Monday, July 06, 2015

Media Rants: Educating for the Public Sphere

Educating for the Public Sphere

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the July 2015 edition of the SCENE
A majority of American adults avoid participation in public discussion of issues. Given that so much of what passes for public discourse is infected with the twin poisons of prepackaged partisan talking points and mindless put downs of opposing views, avoidance behavior should not be surprising.

Unfortunately, citizen withdrawal from the public sphere has real consequences. When uncontested bad ideas dominate, policy makers feel empowered to make them into law.The fact that the 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined is a testament to the power of narrow monied interests to get “reverse Robin Hood” economic policy ideas taken seriously.

How can people become more engaged in solving the problems caused by an unhealthy public sphere? Clearly education has to be part of the solution. As a teacher in a Department of Communication at UW Oshkosh that states as its mission helping students to “find their voice,” I am always looking for ways to encourage public engagement. The rest of this rant describes a Seminar I taught in the spring of this year designed to provide students with some tools necessary to analyze and evaluate discourse in the public sphere, and hopefully “raise the bar” for such discourse when choosing to enter that sphere themselves.
The Seminar was called “Rhetoric in Action.” At the most basic level, rhetoric is the “art of persuasion.” The goal in the course was to expose students to writers in the public sphere for whom persuasion is the major purpose for writing. Newspaper op-ed writers represent probably the best example of the kind of persuaders I had in mind, so I assigned each of the 22 enrolled students a writer that they followed all semester. The assigned writers were Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, FrankBruni, Gail Collins, and Ross Douthat of the New York Times; Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald; Dana Milbank, Eugene Robinson, Kathleen Parker, Katrina vandenHeuvel, Jennifer Rubin, Richard Cohen, E.J.Dionne, Jr., GeorgeWill, and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post; Meghan Daum and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times; Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of; and John Nichols of the Madison Capital Times.

My main criteria in selecting the writers were: (1) the writer needed to be engaged consistently in writing about major public policy issues, (2) the writer needed to write for a mainstream source, and (3) the writer needed to have a substantial following. Obviously many writers meet those criteria, so I tried to arrive at a balance of liberal, moderate, and conservative voices. My own familiarity with the 22 writers was also a consideration; knowing about the writers in advance made it easier for me to determine if students were representing them accurately in their assigned papers for the course. 
The course textbook was The Rhetorical Act:Thinking, Speaking, and Writing Critically by professors Karlyn Campbell, Susan Huxman, and Thomas Burkholder. The writers conceptualize a successful rhetorical act as one that employs the resources of evidence, argument, organization, and language to overcome challenges making persuasion difficult. Those challenges arise from audience (they often misinterpret messages and are resistant to change), subject and purpose (subjects can be complex and saying yes to the purpose might cost too much), and the rhetor him or herself (a writer’s prior reputation might get in the way of accepting his or her current argument).

Students wrote many short papers analyzing how their assigned writer tried to overcome specific rhetorical challenges, leading to wonderful classroom discussions about public issues and the manner in which mainstream writers frame them. As the semester went on most seemed to be disturbed by how little the writers address issues of concern to young people; debt, lack of enough good paying jobs, and the environment to name just three examples. I found myself reminding them frequently that the answer was simple: write and speak about the issues you care about. Make a commitment to the public sphere. 

The final assignment was a lengthy paper requiring the student to evaluate his or her assigned writer based on artistic quality, effectiveness, accuracy, and/or ethics. These were some of the most intelligent and enjoyable papers I’ve read in a while. A good number of students were drawn to the ethical standard, which looks favorably on rhetoric that promotes social harmony and unfavorably on that which promotes discord. One student told me that a website would be more valuable than politiFact. I told her she should start it.

As a result of this course, one student was motivated to publish his own op-ed (on the topic of student debt) for the student Advance Titan newspaper. Another submitted her final paper (arguing that the NYT’s Frank Bruni weds a sense of comic, tragic, and history like a modern Shakespeare) to the Oshkosh Scholar journal of student scholarship.

