Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Media Rants: The Proud History of Wasted Votes

The Proud History of Wasted Votes 

Media Rants 

by Tony Palmeri

Note: An audio version of this column can be found here

Last month in Houston the Green Party nominated Dr.Jill Stein and human rights activist Ajamu Baraka as their candidates for president and vice-president. Given that I’d once run for state office as a Green, Wisconsin Public Radio invited me to spend an hour on the network to talk about the role of third parties in 2016. Predictably, the issue of voting for a third party being a spoiler or wasted vote came up. The idea that we only have two choices in elections, and that every other choice is worthless is so deeply ingrained and intoxicating that even brilliant people who show know better like NYU scholar Clay Shirky fall for it. He says: “The system is set up so that every choice other than ‘R’ or ‘D’ boils down to ‘I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens.’ It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.” Wow, how brilliant. Bet you never thought of that before.

Shirky and others are correct of course that major party candidates will probably always win the presidential election. But does he seriously believe that third party votes are nothing more than deference to the judgement of major party voters; i.e. wasted votes? If so, that’s an absurd position reflecting a profound misunderstanding of the historic role of third parties in America as both symbols of resistance to corruption AND as advocates for public policy ideas that (when we are lucky) the major parties eventually take up. Kevin Zeese believes third party candidates are often "democracy heroes," a view I have much sympathy for.  Examples:

In 1844 the major party candidates were Whig Henry Clay and Democrat James Polk. Clay was the “lesser evil” because unlike Polk he was hesitant to call for annexation of the Republic of Texas, a position that would inevitably lead to war with Mexico. Significantly, both Clay and Polk were slave owners. That year James Birney ran on the Liberty Party ticket on a strict abolition of slavery platform, sixteen years before the start of the Civil War.


Did Birney voters waste their votes?

In 1892 the Democrats and Republicans fielded two mediocrities: Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. That year the new Populist Party nominated James Weaver who ran on a platform that boldly called out the major parties complicity in enabling the corrupt capitalism of the time: “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.”

Did Weaver voters waste their votes?

In 1920 women could for the first time vote for president in all of the states. What were their establishment party choices? Republicans nominated lightweight Warren Harding who urged a “return to normalcy” after the tumultuous World War I years. Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox, a man who supported many progressive causes but caved in to the anti-immigrant sentiment of the time and endorsed the “Ake Law” which banned the teaching of German in the schools. He said that teaching German was “a distinct menace to Americanism.”

In 1920 the Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president from the prison cell where he was serving time for speaking out against the war. He received over 900,000 votes, a dramatic symbol of resistance to the establishment’s war on the Constitution.



Did Debs’ voters waste their votes?  

In 1924 Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob LaFollette ran an inspiring third party campaign against Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis (a Democrat who supported the “separate but equal” doctrine that kept the schools segregated). LaFollette stood against child labor, for progressive taxation, and for a wealth of additional measures we today either take for granted or still have not got to.



Did LaFollette’s voters waste their votes?

In 1948 another Progressive, former Vice-President (serving under FDR from 1940-144) Henry Wallace, challenged Democrat Harry Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey, and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. Wallace earned less than 3 percent of the national vote, but his campaign courageously called for an end to the disgraceful "Un-American Activities Committee." Moreover, he insisted on speaking at integrated rallies, a radical position in racist Jim Crow America. 




Did Wallace's voters waste their votes? 

There are many other examples, from environmentalist icon Barry Commoner’s 1980 run with the Citizens Party to Ralph Nader’s much maligned 2000 Green Party effort. Say what you want about Nader “spoiling” the election, but the fact remains that a quarter million registered Democrats in Florida voted for George W. Bush. Moreover, Nader remains as the only candidate to call for a Marshall Plan to revive America’s inner cities, a position that the major parties better take up soon lest we see the continuation of the despair leading to unrest and chaos.

Most of you reading this rant have probably spent your lives voting for Democrats and Republicans. You’ll probably be scared into doing it again this year. All I ask is that you consider what voting for the establishment has gotten us over the last 30 years: the bipartisan invasion of at least four countries, trade deals that decimated the USA’s manufacturing base and wages, the abandonment of almost every New Deal and Great Society program, tax policies that support urban sprawl, deregulation mania that wrecked the economy, mass incarceration and the militarization of the police, a massive and unaccountable Homeland Security apparatus, Soviet style assaults on whistleblowers, health reform written by private insurers and pharmaceutical companies, and the virtual elimination of competition for most congressional seats. Meanwhile media censorship of third parties and consequent low vote count for them keeps reform platforms out of the public eye.

