Saturday, October 11, 2014

Media Rants: Interview With Sam Mayfield

From the October 2014 edition of The SCENE

Interview With Sam Mayfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 01, 2014

Media Rants: Wisconsin's Sterling Reputation

Wisconsin’s Sterling Reputation

Media Rants 

From the September, 2014 edition of The SCENE
In mid-August the town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in protest after a police officer killed an unarmed African-American teen. A troubling legacy of the so-called “War on Terror” is the militarization of local police forces, so law enforcement officials responded to the protest by treating Ferguson like Fallujah. Even journalists on the scene from establishment sources like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Al Jazeera America found themselves being assaulted, tear gassed, and arrested for having the audacity to report on the events.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 01, 2014

Media Rants: The 42 Gospels

The 42 Gospels

Media Rants  by Tony Palmeri 

From the August, 2014 issue of The SCENE 
The New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in the history of American major league baseball, retired at the end of the 2013 season. When major league baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s #42 in 1997, players wearing the number at that time were given the option of keeping it until they left the game. Rivera retired as the last #42. Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel believes Rivera wore the number well: “He carried himself with dignity and grace,  and that made carrying the number a tribute to Jack."

Rivera recently released an autobiography entitled The Closer. Deeply spiritual, the book could have easily been called The Gospel of Mariano Rivera.  In it we find a man for whom saving games pales in significance to saving souls: “For the last nineteen seasons, the Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to play baseball for the New York Yankees. My job was to save games, and I loved every part of it. Now I have a new job – probably better described as a calling – and that is to glorify the Lord and praise His name, and show the wonders that await those who seek Him and want to experience His grace and peace and mercy.”

 Rivera and his wife Clara are the founders of Refugiode Esperanza (Refuge of Hope), an evangelical Christian Church in New Rochelle,NY. Housed in a historic building undergoing a $4-million facelift, the Rivera’s’ plan is for the church to be a “community hub that will include a food pantry, educational programs, tutoring, faith-based initiatives for kids and families, and more.” New Rochelle is an affluent suburb. Given that Rivera competed in the Bronx, in a stadium which has the dubious distinction of being located in one of the poorest and hungriest congressional districts in the nation, one wonders why Rivera didn’t get the calling to build the church there. But let us judge not lest we be judged.

With humble beginnings in Panama, Rivera understands poverty and racism. Yet The Closer studiously avoids controversy. Comparing himself to Jackie Robinson, Rivera writes, “I am no pioneer, I can tell you that . . . I am a simple man who measures his impact in a smaller way: by being a humble servant of the Lord, and trying to do my best to treat people – and play the game – in the right way.”

Jackie Robinson’s autobiography I Never Had It Made was released in 1972, shortly before his death from complications brought on by heart disease and diabetes. Most Americans know Robinson as the first African-American to break the color line in major league baseball. Less known is his political activism, which by the late 1960s had become militant in tone. In the preface he reflects on hearing the national anthem at his first world series: “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” In a chapter on Martin Luther King, Jr. he says that “there was a time when I deeply believed in America. I have become bitterly disillusioned.”

Robinson endorsed Richard Nixon against John Kennedy in 1960 (“I was fighting a last ditch battle to keep the Republicans from becoming completely white.”), but came to be disenchanted with both major political parties. Preaching a gospel rooted in social justice as opposed to Rivera’s rooted in personal salvation, Robinson argued that “we must develop an effective strategy and learn how to become enlightenedly selfish to protect black people when white people seem consolidated to destroy us.”

What would Jackie Robinson say about Mariano Rivera? A clue can be found in Robinson’s relationship with the Dodgers’ African-American catcher Roy Campanella. When Robinson fought to get black players the right to stay in air conditioned rooms at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, Campanella did not join the fight because “I’m no crusader.” Though the two remained friends, Robinson made it clear throughout the book that he had little regard for people who stay silent in the presence of injustice.

Rivera respectfully and admiringly praises Robinson for his courage in moving baseball out of the Jim Crow era. Unfortunately, he shows little awareness of the game’s modern injustices. One injustice concerns the gradual disappearance ofAfrican-Americans in baseball. In 1971 the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-minority starting lineup, and by the mid-1980s over 18 percent of major leaguers were African-American. Today, the number is down to around 7 percent (the lowest since the 1950s). For major league baseball executives and players to celebrate Jackie Robinson at the same time tolerating the steady decline of black participation in the sport is to make a mockery of his sacrifices.

