Saturday, April 04, 2015

Media Rants Talks to Mike McCabe

Media Rants Talks To Mike McCabe

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

from the April 2015 edition of The SCENE

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.

Media 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?

McCabe: 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.

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 website is outstanding. I’m a
big fan of Bruce Murphy at 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? 

McCabe: Yes, 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 or call 920-235-1116.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Media Rants: Reflections on Jon Stewart

Reflections on Jon Stewart

Media Rants By Tony Palmeri

From the March 2015 edition of the SCENE
Jon Stewart recently announced that he will be leaving the Daily Show at the end of the year. For the millennial generation, Stewart’s departure must feel similar to what their grandparents felt when Walter Cronkite retired from CBS: sadness at the stepping down of a man perceived by them as trustworthy and honest. As a college teacher in the area of Communication Studies who works primarily with 18-22 year olds, I can testify that classroom clips of Stewart get a kind of appreciation from students that I NEVER see after clips from “serious” correspondents like Scott Pelley, Brian “Tall Tale” Williams, David Muir, or any of the bloviators over at CNN, Fox, and MSNBC.
My own view of Jon Stewart changes depending on what critical hat I’m wearing. In the remainder of this rant I will reflect on Stewart from three perspectives: teacher, media critic, and citizen.

As a teacher, I should probably send Stewart a THANK YOU note. Some of my classes deal with practical communication issues: how to recognize and critique established issue frames, how to support claims with sound evidence and argument, how to recognize and expose reasoning fallacies in political argument, and how to develop irony and other “extraordinary” uses of language. The Daily Show’s been a gold mine of illustrations for all that and more.
As a media critic, I’ve appreciated Stewart’s brutally amusing takedowns of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and indeed all of the establishment lapdog media. Unlike CNN’s ReliableSources, and Fox’s MediaBuzz, both of which pretend to give viewers sophisticated analyses of media machinations but usually end up as little more than “insider baseball” shop talk, Stewart’s media criticism reduces the media giants to the absurdity that they’ve become. His insightful critique of the 24 hour news cycle in “CNN Leaves it There” and his reduction of Fox to the “lupus of news” in “Bernie Goldberg Fires Back” will remain as classic critiques of what passes for “news” on the cable channels. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Stewart revealed a keen awareness of Fox’s formula for success: “They’ve delegitimized the idea of editorial authority while exercising incredible editorial authority” he mused.  He went on to claim, quite accurately, that Fox expertly turns criticism of their programming into “persecution.”

Lest you think, as many on the right do, that Stewart is somewhat of a “leftist,” the interview with Maddow as well as his “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in 2010 left no doubt that Stewart sees himself as “in the stands” watching all sides as opposed to playing on the field alongside a team. He also had a well publicized verbal skirmish with the NYT’s Paul Krugman a few years back (Krugman is probably the most liberal op-ed writer working in a mainstream news source.). Stewart’s dogged tendency to take shots at both right and left is, I think, less about being perceived as “fair” and more about wanting to remain independent. To me he seems mindful of the late satirist Frank Zappa’s admonition that (I’m paraphrasing here) “the right wants to shut you down and the left wants to use you.” As someone who’s been criticized by both of the “official” sides over the years, I can identify with where Stewart is coming from.

I’m most critical of Jon Stewart when I put on the citizen cap. My thinking in this area has been influenced by a wonderfully provocative piece of scholarship (published 2007 in Critical Studies in Media Communication) by political communication professor Roderick Hart and University of Texas at Austin doctoral student Johanna Hartelius. Their essay “The Political Sins of Jon Stewart” argues that a proper understanding of the nature of Stewart’s cynicism leads to the conclusion that the Daily Show does NOT defend or support “small d” democratic values and maybe succeeds in undermining them.
Hart and Hartelius claim that Stewart’s brand of cynicism, which has been around for ages but gains particular potency in the television era, works against the idea that people can come together to solve problems. They write: “Real politics is hard, frustrating work. Instead of wrestling with such matters, cynics like Jon Stewart teach us how to cop an attitude. Why is copping an attitude now such an obsession? Because with television we can all be young, clever . . .  and lazy. Cynics place faith in observation, not participation, and see irony as the only stable source of pleasure.” In support of the authors I can offer only anecdotal evidence: more often than not, the biggest fans of Stewart that I deal with either (a) have no interest in working with established organizations to participate in finding solutions to problems or (b) do participate but use Stewart merely as a form of “gotcha” to knock down their real or perceived opponents. In other words, they double down on the cynicism.