Maybe YOU have been wasting your vote? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Media Rants: Still Photos After All These Years

MEDIA RANTS

Still Photos After All These Years


What medium best captures the essence of an event or even an entire movement? In a YouTube era that gives us all the chance to go “viral” with our amateur films, it’s tempting to give the nod to privately made moving images. Indeed the amateurish, grainy cell phone video in the 21st century seemingly has the power to define moments in ways that the more slickly produced establishment newspapers, television, radio, and Hollywood films never could. The fact that the YouTuber, or the live Facebooker, or some other multimedia video maker generally doesn’t seek monetary profit gives their creation a kind of authenticity and credibility no longer enjoyed by the greedy corporate media. Writing for Time.com, Daniel D’Addario argues that the disturbing Facebook live video of Diamond Reynolds narrating the police murder of her boyfriend Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN may “change how we experience news” and is a “defining testament of how we live now.”

But just because amateur moving images are pervasive, often powerful, and perceived as credible does not mean they best capture the essence of events or movements. That essence, I would argue, is captured more provocatively by a much older art form: the still photo. The best recent example is freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman’s photo of 35-year-old Ieshia L. Evans, a nurse and mother who calmly yet assertively confronted Baton Rouge riot police during a protest of the police killing of Alton Sterling. The photo, which is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying in its display of an unarmed African-American woman in a sun dress preparing to be arrested by officers dressed in full occupying force gear, will many years from now be seen as a profound example of how the militarization of America’s local police forces played a key role in the creation of #BlackLivesMatter and other resistance movements.

After the photo went viral, Ms. Evans issued a statement: "When the police pushed everyone off the street, I felt like they were pushing us to the side to silence our voices and diminish our presence. They were once again leveraging their strength to leave us powerless. As Africans in America we're tired of protesting that our lives matter, it's time we stop begging for justice and take a stance for our people. It's time for us to be fearless and take our power back." [Note: In virtually every online story about Ms. Evans, the comments sections features a slew of fiercely racist remarks that in their ignorance end up proving what #BlackLivesMatter and other activists have been saying about race in America.]. 

Some observers referred to the photo of Ms. Evans as “iconic,” and I would agree. Visual rhetoric scholars John Lucaites and Robert Hariman defined iconic photographs: “photographic images produced in print, electronic, or digital media that are (1) recognized by everyone within a public culture, (2) understood to be representations of historically significant events, (3) objects of strong emotional identification and response, and (4) regularly reproduced or copied across a range of media, genres, and topics.” The authors analyze a number of iconic photos including Joe Rosenthal’s raising of the flag on Iwo Jima (taken in 1945), John Filo’s1970 capture of the tragic killing of a 

student by the National Guard at Kent State, Nick Ut’s 1972 Vietnam War photo of the “napalm girl” fleeing the American assault on her village, and Jeff Widener’s 1989 Tiananmen Square photo of a 


single protester in China going up against a tank. Each one of these photos not only captured the essence of the historical moment in question, but also provoked necessary conversations about 


America’s commitment to democracy and human rights. Go to the website readingthepictures.org to see Lucaites’ and Hariman’s (and other writers’) takes on a wide range of contemporary and older photos.



The 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil reminds me of my all-time favorite iconic photo: John Dominis’ brilliant capture of USA track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly engaged in the Black Power salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City. The athletes’ action and the photograph of it occurred in the context of the Cold War in which the United States promoted itself as the land of freedom and equality in contrast to the oppressive Soviet Union. Smith and Carlos blew up the USA image, in the process getting themselves suspended from the games.

John Carlos recently reflected on his Olympic activism for vox.com. Even though the aftermath was “hell” for him and his family, Carlos expresses no regrets. In fact he urges contemporary Black athletes and celebrities to be activists. Of the iconic photo he says this:




“That picture of me and Tommie on the podium is the modern-day Mona Lisa — a universal image that everyone wants to see and everyone wants to be related to in one way or another. And do you know why? Because we were standing for something. We were standing for humanity.”

If John Carlos is correct, it suggests that Ieshia Evans’ photo will be featured in books, documentaries, and other media for many years to come.

Photographer Sally Mann once said that “Photographs open doors into the past, but they also allow a look into the future.” The beauty of the iconic photo is that it provokes wide ranging conversation about the past and future. When we look at John Carlos in 1968 we can see Ieshia Evans in 2016 and vice versa. Will the photos motivate us to create a better future? Time will tell. 

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Media Rants: Media Criticism Brain Drain

MEDIA RANTS


Media Criticism Brain Drain

From the July 2016 edition of the SCENE 

The Walker Era in Wisconsin has witnessed an unprecedented brain drain as UW faculty and staff actively seek opportunities to work in states where government leaders value teaching excellence and the search for truth.

