Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Media Rants: Earth Day at 40

The column below will appear in the April edition of The SCENE. --TP

Earth Day At 40

By Tony Palmeri

On April 22 Earth Day, the brainchild and legacy of the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, celebrates its 40th birthday. With the word “sustainability” now part of everyday speech, and with record numbers of people seeking “green” options on everything from appliances to food choices, one could say that the Earth Day ethic of environmental preservation prevailed. On the other hand, corporate “greenwashing” and the generally awful state of big media reporting on the science and fact of global climate change do not inspire confidence that Earth Day will enjoy a robust middle age.

Which is not to say that big media were much better in 1970. Earth Day coverage generally sucked. Bill Christofferson’s excellent biography The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) summarizes the national print media mood of the time

“The nation’s news media were uncertain what to make of Earth Day. Newsweek was bemused, and somewhat dismissive, calling Earth Day ‘a bizarre nationwide rain dance’ and the nation’s ‘biggest street festival since the Japanese surrendered in 1945.’ Time said the day ‘had aspects of a secular, almost pagan holiday…’ The question, Newsweek asked, was ‘whether the whole uprising represented a giant step forward for contaminated Earthmen or just a springtime skipalong.’ The event lacked the passion of antiwar and civil rights movements, Newsweek said, and the issues were so unfocused as to give rise to ‘the kind of nearly unanimous blather usually reserved for the flag.’ Time said the real question was whether the movement was a fad or could sustain the interest and commitment it would take to bring about real change. ‘Was it all a passing fancy…?’ The New York Times asked in a morning-after editorial, then answered its own question: ‘We think not. Conservation is a cause … whose time has come because life is running out. Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.’ . . .”

Northeast Wisconsin print media weren’t as dismissive, though certainly did not heavily promote Earth Day events. On April 21, 1970 the Oshkosh Northwestern had this announcement buried on page 4:

Will Air Teachin (sic)

The university radio station, WRST, will provide extensive coverage of the environmental teachin (sic) Wednesday. The station will carry programs live from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will also broadcast a kickoff speech tonight at 7.

We can excuse the Northwestern copy editor for not knowing how to express “teach-in,” but they couldn’t see fit to announce the speakers or panels? The paper did present two good editorials on April 22: “Everyone Can Help” and “Man Faces Extinction.” The former said that “Today the bell is sounding. Hopefully everyone will take up the challenge.”

The afternoon Northwestern of April 22 carried an above the fold story headlined “Condition of Environment ‘Sad Commentary’ on Man.” Turns out that the Earth Day keynote speaker at the Wisconsin State University Oshkosh was Dr. James Flannery, Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. Flannery told the audience that “the condition of the environment is a sad commentary on man’s stewardship,” and that “this period in history may well be regarded as the period of conscience.”

Below the fold the paper chose to print correspondent Sarah McClendon’s “Nelson has some Earth Day Doubts.” That story was part of a nationwide press trend to place Senator Nelson on the defensive by forcing him to respond to inanities suggesting, for example, that April 22 was chosen for the celebration because it was the commie V.I Lenin’s birthday.

The Neenah/Menasha edition of the Northwestern actually had some of the best pre-Earth Day reporting in 1970. On April 20, the paper announced some of the UW Fox “Survival 70’s” events. They announced the participants in a panel called “Problems of Pollution in the Fox Cities.” The paper also presented fair treatment of the efforts of UWGB and UW-Fox Valley students to launch a petition drive to amend the Wisconsin Constitution. They even printed the proposed amendment language:

“The people have a right to a clean and healthy environment and this right has priority over any use of the environment for private or public purposes. To secure and maintain this right there shall be an immediate, permanent and continuous end to any degradation of the environment by individuals, public agencies, and private corporations or individuals.”

The amendment never found its way to the Constitution, but students at more than 75 Wisconsin colleges, universities, and tech schools were rallied to the cause.

Student environmental activism was actively encouraged by Senator Nelson and Earth Day national coordinator Denis Hayes. Wisconsin responded enthusiastically and with much idealism. At WSU Oshkosh, weekly programs were held from February until the April event. At Stevens Point, April 21-23 was called “Project Survival.”

At the Oshkosh campus, the “Environmental Crisis Organization” was chaired by Harley Christensen (who was also the first News Director at WRST). On Earth Day 1970 the Northwestern quoted him as saying something that still holds today: “We have a moral obligation to air . . . to the water, the land, and the generations to come.”

Happy Earth Day.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

TIF Standards

Due to a bout with pneumonia, I missed the city council meeting last night.

Former councilor Kevin McGee wrote a great commentary for the NWestern on TIF standards (or the lack thereof) in Oshkosh. Money quote:

Without standards, without strict rules identifying what TIF money can and cannot be used for, we're easy marks. If you were a developer or an expanding business, and you knew you could extort a few grand from the public coffers to improve your bottom line, you'd do it too, wouldn't you? Of course you would. Unless of course you had ethical principles, a sense of public spiritedness, a belief in asking what you can do for your country, or something nonsensical like that. Not much risk of that happening around here.

Too bad that commentary didn't appear before the council's vote on the Oshkosh Corp TIF proposal. The corporate press had no interest in looking at the matter seriously; perhaps McGee's commentary could have influenced the vote outcome. We'll never know.

Monday, March 15, 2010

New Politics Site

Launched by Milwaukee Magazine, and called MilwaukeeNewsBuzz. Seems like a clearinghouse for mainstream reporting and commentary from around the state.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunshine Week 2010: March 14-20

A Scripps poll conducted for Sunshine Week shows that the majority of Americans do not believe that the federal government has become more open under President Obama:

A new survey of 1,001 adult residents of the United States found that 70 percent believe that the federal government is either “very secretive” or “somewhat secretive.” The largest portion of respondents, 44 percent, said it is “very secretive.”

That matches the worst rating the federal government received during the final year of George W. Bush's presidency.

Surprisingly, people believe that local government is somewhat more open. In response to the question, "Is your local government open or secretive?" 60 percent said "somewhat or very open." 36 percent said "somewhat or very secretive."

The Oshkosh Northwestern on Friday rightly took the Oshkosh Common Council to task for not being more forthcoming in our assessment of City Manager Mark Rohloff.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

UW Madison Student Rips Feingold For Oshkosh Corp. Support

I don't agree with everything that UW Madison student Steve Horn says in this op-ed piece about Senator Feingold's support for Oshkosh Corporation. What I like about the piece, however, is the fact that Mr. Horn is still at the point in his life where he has not accepted that political reality in this country involves hard-to-dismantle old boys networks, a corporate press that enables those old fellers, and sell-out politicians who go along for the ride. For young Mr. Horn, something like the "military industrial complex" actually means something; it's more than a punch line to a Jon Stewart joke. Money quote:

Many more productive jobs for society, which are much less deadly, could be created with the money we spend on waging war, so the argument that to oppose Oshkosh Corp. is to oppose Wisconsin workers doesn’t hold its weight in a debate. With that same money we could employ people to build a national rail line that would help save the environment; we could be putting more money into improving our schools and paying teachers higher salaries; we could be opening factories to mass-produce electric cars. The point is, there are few jobs less productive and more dangerous for society than working for a war contractor, and those same bodies could be used to do things that actually enhance humanity rather than diminish it.

Horn's essay does suggest an interesting question: in the (unlikely as it may seem now) event that genuine peace breaks out in the world, what are we going to do with the war infrastructure that we've created? We just spent lots of time and energy figuring out a way to give Oshkosh Corp. 5 million bucks. Perhaps we should be spending some time trying to figure out what to do when we come to the realization that war economy just isn't sustainable.