game. That’s a no-hitter. That’s big. And Righetti is Italian!”
Years later she laughed and sounded pleased when I
informed her that Dave Righetti was inducted into the National Italian-American
Sports Hall of Fame.
In my teaching career I’ve always made it a point to
write students brief notes of appreciation when they do something above and
beyond required expectations. Each time I’ve done it I’ve had the vision of mom
writing that letter to Dave Righetti.
In August of 1983 I left New York to go to graduate
school. Mom cried like a baby the day I left; she said that what really got the
tears flowing was a trinket a friend had given me that said “teacher.” She
comforted herself with the belief that I would impress the teachers at Central
On May 11 I cried like a baby when mom left. I
experience comfort from the belief that when she met the greatest teacher of
all in the afterlife, S/HE gave Trudy Palmeri an A+ for a life well lived.
Mainstream sports journalism? I wish I could wax
eloquently about it with a verbal dexterity and grace equivalent to the awesomeness
of a Lebron James layup. Unfortunately the quality of sports journalism (to the
extent that such a thing even exists) requires only one blunt descriptor:
SUCKS. Unless of course your idea of quality sports journalism is mindless
cheerleading, bland press conferences, inability to tell the difference between
real and manufactured scandals, and so-called “experts” screaming at each other
on cable television. If that’s what we mean by quality sports journalism, then
without question we have the best in the world.
Poor sports journalism is not strictly a modern
phenomenon. The late Howard Cosell complained about it in the 1970s. Cosell’s
most remembered for being one-third of the original ABC Monday Night Football
broadcast team and for his theatrical banter with heavyweight boxing champion
Muhammad Ali. Less remembered is the fact that Cosell saw sports as more than
just entertainment or distraction. His interviews with Ali during the champ’s
Vietnam War draft refusal period and subsequent suspension from boxing raised
the bar for what should be legitimate sports news; in his 1973 autobiography
Cosell recounts how the ABC network received complaints along the lines of “Get
that nigger-lovin’ Jew bastard off the air.”
Cosell in 1973 lamented “the general absence of
journalism in sports coverage, both in broadcast and in print.” Not much has
changed, as can be seen in the treatment of three recent sports stories that
cry out for competent journalism: (1) Chris Borland’s retirement from football,
(2) The Chicago Cubs’ treatment of prospect Kris Bryant, (3) The NCAA final
four basketball tournament in Indianapolis.
Borland’s Retirement: Refusal to Tackle the Elephant in the Room. When
24-year-old Chris Borland announced his retirement from the San Francisco 49ers
this year (he was one of four players under age 30 to retire in 2015) after
citing the possibility of future head trauma and diminished quality of life, he
presented the mass media with a golden opportunity to give urgency to the issue
of the National Football League’s many decades long attempt to cover up the
dangers associated with the sport. Remember how the major media for decades
minimized or ignored the dangers associated with cigarettes? The rush to get
Borland and others out of the headlines as quickly as possible is eerily
Bryant: The Media’s Uncritical Acceptance of the Business of Sports.
Baseball’s spring training is supposed to be the time when players compete for
spots on the major league roster. So when Chicago Cubs third base prospect Kris
Bryant hit 9 home runs in spring, he appeared to be a lock to make the big
league squad. Bryant may be on the team by the time you read this, yet the Cubs
sent him down to the minor leagues for at least the first 12 days of the season
so as to guarantee that he could not become an unrestricted free agent until
2021 at the earliest. In other words, the integrity of the game came in second
to the owners’ bottom line. This is of course not unique to the Cubs; in fact
it is typical across franchises in all professional sports. What’s distressing
is the media’s almost uncritical acceptance of the business side of sports,
resulting not only in lower quality play (i.e. delaying the big league arrival
of prospects like Bryant), but also making it easier for owners to raise ticket
prices at will while having the audacity to ask taxpayers for money to
refurbish stadiums or build new ones. Absent a critical media, sports team
owners can get away with just about anything.
NCAA Final Four: Sports Media Called For Blocking Foul.
In an epic case of bad timing, the Indiana legislature passed a homophobic
version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” during the height of March
Madness in Indianapolis. The legislation in its original form would allow
private businesses to refuse to serve gay, lesbian, and transgender persons on
religious grounds. Massive protests erupted in Indianapolis, and even all four
Final Four coaches signed on to a statement rejecting discrimination in any
form. Yet moving the games out of Indianapolis was never seriously considered.
Why? Because sports reporting mostly blocked any serious discussion of that
issue, leaving it for the “serious” news to handle.
There are some great sports journalists out there. Mark
and Steve Fainaru’s work on football’s concussion crisis
and other issues is extremely well researched, provocative, and powerful. Dave
Zirin’s “Edge of Sports” column brings a sense of social justice and moral
clarity to sports. Regrettably, the Fainaru’s and Zirin are the glaring
exceptions to the general rule of suckiness.
