Monday, May 04, 2015

Media Rants: Sports Journalism Sucks


Sports Journalism Sucks

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the May 2015 edition of the SCENE 

Mainstream American journalism, as the Media Rants column has been ranting about for more than 12 years, occasionally meets standards of excellence but more typically runs on a spectrum from mediocre to insanely bad. Political journalism is probably the worst of the lot (too often it meets Joseph Goebbels’ definition of the press as “a great keyboard on which the government can play”) with science and business reporting tied for second. That CareerCast recently ranked “newspaper reporter” as the worst job of 2015 (#200 out of 200), with “broadcaster” coming in at #196 is no excuse.

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.

Chris 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 similar. 

Kris 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.

The 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 Fainaru-Wada’s 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.

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 wisconsinwatch.org website is outstanding. I’m a
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? 

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 palmeri.tony@gmail.com 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

MEDIA RANTS

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 (mattbors.com), Tom Tomorrow (thismodernworld.com), Ted Rall (rall.com), Jen Sorenson (jensorensen.com), Matt Wuerker (politico.com/wuerker), Ruben Bolling (gocomics.com/tomthedancingbug), Joe Sacco (google “Sacco’s response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks”), Lalo Alcaraz (gocomics.com/laloalcaraz), Stephanie McMillan (stephaniemcmillan.org), and Wisconsin’s Mike Konopacki (huckkonopackicartoons.com).  Matt Bors created “The Nib” (medium.com/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. (cartoonistsrights.org).