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. 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Media Rants: Chris Terry on Net Neutrality

Chris Terry on Net Neutrality

Media Rants 

from the June 2014 issue of The SCENE 

On May 15th the Federal Communications Commission issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (NPRM) regarding “net neutrality.” Go to for specifics on how to get involved.

Net neutrality is a complex issue. For enlightenment, Media Rants turns to Dr. Chris Terry, Lecturer in Media Law and Regulatory Policy at the UW Milwaukee Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies. Dr. Terry writes extensively on issues related to media ownership and government policy. 
Media Rants: What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a term coined by Tim Wu referring to a multi-pronged regulatory approach to internet structural regulation. It is a social democratic regulatory approach related to internet traffic.

Two aspects: First, the term is most closely associated with the relationship between an internet service provider (ISP) and the consumer. Under net neutral regulations, the consumer gets to access whatever legal online content they choose with no loss in service or speed.

Second: In an idea related to the first, the regulation would prevent an ISP from favoring content (through use of a fast lane). This is the core issue of net neutrality from a First Amendment perspective. Consumers have no defense when their ISP chooses to limit or even block content from them.

Because most consumers get their internet service from a cable company that co-owns other media content or services, the cable companies have an economic incentive in controlling what content consumers can have access to. They would like to direct you to content and services they own, so they favor that content over their competitor's content.

MR: Some critics claim that the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia "killed" net neutrality in January of this year. Is that accurate? What exactly did the District Court decide?

An oversimplification of Verizon v. FCC (2014), but the result is reasonably accurate. Verizon, like Comcast did in an almost identical case in 2009, challenged the FCC’s  authority to enforce net neutrality rules under the delegation of power from the 1996 Telecommunications Act, saying that Congress had not delegated the FCC power to enforce such provisions. That authority does not exist under current law, and the Circuit court ruled the same way it had in the earlier Comcast case, declaring the rules to be outside of the enforcement authority of the FCC.

Comcast challenged the FCC's policy from 2005 after the agency declared Comcast had violated the Four Principles Policy passed by the FCC in 2005. The FCC lost that case in early 2010, then passed a second set of net neutrality regulations later that year. The Verizon case undermined the second set of regulations (which were very similar to the first set).

MR: Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the two biggest players in cable and Internet service, have announced a $45 billion merger. If that deal is approved, what will it mean for Internet freedom?

Comcast would become the single largest provider of internet service in the U.S. Given that Comcast has a demonstrable history of blocking content it finds objectionable, at the same time favoring providers that pay for priority transmission or content owned by subsidiaries (like NBC), there's little to be happy about in terms of deal's effect on internet freedom. Comcast is an active member of the Center For Copyright Information's Six Strikes Program, and was responsible for the court decision which started the chain of (regulatory) events which culminated in the vote on May 15th  at the FCC on the NPRM.

MR: What is the view of the current FCC Chair Tom Wheeler on net neutrality? Are Wheeler and his colleagues on the FCC taking stands that benefit the consumer?

His stated view is that net neutrality is important, and that he won't let the agency back away from an "open internet." As someone who has studied regulatory policy by the FCC, I remain skeptical of how well his rhetoric matches his actions, or the decisions being made at the agency under his watch. The DC Circuit gave the FCC permission to proceed with meaningful net neutrality provisions if the agency chooses to reclassify broadband as a common carrier as part of the Verizon decision earlier this year. Reclassification would be a contentious process certainly, but it is a clear policy agenda and regulatory path to follow.

MR: What can the average citizen do to help make sure the Internet remains open?
You can complain to the agency, but the FCC's record on consideration of citizen complaints on structural regulation is not positive by any measure. Real pressure needs to go on legislators in Congress to grant the FCC the authority to act. The courts have not overturned net neutrality as a burdensome regulation on speech, rather the circuit court has said the FCC simply lacks the authority and jurisdiction to act as it did in 2005 and again in 2010.

MR: How important is net neutrality?

I think people fail to understand the consequences of failure on net neutrality. The constitutive choices about the future of the internet, broadband and mobile access are being made right now. If the FCC fails to implement a citizen orientated approach, there will be fundamental changes in how consumers can access content online, and very few of those changes are positive for the consumer. 

