Sunday, February 28, 2010

March Media Rant: Jo Egelhoff Reviews the Post-Crescent

Last month at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA), the Appleton Post-Crescent (PC) was named the state's “Daily Newspaper of the Year” in the WNA’s Better Newspaper Contest. Judges from the Illinois Press Association said this about the PC:

“The Post-Crescent is everything a great newspaper can and should be . . . The Post-Crescent is a champion of the communities it serves, as both a watchdog of local government and a fundraiser for those in need. Readers in Appleton and the Fox Cities have to know that their daily newspaper has tremendous heart and is, very likely, one of the best of its circulation size in America.”

Those remarks struck me as grossly inflated, but not being a regular PC reader I’m not in the best position to know. So I asked former Appleton Common Councilor Jo Egelhoff, publisher of the TONY Award winning site, what she thought of the PC. [Note: For purposes of space I had to edit some of Jo’s responses for the print edition of The SCENE; the unedited interview follows below.]

Media Rants: The WNA Better Newspaper contest judges say the following about the Post-Crescent:

"The Post-Crescent is everything a great newspaper can and should be. Each section is filled with local news and advertising and offers a great variety of storytelling, from indepth series on important topics such as domestic abuse to well-thought opinions on the state budget crunch to fun lifestyle stories told in graphic form without a lick of text . .. The Post-Crescent is a champion of the communities it serves, as both a watchdog of local government and a fundraiser for those in need. Readers in Appleton and the Fox Cities have to know that their daily newspaper has tremendous heart and is, very likely, one of the best of its circulation size in America."

Do you agree with the gist of that statement? Specifically, would you call the PC a "community champion" and "local government watchdog?"

Egelhoff: A community champion? Perhaps. But a local government watchdog? No, that’s a reach. The Post-Crescent is the kind of cozy hometown newspaper that will drive serious readers to, where they can find serious policy and politics news from the Fox Valley and throughout Wisconsin. I see the Post-Crescent like a 3 Musketeers bar – fluffy on the inside and not real stuffy, leaving an appetite for real news.

Media Rants: You served on the Appleton Common Council for quite a few years. During that time, did the Post-Crescent in your judgment provide accurate, fair, and complete coverage of issues facing the city? Did you sense that the paper was playing a rigorous watchdog role?

Egelhoff: Accurate, yes. And yes, most often “fair” if that means they include two sides of a story. Complete? No. A rigorous watchdog role? No.

A good example is the Appleton water plant. I called foul on it almost from the beginning. (Here’s just one of the several blogs I did on the subject.) I asked the Post-Crescent to report on it, bringing them a stack of supporting evidence. Finally, with a third or fourth request, a second alderperson accompanying me, P/C editors and the P/C’s Council reporter on hand, the P/C finally agreed to look into it – and subsequently did quite an expose'.

Then there’s the story of what was then termed the “Co-Gen” – a $2 million boondoggle that two of us objected to repeatedly with quality documentation at Council, and ultimately took to the Post-Crescent. Not a thing was done. Two months after this $2 million white elephant was up and running it was shut down by the Finance Director as not being cost efficient. Unbelievable.

Today, the P/C doesn’t have the time or money or inclination to dig into critical issues, such as:
  • Does it make sense for the city to contract out asphalt paving – or to own its own paver?
  • Why did the City of Appleton’s 2010 tax levy not increase as much as surrounding municipalities? (Not because they decreased spending – but because a large TIF was brought back on the tax roles.)
  • How do public employee benefits compare with comparable private sector benefits? How do wages compare?
  • How do the City of Appleton’s 3% increases in 2009 and 2010 compare with increases (or more likely decreases) in compensation in private sector jobs?
  • Exactly what do school district salaries and benefits look like? If school district employees’ compensation was frozen, would that allow for keeping more teachers, keeping class sizes from growing?
  • What do experts think about the $2 million of contributions every year needed to supplement earned income at the Performing Arts Center (PAC)? What do experts think about the compensation package of the PAC’s Executive Director? What is the compensation for the E.D. of this large and significant 501(c)(3) in our community (well over $250K)? What do experts think about an unusual $36,700,000 mortgage carried on the PAC building, that isn’t being paid off (payment terms are a highly unusual interest-only requirement through 2035)? Is the PAC using endowment or reserve funds to fund annual operations?