Cynicism is sure profitable: the day after Stewart’s stepping down announcement reports surfaced that Viacom stocks lost $350 million in value. My own cynicism informs me that a comedy that did engage participation in the manner suggested by Hart and Hartelius would not make it through the corporate cable TV censors. Who knows, maybe Stewart freed from corporate constraints will become an activist comedian in the Dick Gregory mold.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Media Rants: How We Kill Editorial Cartoonists

How We Kill Editorial Cartoonists


By Tony Palmeri

From the February 2015 edition of the The SCENE

The late George Bernard Shaw mused that “assassination is the extreme form of censorship.” A chilling illustration of that sentiment occurred on January 7th, when masked gunmen stormed the Paris office of the irreverent newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 staffers including prominent editorial cartoonists. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the killings, calling them “revenge for the honor” of the Prophet Muhammad whose image frequently graced Charlie Hebdo in a manner perceived as blasphemous and offensive by religious fundamentalists.

Almost as upsetting as the murder of the Charlie Hebdo satirists was the disingenuous, self-righteous, and hypocritical posturing in support of free expression by large numbers of American pundits and politicians. Listening to these self-serving sermons, you’d think that the modern United States was a beacon of free speech protection. The sad truth is that political discourse in the United States operates in a very narrow left/right spectrum, exemplified most depressingly in the op-ed pages of establishment newspapers and the Sunday morning news (snooze?) shows on network television. Biting satire in the Charlie Hebdo tradition for all practical purposes does not exist here (commercially driven enterprises like the Daily Show, the Onion, and Saturday Night Live are extremely mild by comparison), making the proclamation of “Jesuis Charlie” in response to the massacre sound hollow and unbelievable.

Delusional statements of support for free expression became so over the top that even the ordinarily vacuous David Brooks of the New York Times managed to make a good point:

“The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” As someone who’s been involved over the years in campus struggles to promote political discourse not even satirical as much as simply critical of established orthodoxies, I can identify with Brooks’ statement.

What about American editorial cartoonists? Terrorists do not kill them, but they don’t have to: contemporary corporate media business models ensure that edgy editorial cartoonists will be either (a) out of work, (b) become low paid freelancers, or (c) compromise their edginess just so as to be able to appear in large circulation venues.  Lee Judge, the longtime Kansas City Star cartoonist whose full-time position with the paper was eliminated in 2008, told National Public Radio that “It's pretty hard to find a new job when your resume says you are a professional smart ass."

Lee Judge received death threats for a gun control cartoon he penned in 2013, threats which literally forced him out of his home and should have resulted in wider distribution for the controversial drawing. But due in part to commercial pressures, American editors just aren’t that gutsy. Contrast that with Charlie Hebdo; radical American cartoonist Ted Rall met the murdered cartoonists a few years ago and recallsthat “They were encouraged by their editor to be as aggressive as possible. It’s a big difference between the way things are done in the United States, where often editors are trying to rein in the cartoonists. There, they were encouraged to stretch and be as aggressive as possible.”
[Above: Lee Judge's American Sniper cartoon. The Kansas City Star editorial board said that the responses to the cartoon were  "obscene, hateful, crude and sexist, laced with unprintable obscenities. They included slurs, threats of lynching and of surprise attacks, wishes for slow painful deaths by cancer, and not-so-veiled threats to family members."]

Wisconsin is at the moment not exactly a mecca of full-time editorial cartooning. While the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cried crocodile tears over Charlie Hebdo, they neglected to mention the 2009 forced buyout of cartoonist Stuart Carlson, which at the time left Joe Heller of the Green Bay Press Gazette as the only remaining editorial cartoonist in the state. At the time the American Journalism Review called Carlson “one of a number of editorial cartoonists who have been eliminated from newspaper staffs without replacement during major industry downsizing.”

As for Joe Heller, his 28 years at Gannett’s Green Bay Press Gazette ended when he received a pink slip in 2013. Gannett cited finances as the reason for the layoff even as they were at that very moment purchasing 20 television stations for over 2 billion dollars.

My favorite Wisconsin cartoonist, the late Lyle Lahey, was also a Gannett victim. Lahey spent 38 years raising cartoon hell for the Green Bay News Chronicle, a tenure that ended in 2005 when Gannett purchased the paper and proceeded to shut it down.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream press, but there are lots of provocative editorial cartoonists working right now. My favorites are those who operate in the tradition of Thomas Nast, the 19th century “father of the American cartoon” whose caustic pen brought down the corrupt Tammany Hall corruption ring in New York City. They include Matt Bors (, Tom Tomorrow (, Ted Rall (, Jen Sorenson (, Matt Wuerker (, Ruben Bolling (, Joe Sacco (google “Sacco’s response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks”), Lalo Alcaraz (, Stephanie McMillan (, and Wisconsin’s Mike Konopacki (  Matt Bors created “The Nib” (, a great archive of cutting edge cartoons featuring cartoonists you (unfortunately) will not see in your local newspaper.