Rivera like most modern major leaguers also has nothing to say about the “baseball academies” that exploit young athletes in Latin America. A 2013 Mother Jones feature exposed the terrible, sweatshop like conditions of the academies in the Dominican Republic. The death of the Washington Nationals’ teenage prospect Yewri Guillen in 2011 due to inadequate medical care should have provoked major reforms, but the deafening silence of players and the press makes change slow.

The 42 Gospel of Jackie Robinson would speak out about these abuses. Rivera should too. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Media Rants: We Shall Overcome the Media

We Shall Overcome the Media

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the July 2014 edition of The SCENE
July 2nd marks the 50th anniversary of president Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA). The individual most responsible for getting the act through the US Senate was Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican from Illinois. When asked why he took up the cause of civil rights, the eloquent, deep voiced Dirksen quoted Victor Hugo: “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” (Another Republican, 6th district representative William Van Pelt of Fond du Lac, was the only member of the Wisconsin congressional delegation to vote No; Van Pelt lost his seat to Democrat John Race in November of 1964. In today’s GOP Van Pelts abound, but it’s hard to find any Dirksens.).

An army could not withstand the strength of the idea of civil rights, but soon after the passage of the CRA armies were called in to quell urban uprisings. In Los Angeles, Detroit, and other places, the promise of the CRA could not overcome shameful socioeconomic conditions created over many generations of deeply ingrained racism in public policies touching employment, housing, and education.

The wave of post CRA violence forced LBJ to convene a commission to study its causes. In 1968 the Kerner Commission released a 426 page report highlighting anger and frustration at the lack of economic opportunity as the key factor sparking revolts. Some of the report’s harshest criticisms were leveled at themainstream news media, which was faulted for sensationalized, inaccurate coverage of urban disturbances.  Commissioners employed powerful language to show how the mainstream media were part of the problem, not part of the solution to racial strife:

“By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”

The Eisenhower Foundation produced a “40 year update” of Kerner in 2008, and found that not much had changed as regards media: “Since the Kerner Commission, media ownership has been reduced to just a few giant, White-controlled corporations, facilitated by the federal deregulation that has failed average citizens so spectacularly . . . Minorities are greatly underrepresented in the media. Minority ownership is miniscule. Top heavy with White middle-class men, many television news departments and many major newspapers today are focused less on quality reporting and more on declining viewership, readership and profits. The priorities of the Kerner Commission are not sufficiently covered, and then only for a short while . . . “

Another 40 year update of Kerner, produced by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communication and Center for Africana Studies along with North Carolina A & T State University’s Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies, included an essay by sociologist Darnell Hunt called “The Media and Race, 40 Years After Kerner.” Hunt argued that “Forty years after Kerner we continue to confront a reality in which news stories are routinely told ‘from the standpoint of a white man’s world.’ Just as this standpoint provided minimal insights in the mid-1960s about the relationship between America race relations and the violence erupting on inner-city streets, it has had little to offer in recent years about the connections between race in America and, say, what happened in Los Angeles in 1992, or in New Orleans in 2005. This is because the dominant standpoint is wedded to the surveillance function of American news media, which is rooted in a fundamental interest in maintaining order above all else. It is a gaze invested in focusing on symptoms and overlooking causes.”

As regards coverage of the civil rights movement, “white man’s world” journalism features three characteristics that make accurate reporting difficult and editorializing almost unbearable. First, there is a “leader obsession.” The civil rights movement gets framed not as the story of millions of people working for justice at the grassroots level, but as the work of heroic individuals who almost magically move the masses to the side of the good. (The leader obsession similarly makes it difficult for mainstream media to cover Occupy Wall St., a movement that explicitly disavows traditional leadership models.).

Second, white man’s world journalism treats the civil rights movement nostalgically; as something that happened decades ago. Thus we get nonstop celebrations of the past while the modern movement is treated as either nonexistent or as the concern only of fringe extremists.

Finally, white man’s world journalism minimizes or ignores scholarship and independent reporting about race in modern America. Two examples are Professor Michelle Alexander’s brilliant The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in theAge of Colorblindness and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the May issue of The Atlantic. Both works provide insightful, cutting edge analysis of the realities of the racism in modern America. For each to become part of mainstream discourse, we shall have to overcome the mainstream news media.