Media Rants: What critical issues, if any, do you feel are not getting the right amount of coverage in the PC?

Egelhoff: Several specific examples are mentioned above. Public spending, budgets and public sector compensation packages and settlements could be looked into in further detail. This is critical information for taxpayers – and time consuming stuff; that kind of time is seemingly just not available at the Post-Crescent. Or a series on accountability – what are the standards set up for a specific department or sub-department and are those standards being met? The City of Appleton has clearly defined standards – what of other municipalities – do they even have standards and whether or not they do, how is accountability carried out? How about campaigning for putting a city or county’s checkbook on line? Cook County just did it. Public spending vs. contracting out. The cost to Appleton and indeed, of the Fox Cities, to comply with water quality and quantity NR 151 regs. Or how about questioning a Kagen news release once in a blue moon?
(Larry Bivins, covering D.C., does an ok job, digging effectively occasionally, but doesn’t necessarily aspire to greatness; doesn’t probe or aim to stretch minds. Ben Jones, Gannett’s (and USA Today’s) man in Madison, has done some helpful investigative work.)

Media Rants: What is your general opinion of the PC editorials? Are they well informed and fair?

Egelhoff: The P/C’s editorials are informed enough to sound well-informed, but don’t often challenge readers to think and understand. The editorials are mushier than I like to read, never hard-hitting and stay away from those very controversial, tough issues. More often than not, it’s 3 Musketeers stuff.

“Fair” isn’t an adjective I use for editorials. Accurate, informative, in-depth, convincing. Teach me something, in 400 words or less.

Media Rants: What would you like to see the PC do that it is currently not doing?

Egelhoff: You’ve hit it – and I’ve referenced it – I’d like to see the PC be a watchdog for us taxpayers, a serious questioner. Dedicate a reporter to local government, preferably someone with some first-hand government experience. I know that can be hard, the newspaper business and budgets being what they are, but the P/C needs an insider who can pull news out from between the toes of local government.

Media Rants: Your own media activism requires you to be familiar with many newspapers across the state. Which ones, in your judgment, are the best?

Egelhoff: Understandably, the most frequent in-depth work is done by the Journal-Sentinel, with the largest circulation in the state. It’s lamentable that the J/S is no longer delivered on weekdays in the Fox Valley, though is available delivered on Sundays and at newsstands during the week. The news from the State Journal is ok, though skimpier, less inquiring than from the Journal Sentinel. Sean Ryan and Paul Snyder at The Daily Reporter do thorough work.

The editorials that come out of the Journal Sentinel editorial board are more fluff than stuff. I like the editorial sensibilities at the Beloit Daily News. The Tomah Journal and Racine Journal Times have written some surprisingly thoughtful editorials in the past year – and the Cap Times, left-leaning or not, does a good job calling ‘em as it sees ‘em.

Media Rants: Many thanks to Jo Egelhoff for taking the time to respond to the questions. Be sure to sign up for Jo’s daily news alert at

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sunlight and the Health Care Summit

Kudos to the Sunlight Foundation for their brilliant live coverage of today's White House Health Care Summit. As each wealthy special interest sycophant (i.e. elected members of the US Congress) speaks, the Foundation reveals what financial interests are in their campaign accounts. Excellent.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I'll be on Week in Review Tomorrow

AnnAlthouse and I will be on Wisconsin Public Radio's "Week in Review" tomorrow from 8-9 a.m. Questions/comments can be called in at 1-800-642-1234 or email:

Monday, February 01, 2010

Censored in 2009, Part 2

Censored in 2009, Part 2

Media Rants


Tony Palmeri

Last month I identified half of the top ten stories that were underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored by local and state corporate media in 2009.

Now the top 5:

No. 5: Oshkosh Grand Opera House Repairs: No Thinking Allowed. When the city of Oshkosh restored the historic Grand Opera House in the early 1980s, costs were spread out among city taxpayers, federal funds, private donations, and foundation grants. Because of the lease terms agreed to by the Oshkosh Common Council in the 80s and rubber stamped by subsequent councils, Oshkosh taxpayers cover repair costs over $1,000. That’s an extremely uncommon method of funding repairs; historic arts houses similar to the Grand (e.g. Baraboo’s Al Ringling Theatre, Wausau’s Grand Theater, Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatere, Viroqua’s Temple Theater, the Kenosha Theater, Menomonie’s Mabel Tainter Theater) rely mostly on private, corporate, and foundation funding.