For more information about the plight of editorial cartoonists globally, visit the Cartoonists Rights Network International. (

Friday, January 02, 2015

Media Rants: Censored in 2014

Censored in 2014

Media Rants By Tony Palmeri

from the January 2015 edition of the SCENE

At the start of the digital age many media critics hoped that the Internet would usher in an era in which it would be almost impossible for news censorship to occur. The hope was rooted in optimism that elite corporate media, if for no other reason than their own survival, would channel their resources towards giving greater visibility to underreported stories stuck in the marginal sphere of political websites, blogs, and social media. 

That never happened. Instead, the elites doubled down on their worst pre-digital tendencies: over reliance on mainstream sources, privileging the “official” narrative of major events, handling doubtful partisan claims via lazy “he said, she said” reporting rather than rigorous search for the truth, and an embarrassing fixation on celebrity gossip and minutiae. 

Since 1976, long before the digital revolution, Sonoma State University’s Project Censored has challenged the news media to meet their First Amendment responsibilities. Annually the Project compiles a volume of news stories "underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the United States.” 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.” Ralph Nader agrees: “Project Censored should be affixed to the bulletin boards in every newsroom in America.”

Project Censored defines censorship as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to have a free press.” They argue further that censorship may include 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.” Below I’ll summarize Project Censored’s top three most censored national stories of 2014. I’ll close by arguing that in Wisconsin, the race for governor was the most censored story of 2014. 

Censored 2015 (Seven Stories Press) identifies “Ocean acidification increasing at unprecedented rate” as the top censored story of 2014. This is a classic example of a story that has life and death consequences, but does not yet register on the radar of the mainstream media. But hey, mainstream news has more important priorities.  As I write in mid-December, the Oshkosh Northwestern has this item on their website: “Police: Wausau Man Performed Oral Sex on Horse.” Perhaps they were trying to give new meaning to the concept of a news “head” line. 
Project Censored identifies “Top 10 US Aid Recipients All Practice Torture” as the second most censored story of 2014. Think about that in the coming weeks as sanctimonious and hypocritical politicians lament the Obama Administration’s opening of relations with Cuba without getting sufficient “human rights concessions” in exchange. Exactly what concessions are we getting from the torture regimes receiving US taxpayer dollars?

The third most censored story was “Wikileaks Revelations on Trans-Pacific Partnership Ignored by Corporate Media.” According to Project Censored: “Eight hundred million people, and one-third of all world trade, stand to be affected by the treaty—and yet only three people from each member nation have access to the entire document. Meanwhile, six hundred ‘corporate advisors,’  representing big oil, pharmaceutical, and entertainment companies, are involved in the writing and negotiations of the treaty.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is currently on the “fast track” and if approved would create the largest “free trade” zone in the world. Writing in the Guardian, John Fullerton of the Capital Institute argues that: “What few seem to realize is that this agreement, if approved as is, could make it virtually impossible for the United States to meet its current and future climate pledges – including those made in its historic climate accord with China last month – without exposing the nation to unprecedented legal and financial risks.” If mainstream media truly were watchdogs, TPP would be as familiar to Americans as Ray Rice. 
Now let’s move to Wisconsin. I’ve been in this great state since 1989 and lived through seven gubernatorial elections. Until this year, I didn’t think media [lack of] coverage could get worse than 1998, the year Ed Garvey ran a spirited grassroots campaign against incumbent Tommy Thompson. The Garvey campaign tenaciously kept bringing up Thompson era follies that would come back to haunt the state: tax and spend policies that created massive structural deficits, the use of accounting tricks to balance the budget, placing major non-budget items in the budget bill, inappropriate use of the line item veto, the introduction of big money special influence politics to Wisconsin, and the consolidation of too much power in the governor’s office. The mass media just as tenaciously ignored or minimized virtually all of this, though in fairness to the media barons not even the Democratic Party establishment did much to support Garvey. 

But 2014 was worse. We’ve now reached the point where, in large part because that state’s mainstream media cannot be counted on to cover campaigns with rigor, challengers have to be independently wealthy to get their message out and respond to smears. But even a wealthy candidate like Mary Burke found that money can’t prevent the scheduling of debates when no one is watching and the publication of unsubstantiated “October Surprise” stories on the pages of the state’s largest newspaper. Meanwhile third party candidates are invisible. 