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Media Rants: Fondy High First Amendment Fight

Fondy High First Amendment Fight

Media Rants By Tony Palmeri

From the May 2014 edition of The SCENE

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression annually awards “Jefferson Muzzles” as a way “to draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press.” The recently released 2014 Muzzles “honor” nine free speech abusers, including the Obama Justice Department for its unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records. Two Muzzles went to high school principals in Florida and New Jersey, one for censoring a student graduation speech and the other a student newspaper. 

I’d like to nominate Fond du Lac High School Principal Jon Wiltzius and District Superintendent James Sebert for a 2015 Jefferson Muzzle. In March, Wiltzius and Sebert announced their intent to enforce “School Guidelines Determined by the Principal regarding Student Publications.” The guidelines establish a system of prior review, empowering Wiltzius and Sebert to make revisions to or fully censor writing in the Fond du Lac High School student publication CardinalColumns.

The announcement to enforce the guidelines was a response to two items in the February issue of Cardinal Columns. The first item, Fondy senior Tanvi Kumar’s cover story “The Rape Joke,” suggests the existence of a “rape culture” in its telling of the stories of sexual assault survivors in their own voice. The second item, an editorial called “I Pledge My Allegiance,” alerts students to their right not to the stand for the Pledge.
In applying the Wiltzius/Sebert prior review guidelines to the two items, it’s difficult to understand the administrators’ position. The items do not “substantially interfere with the educational process, educational environment, or rights of other students.” Indeed, the two items taken together are highly educational and empowering for students. Nor can the items be “reasonably perceived to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”  The item on the Pledge is clearly labeled as the view of “Editorial Staff” on a page that welcomes letters from students and faculty. Finally, the items are notpoorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced.” The English Department faculty at Fondy High (these are the folks who evaluate student writing for a living) said this:

“If anything . . . The attention this controversy has stirred up has confirmed one thing: our students, allowed some freedom to work together to think critically and make informed choices on their own along with the guidance of a highly qualified instructor, are capable of truly amazing things. Such work should be celebrated, not censored.” (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, Fondy High journalists are not alone in having to deal with Big Brotherism trying to pass itself off as a benign attempt to “protect the rights of all students.” A terrible 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier, welcomed Big Brother into the school newsroom by holding that ”educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” That unfortunate decision had the practical effect of watering down1969’s Tinker v.Des Moines, in which Justice Abe Fortas famously argued “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

One can understand and even sympathize with how a principal and superintendent, especially in a “conservative” region like Fond du Lac, would be uncomfortable with student writings that force recognition of a rape culture and urge defiance of the principal’s command to stand for the Pledge. But trying to relieve personal discomfort is not the kind of “legitimate pedagogical concern” needed to justify the enforcement of prior review guidelines. Justice William Brennan’s dissent in Hazelwood ably articulated the problem with trying to defend censorship policies in the name of such pedagogy. Brennan wrote that such policies in no wayfurthers the curricular purposes of a student newspaper unless one believes that the purpose of the school newspaper is to teach students that the press ought never report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors.”

Tanvi Kumar will be attending George Washington University in the fall. GWU Law Professor Jonathan Turley had this to say about the controversy in which this courageous young woman and all Cardinal Columns staff find themselves embroiled: “At a time when many children are game-obsessed and disconnected, you have high school students here with the courage to look at a taboo subject and make it accessible for other students. The response of the school teaches an entirely different lesson about conformity and authority. Indeed, the board and administrators appear to want the students to write to the lowest common denominator on the least controversial subjects. That will certainly make their lives easier, but it does little to advance the true education and development of these students.”

Mr. Wiltzius and Superintendent Sebert would be wise to listen to the Fondy English faculty, whose 22 page statement on the matter shows conclusively that the prior review guidelines are based on unsound pedagogy, will chill student journalism, and could place the District at legal risk. Listening to reason might even help the administrators avoid the honor of a Jefferson Muzzle. 
Update: The column above was written in mid-April. Since then it appears as if Wiltzius and Sebert made good on their threat to act as censors; on May 1 students held a sit-in to protest. Looks like a TJ Muzzle is now all but guaranteed for the Fondy Administrators. Good coverage of the sit-in can be found here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Media Rants: Health Beat v. Wealth Beat

Media Rants 

From the April 2014 edition of The SCENE

Obamacare: Health Beat vs. Wealth Beat

Last month in what some in the punditocracy view as a dire warning for pro-Affordable Care Act (i.e. ACA or Obamacare) Democrats heading into November’s midterm elections, Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District. David Weigel’s piece released two days before the election (“Obamacare’s Ground Zero”) lent support to the view that Jolly’s “repeal the law” rhetoric mobilized his base voters more than Sink’s “fix the law” message mobilized hers.