Last summer the Oshkosh Common Council approved $1.8 million dollars for roof repairs. Coverage and editorializing by Gannett’s Oshkosh Northwestern was incomplete, under researched, intolerant of different points of view, and unwilling to consider that the current ownership model is not sustainable or suitable to guarantee the Grand’s long term health. Reporter Patricia Wolff’s tepid story on ownership issues appeared a week after the repair vote, greatly limiting the story’s value. The lesson? When Gannett has to choose between responsible journalism and protecting ad clients (in this case the Opera House Foundation), the ad clients will prevail every time.

No. 4: Oshkosh Corp. TIF: Gannett Mocks Press Watchdog Role. Gannett’s “Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms” are worthless. Still, the corporation claims that “We will be vigilant watchdogs of government and institutions that affect the public.” In 2009, the Oshkosh Corporation announced a request for taxpayer assistance from Oshkosh citizens in the form of tax incremental financing. Gannett won’t ask difficult questions about the request or Oshkosh Corp’s financial health. When I pointed this out at a December 22 common council meeting, the Oshkosh Northwestern’s managing editor responded with a piece of inane pettiness that mindlessly lampooned citizens involved in a serious neighborhood dispute with the Oshkosh Corp that threatens their home values and safety. Worse, he actually mocked Gannett’s own watchdog principle: “We’re just watchdoggin’ it, you know.”

No. 3: Health Care Reform: Misinformation and No Medicare For All Coverage. Good reasons exist to oppose Barack Obama’s health insurance reform scheme. The idea that the president is proposing a “government takeover” of health care is NOT one of them. Indeed, Obama’s plan would force at least 30 million Americans to purchase insurance from private, for profit corporations; the exact opposite of a government takeover. A single-payer, Medicare for all proposal exists in the House of Representatives and Senate, yet insurance lobby controlled “leaders” refuse to give it a fear hearing, and the corporate press are all too ready to sweep the measure under the table. Throughout 2009 mass media eagerly covered tea party shouting matches, yet the arrest of nine citizens at New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office while rallying in support of Medicare for all received scant coverage.

No. 2: Outsourcing Wisconsin. In 2004 the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign revealed that the state was paying huge sums of money to engineering giant HNTB in spite of the fact that state workers formally did the same work for a fraction of the cost. You’d think that since then the state’s media would do a better job of monitoring outsourcing in return for campaign contributions, right? Wrong. Even though a study showed engineering work done in-house by state DOT workers was 18% less expensive that the outsourced work, the outsourcing continues without any public accountability. The Democracy Campaign’s Mike McCabe told me that a source inside the Department of Transportation claims that the feds have registered a complaint about the level of outsourcing in Wisconsin. Federal funds might be in jeopardy if the state doesn’t address this. The remodeling of Highway 41 in northeast Wisconsin provides local media with a golden opportunity in 2010 to do some Pulitzer Prize worthy reports on outsourcing.

No. 1: Obama’s Bush-Lite Foreign Policy. Mainstream media insist Barack Obama is committed to softening the War on Terror. A contrary view comes from Glenn Greenwald, author of Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics. He told Amy Goodman that Obama talks a good game while continuing Bush’s policies:

But despite that rhetoric . . . the same policies are being continued. So we’re closing Guantanamo at some point, but we’re shifting the very indefinite detention scheme and military commission scheme that caused such controversy simply to a new location. And although he talks about how air strikes enflame that part of the world, he has escalated air strikes not just in Afghanistan but in whole new countries . . . and in Pakistan especially . . . I think what you see is that he is afraid to or unwilling to challenge the orthodoxies of the intelligence community, of the Pentagon, of the lobbyists and industry interests that have long run Washington. And so, whether his intentions are good, whether he has a purer heart, these things are impossible to know, but they’re really irrelevant. The reality is that the same dynamic continues.