Democracy activist Mike McCabe, former Executive
Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and author of the reform manifesto
Blue Jeans in High Places, will speak
at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh on April 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Reeve Union
306. Attendance is free and open to all. If you are interested in what’s ailing
our democracy and what we can do to cure it, you owe it to yourself to attend!
In anticipation of Mike’s visit, I asked him to
respond to a few questions.
Rants:Blue Jeans in High Places is relatively silent on
the role of mainstream media in helping to create the civic crisis described in
the book. What has been the media’s role in that crisis?
The role has been huge. Chapter 12 focuses on how the changing media landscape
has contributed mightily to the decline of our democracy’s health. Of course,
the whole book – or a great many books – could be devoted to this topic. There
are other parts of the book that don’t appear to be addressing the media, but
describe how politics has changed because of the way news organizations have
changed. Like how Bill Proxmire used to be able to run successfully for
statewide office while
spending less than $300 on each of his campaigns at a
time when newspapers were king, and how we now see $80 million spent on statewide races for governor once television replaced newspapers as the place
where most people get most of their information about government, elections and
candidates running for office. TV also has changed the way politicians talk.
They now have to speak in soundbites. They have to be glib, and they think they
all have to be blow-dried and made up to look like TV anchors. Substance is
sacrificed. I write about how more truth is found on “fake news” on Comedy
Central than is found on the “real” news provided by the cable news networks.
That’s a sad commentary on the state of the media.
Rants: Are there particular Wisconsin news sources and/or
journalists that you rely on to find out what’s “really going on” in our state?
Who/what should active citizens be reading?
McCabe: I don’t put my eggs in one basket,
or even in a few baskets. I believe in reliance on a very wide variety of news sources.
I don’t completely trust any single news source. I still subscribe to a daily
newspaper, and glean news from the websites of many other newspapers. I am an
avid public radio listener. I get a lot of news online, from a large number of
sources. I occasionally listen to commercial talk radio, but generally don’t
find it very useful. I used to faithfully watch “Meet the Press” and “Face the
Nation” and other national news programs, but have given up on them. I learn
way more from one episode of The Daily Show on Comedy Central than I did from a
month’s worth of watching Washington pundits pontificating on one of the major
networks. Some of the best news sources are small, little-known operations, and
some of the finest journalists work for such outfits. The Wisconsin Center for
Investigative Journalism and its wisconsinwatch.org website is outstanding. I’m
big fan of Bruce Murphy at urbanmilwaukee.com. He’s really good. Jon Stewart
and Stephen Colbert deserve to be included among the nation’s best newsmen.
They are going to be tough to replace on those shows. As I write in the book,
thank god for satire. The last safe harbor for truth.
Media Rants: During your time at the Wisconsin
Democracy Campaign, your “Big Money Blog” was a lifeline for many activists
seeking information and insight about how special interests rule our politics.
Will you continue to blog or produce similar reports in some other format?
I will start blogging again very soon. I can’t help myself.
Media Rants: You’re quite active on social media. How are
Facebook and other social media changing the civic landscape?
McCabe: I have a
love-hate relationship with social media. They are amazing tools, with vast
potential to democratize the media. But they are still in their infancy,
politically speaking. They also have a dark side, obviously.Some of what you find on social media is
mindless, some of it is disgusting, some of it is downright depressing. But on
the whole, I think the good outweighs the bad. I find Facebook and Twitter and
other social media platforms to be very valuable ways to reach people, exchange
ideas and even inspire action. So I try to overlook what I hate about them.
Media Rants:Blue Jeans in High Places offers some
pretty hard-hitting criticism of the political status quo, yet it’s also a very
hopeful book. You seem optimistic that engaged citizens can repair our broken
democracy. Why are you so optimistic?
McCabe: The political system is broken, the major
parties are failing us. There’s no whitewashing that. The current moment is bleak.
But such conditions have existed before. And every time past generations
encountered these same kinds of threats to democracy and civil society, they
rose to the occasion and straightened things out. I refuse to believe that
there is something fundamentally different about us or wrong with us that
renders us less capable of making change than past generations were. We’ve
reached a crucial turning point, just as our grandparents and
great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did. And I have no doubt that
we will do what they did.
EVENT: Mike McCabe speaks on the topic of “When Words Fail Us: Reimagining Political Vocabulary and Remaking Our Democracy”
DATE: Thursday, April 9th
TIME: 7:30 p.m. PLACE: UW Oshkosh Reeve Union, Room 306 The event is free and open to the public. For More Information: Email Tony Palmeri at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 920-235-1116.