Like the majority of liberal arts courses offered at the UW, “Rhetoric in Action” provided students with a meaningful opportunity to think critically about civic responsibility. Such opportunities make it more likely that graduates will pay critical attention to what is going on in Madison and Washington. Perhaps that is why so many politicians want to reduce the UW mission to mere concern with job skills.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Mom and (Me)dia

Mom and (Me)dia

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri 

From the June 2015 edition of The SCENE  

My dear mom Gertrude “Trudy” Palmeri passed away on May 11, 2015 at the age of 79. She and my Korean War vet dad Frank would have been married 60 years (!) in October. All but the last two years of her life were lived in the borough of Brooklyn, NY. She was an Italian-Catholic  Brooklynite in the most honorable sense:  heart as big as the borough, fiercely protective of her immediate family, charmingly blunt and witty, and proud of her accent. Oh how I will miss the accent that typically left me feeling nostalgic during our phone conversations; conversations that always started with “yeah Ant, howya doin?” and ended with “alright I’ll letcha’  go, Love you.” (I don’t think my mom ever called me Tony. It was “Ant” from day one.).
Trudy Palmeri was not an activist in the traditional sense. She did not organize or otherwise participate in rallies, she did not lobby public officials (though she rarely missed voting in elections), and she did not make her political views widely known. And yet there was something remarkably motivational about her. I think it had much to do with the fact that she would much rather “walk the walk” when it came to some core values that the so-called activists love to TALK about. So for example, for Trudy Palmeri “family values” was more than a bullet point in a Madison Ave. set of talking points constructed for some political phony. For Trudy, family values were a lifestyle of unconditional love for those closest to her. Family values meant being there in body and spirit during the good times and bad, always ready to lend helping hands and supportive hugs. My two brothers and I became respectable members of society by having the good fortune of being in the daily presence of a role model of human decency. The world might be a kinder, more loving place if everyone had the benefit of being raised by someone who walks that walk.

If you think about it, a child’s parents are in a real sense the first “media” that she or he is exposed to. Scholars traditionally think of mass media as serving four major functions: communicating news, encouraging us to interpret the news in a certain way, communicating lifestyle values, and entertainment. Parents do all of that in ways that leave long lasting impressions on their children.
Without exaggeration, I’d say that pretty much every value that has guided my life is a direct result of being raised in my parents’ “Palmeri Today” show, which ran 24/7 growing up. Every day on that show the “news” featured acts of gratitude, caregiving, and patience, with an overarching sense of love controlling the scene. When I think of why I ultimately became a teacher, I’m sure it had everything to do with exposure to the Palmeri Today show values. Mom especially went out of her way to keep her own ego in check so as to be in a better position to recognize the accomplishments of others, an approach toward life that all teachers reading this will recognize as key to success in our profession.

Here’s an example of how she walked that walk: It was the 4th of July 1983, and young Dave Righetti of the New York Yankees was pitching against the hated Boston Red Sox on an extremely hot 90-plus degree day at Yankee Stadium.  Righetti no-hit the Sox that day, striking out the great Wade Boggs to end the game. A no-hitter had not been pitched at Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen hurled a perfect game in the 1956 World Series.  The next day I got home from my summer bank teller job and saw mom at the dining room table writing a letter. On the table was the New York Daily News with Righetti on the cover and “A no-Hit Fourth” headline. Mom explained that she was writing Dave Righetti to congratulate him. I remember we had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: “Mom, I know it was exciting and all, but it’s just a game. He probably won’t see your letter anyway.”

Mom: (sounding disappointed in my attitude). “No Ant, not just a game. That’s a no-hitter. That’s big. And Righetti is Italian!” 
Years later she laughed and sounded pleased when I informed her that Dave Righetti was inducted into the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame.

In my teaching career I’ve always made it a point to write students brief notes of appreciation when they do something above and beyond required expectations. Each time I’ve done it I’ve had the vision of mom writing that letter to Dave Righetti.

In August of 1983 I left New York to go to graduate school. Mom cried like a baby the day I left; she said that what really got the tears flowing was a trinket a friend had given me that said “teacher.” She comforted herself with the belief that I would impress the teachers at Central Michigan University.
On May 11 I cried like a baby when mom left. I experience comfort from the belief that when she met the greatest teacher of all in the afterlife, S/HE gave Trudy Palmeri an A+ for a life well lived.

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 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.