Media Rants: Inside Looking Out
by Tony Palmeri
Shortly after moving to Oshkosh in 1989 to teach at the university, a student asked me to grade the local media’s reporting on local politics. I gave them an “F,” and explained that corporate newspaper, radio and television coverage of influential people featured shallow, incomplete and biased coverage favoring establishment interests.
Rather than bitch and whine, I followed a path punk rocker Jello Biafra later referred to as “Don’t hate the media, be the media.” Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I helped produce and host independent television and radio public affairs programs along with a blog and this column.
In 2007 the path took a detour when I was elected to the Oshkosh Common Council. For the first time I’d have the opportunity to evaluate media from an “insider” perspective. In April of this year I lost the election for the office of Oshkosh Mayor and decided not to run for another Council term, so I’m an “outsider” again.
But I want to reflect on those four insider years. Bob McChesney’s great 1999 book Rich Media, Poor Democracy argued that in a Democracy, journalism has three major roles: accounting of people in power, diversity of opinion, and fact checking. From an insider’s perspective, what grade do I give the local mainstream media on each role?
Let’s start with the worst, television. In four years on the Council, the only stories that piqued the interest of TV news producers were those featuring nasty neighborhood conflicts, like controversies over deer culling or building a Muslim mosque. Modern TV “journalists” in smaller markets like the Fox Valley are usually charming and pleasant, but seem incapable of exploring anything in depth and appear to have zero interest in critical issues affecting the health of cities (e.g. budget intricacies, bureaucratic incompetence) that do not produce great visuals for the TV screen. Just awful.TV grades:
Accounting of People in Power: F
Diversity of Opinion: F
Fact Checking: F
Radio’s only marginally better. In many cities a locally originated talk radio call in program becomes a way for public officials to feel the pulse of the people, and also helps keeps them accountable. Charlie Sykes plays that role effectively on the Right in Milwaukee, and John “Sly” Sylvester does it well on the Left in Madison. Oshkosh has no local call in for politics, while syndicated call in programs tend to be nothing more than wingnut bloviation.
Commercial radio these days dedicates limited resources to local reporting. Consequently, listeners get little insight about local government actions. Bob Burnell’s “Morning News Focus” on WOSH occasionally challenges local officials to defend a position, and at least he does provide a discussion forum. But overall, radio’s mostly a non-entity when it comes to playing a meaningful role in building a healthy Democracy. What a waste of air. Radio grades:
Accountability of People in Power: F
Diversity of Opinion: D
Fact Checking: F
In Oshkosh, print media’s dominated by Gannett’s Oshkosh Northwestern. They have very little competition (the UW Oshkosh Advance-Titan, for example, did not cover the race for Oshkosh Mayor even though both candidates were campus professors!). That’s unfortunate because profit-driven print media have minimal motivation to pursue high standards of journalistic and editorial excellence when they are the only game in town.
The Northwestern does a decent job, in reporting and editorially, on open government issues. But other than that they exist essentially as establishment cheerleaders. Almost every thinking adult in Oshkosh senses the pull of a deeply entrenched old boy network in the way the city is managed and in the underperforming patterns of economic development, yet the press is just not willing or able to crack that nut with the rigor or persistence that could win them a Pulitzer Prize.
In my four years on the Council I never refused a request to talk to Northwestern journalists, and often had lengthy conversations with them in which I offered facts and opinions that ran counter to the establishment view of the issue at hand. Most of that would not make it into the paper, of course, due to what one reporter once communicated to me as a problem of “getting my vetters to accept this.” By “vetters,” he meant the old boys protecting the old boys. Surely not unique to Oshkosh, but not any less frustrating because of that. Newspaper grades:
Accountability of People in Power: D
Diversity of Opinion: C
Fact Checking: C
What about alternative media like blogs, public access television, and social media like Facebook and Twitter? At their best, newer media challenge business as usual while providing information and viewpoints the mainstream press can’t or won’t go near. At their worst, they are little more than hyper partisan forums for misinformation and (often anonymous) cheap shots.
There are too many alternatives to grade as a group, but for me the most valuable was and is Main Street Oshkosh (mainstreetoshkosh.com). That site kept me accountable during my elected official insider days NOT by insults or questioning my integrity, but by pushing me to become better informed.
From the inside looking out, mainstream journalism turned out to be as subpar as I thought it was from the outside looking in. Inside or out, I’ll keep doing my best to raise the media bar.