No one disputes that the roll out of was a disaster, and it’s also true that President Obama and Congressional Democrats employed misleading sound bites (e.g. “If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period.”) in the run up to the vote on the bill and afterwards. Unfortunately, the rigor with which the press attacked the website woes and presidential gaffes seems absent when it comes to Obamacare “horror stories.” The stories involve citizens like Michigan cancer patient Julie Boonstra (featured in a Koch Brothers’ Americans For Prosperity ad) who, allegedly because of Obamacare, will be made to suffer medically and/or financially in a way not possible before the legislation. 

Few if any of the horror stories hold up to scrutiny, yet continue to be featured in GOP campaign advertising, fundraising appeals, and stump speeches.

In 2012, when called out on their inaccuracies about President Obama’s record on welfare reform, Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse famously said “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” The “Newhouse Strategy” now represents the GOP approach to communicating about Obamacare.

Some working journalists have taken up the task of debunking Obamacare horror stories. The most accessible are PaulWaldman in the American Prospect, Erik Wemple in the Washington Post, Eric Stern in Salon, and MichaelHiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. Some on the Right accuse such journalists of trying to “silence Obamacare critics.” Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, correctly notes that when it comes to Obamacare horror stories news organizations aren’t doing their jobs: “What a lot of these stories have in common are, first of all, a subject largely unaware of his or her options under the ACA or unwilling to determine them; and, second, shockingly uninformed and incurious news reporters, including some big names in the business, who don't bother to look into the facts of the cases they're offering for public consumption.” (emphasis added)

Probably the most diligent media watchdog of Obamacare stories is Maggie Mahar, author of  Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much (Harper Collins 2006). On her blog ( she approaches Obamacare the way all journalists should: probing beneath the partisan fantasies to find out what the law is actually doing. In our hyper-politicized media environment, Mahar’s Journalism 101 approach is in some quarters  labeled “pro-Obamacare.” She told WNYC’s “Onthe Media” program: “I'm not an advocate for Obamacare. I'm an advocate for the truth. I've read the entire law three times. I know what's in it. And so, when I read accounts of the legislation that are not true, I write about it.”

Following what should be standard journalistic practice, Mahar laboriously interviews producers, reporters, and subjects of stories she finds misleading or inaccurate. Her two-part blog entry “How a CBS Video About an Obamacare Victim Misled Millions” is instructive in showing the extent to which shoddy reporting turned a major network into part of the anti-Obamacare disinformation campaign. The blog entry analyzes errors in a CBS report headlined “Woman Battling Kidney Cancer Losing Company Health Plan Due To Obamacare.” In the report, citizen Debra Fishericks of Virginia Beach believes, inaccurately as it turns out, that under Obamacare her insurance premiums would go up “higher and higher” because of her pre-existing cancer condition. She’s worried that Obamacare might break her budget to the point where she can no longer visit her grandson in Indiana. Fishericks’ story ran on 58 CBS stations, thousands of blogs, and other sources.

Mahar’s interviews with the CBS team involved in producing the Fishericks story reveal a staff that seemed to have internalized conservative anti-Obamacare talking points. The CBS report fit the pattern Mahar finds in many stories about Obamacare:  Reporters were printing and parroting the fictions and half-truths that conservatives fed to the media. And in an era of cut-and-paste journalism, the myths became memes, iterated over and over again. Little wonder that many people—including journalists—didn’t know what to believe. This, I think, is one reason why no one at CBS caught the glaring error in Fishericks’ story.”

Mahar has sympathy for reporters who might not have time to wade through a 2000 page law. “But ideally, reporters would have dug into the in-depth briefs published by groups such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” she says. That’s good advice for all of us.

Even if reporters better grasped the ACA, we’d probably still see exploitative, sensationalistic stories as the mainstream media norm. Why? Because while sensationalism is a terrible way to cover the health beat, it does feed the media wealth beat. News producers do not believe that nuanced, well researched stories can attract and sustain high audience levels.Sad.