Want to fight censorship? Continue to support alternative media like the SCENE. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The 2014 TONY Awards

The 2014 TONY Awards

Media Rants 

from the December 2014 edition of the The SCENE 

This 13th (!) annual TONY Awards column for excellence in grassroots media work is dedicated to those citizens who in a midterm election year provided alternatives to what was mostly shallow and shameful establishment press coverage of Wisconsin’s contests for governor, congress, attorney general, state legislature, and other offices. The SCENE’s collaboration with public access television’s Eye on Oshkosh was an example of how even a small group of interested people can use print media, television, and the Internet in ways that raise the bar for campaign discourse.  Maybe if more media activists do the same, we might at a minimum mobilize higher voter turnout. Kudos to Justin Mitchell and Cheryl Hentz for making the SCENE/Eye on Oshkosh partnership possible. 

In 2014 the TONY Award goes to Mike McCabe, who’s been a huge influence on this column and much other “small d” democratic work across the state and nation. In April, Mike announced that his fifteen year run as Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) would come to an end at the close of the year. I’ve known Mike for most of those fifteen years, during which time I’ve had the opportunity to interview him on television and radio.

WDC is most known for maintaining a user friendly database of campaign contributions received by partisan politicians across the state. I’ve consulted that data often, along with WDC’s eye-opening reports highlighting the connection between big money and public policy. WDC played an important role in advocating for the creation of an independent nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) that took the power of enforcing ethics code violations away from partisan hacks inclined toward sweeping ethical lapses under the rug. Not surprisingly, the Republican legislature is now threatening to eliminate the GAB or curtail its power significantly. 

McCabe may be stepping down from the WDC, but he’ll remain active in the movement to reform democracy. His recently released book Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics (Little Creek Press) reads like a manifesto for the “politically homeless” who are tired of having to settle, in election cycle after election cycle, for lesser evilism. 
McCabe’s manifesto is part history, part diagnosis of our political ills, and part organizing manual; kind of like a rabble rouser recipe calling for a half-cup of Fighting Bob LaFollette, two heaping tablespoons of Thomas Paine, and a dash of Saul Alinsky. The history part is what I think makes Blue Jeans in High Places ultimately an optimistic, hopeful book. In McCabe’s words: “We face nothing that hasn’t been faced – and defeated – before. Right on this soil. Defeated by people who had so much less going for them than we do now.”
A great example of our ancestors’ staring down greed and corruption concerns the now tourist trap city of Wisconsin Dells. I heard Mike tell this story at a Fighting Bob Fest gathering some years ago, and was thrilled to see it recounted in Blue Jeans (chapter 17: Hidden Treasure). In 1857 the territory that later became the Dells was named “Kilbourn” after Milwaukee railroad baron Byron Kilbourn, in need of land to build a railroad but not wanting to compensate land owners, bribed 13 senators, 59 members of the assembly  and Governor Coles Bashford (who owned a house in Oshkosh). Kilbourn got the legislature and governor to condemn the land and give it to him in a land grant. Only one senator, “Honest” Amasa Cobb, refused to take a bribe. A crusading journalist named Stephen Decatur Carpenter exposed the corruption and sparked a citizen revolt, leading to the defeat of Bashford. McCabe notes that “by the time Carpenter died several decades later, Wisconsin had enacted some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, giving birth to my state’s reputation for squeaky clean politics. For more than a century that followed, Wisconsin was known from coast to coast as a beacon of clean, open and honest government.”

There are a few parts of Blue Jeans I might quibble with. Writing about the Republicans and Democrats, McCabe argues that “we have one party that is scary and another that is scared.” I think that’s actually too charitable a description of the Democrats, and would argue instead that we have one party that has BAD ideas and another that has NO ideas. Neither party right now has BIG ideas. Democrats are presumably less scared in states where they hold huge majorities (e.g. California and New York), yet we see few bold policy initiatives in those places that might inspire Democrats in other states. As former Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb once said, “the Democratic Party is where progressive ideas go to die."

That leads to my second quibble. McCabe accepts the establishment mantra that votes for third parties are “wasted” or “spoiler” votes. He thinks we need a “first party insurgency.” My experience, for what it’s worth, has been that third party activism (a) creates a space for the development of BIG ideas and (b) helps bring together what Margaret Mead called the “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” that is the only force that has ever really changed the world.

Those quibbles are minor. For his many contributions toward promoting democracy and the common good, Mike McCabe is the 2014 TONY Award recipient. 

Previous TONY Award columns: 2002,   2003, 2004, 20052006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013