The brain drain recently hit media studies as Dr. Christopher Terry, a former student of mine who has been teaching and doing research at UW Milwaukee’s Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies announced that he had taken a position as an assistant professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Chris is an outstanding teacher who also does cutting edge research in media law and other areas. He’s exactly the kind of young teacher/scholar that Wisconsin should be trying to keep.

I asked Chris to respond to some questions. 

Media Rants: What will you miss most about the UW Milwaukee Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies? 

Chris Terry: I will miss the relationship I had with my students. I feel that one of my strengths as an instructor is that I can speak to students on their level, and as a result, I can convey the complicated concepts of media law and policy to them in a practical way that makes it useful to them. 
Media Rants: Describe your new position at the University of Minnesota. 
Chris Terry: I will be an assistant professor of media ethics and law in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

In addition to teaching media and advertising law, this position is a research appointment. My appointment at UWM was primarily a teaching position.

Media Rants:  Back in June of 2014, Alec MacGillis of the New Republic wrote an article called "The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker." Your quotes in the piece on how Milwaukee area right-wing radio operates ended up getting you trashed in the wingnut echo chamber. What has it been like to be the target of the animus of people like Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling? If you had to do it over again, would you still talk to MacGillis?

Chris Terry: I would do the article/interview again. Although I was heavily criticized for the things I said, I certainly think that time has proven my prediction about Walker correct. Although the talk radio hosts (and others beyond Belling and Sykes) suggested the article and my comments were an attack focused on them, they missed my larger point. Talk radio in this town has supported Walker most of his career, and although he is an experienced politician, he hasn't had to regularly deal with a hostile press. I suggested that because Walker had done such a great job using the friendly outlets that when the scrutiny of the national press was focused on him, it would be a difficult challenge for him. By the way, that's exactly what happened.

The hardest part of the whole experience was having people I worked with for more than a decade pretend they didn't know who I was on the air. It was a bit surreal, and at one point I actually was texting back and forth with one of my old co-workers during commercial breaks in an hour where he was in full outrage mode about the things I was quoted as saying in the piece.
Media Rants: Many people enjoy your Facebook posts that start off with, "I know journalism is hard work, but . . ." before you launch into a scathing critique of media sloppiness, under reporting, etc. Why do you think modern mainstream journalism has so much trouble doing the hard work? 
Chris Terry: I don't believe there's an easy answer to this question. Having been a member of that media for some time, I can tell you there are always gaps in the items that will get coverage due to resources or space, but my point in the "I know journalism is hard work" posts are to point out that journalism isn't really hard at all. The questions the press should be asking are very easy to identify, but I think our current class of pundits fears asking them.

Journalists have a social responsibility to act as a check and balance on our elected officials. The best way to do that is ask tough questions of those officials, and not accept the answers when those answers are obviously spin or worse. Our current media seems to have forgotten this basic principle.
The questions the press should be asking are very easy to identify, but I think our current class of pundits fears asking them.
Media Rants: Donald Trump is openly contemptuous of the media, and is the first presidential candidate in my memory to suggest he might push for limits on the First Amendment. What in your judgement would a Trump or Clinton presidency mean for media and the First Amendment? 
Chris Terry: Both of the major party candidates give me substantial pause when it comes to free speech issues. Trump has been very forthcoming with his opinions that libel protections are too strong. When he said that a few months ago, my response was that I wasn't laughing anymore.

Clinton gives me a different concern. Her husband signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which fundamentally restructured our media system by allowing for massive consolidation of broadcast ownership. In doing so, their was a substantial loss in the availability and diversity of viewpoints, and the voices of minorities and women were also heavily reduced. Our society is best when we, as citizens, have access to the widest range of the diversity of viewpoints, and a healthy marketplace of ideas can flourish. I'm concerned that Clinton, like her husband would choose media economics over public service, and in today's day and age, logically that would mean a reduction in viewpoints on the internet.
Media Rants: Your main areas of expertise are media policy and regulation of new media. What's happening on those fronts that the average media consumer should be aware of? 

Chris Terry: There are three. The first is very wonky, but the spectrum auction that the FCC is executing is going to restructure our media system over the next 3-5 years.

The second is the decision about two weeks ago in Prometheus Radio Project vFCC. This case, which is the third round in court, could have the potential to shake the foundations of the broadcast licensing system to its core, essentially resetting the last 90 or so years of media regulation. The Third Circuit warned the FCC that there was a short timeline to develop a new policy to increase ownership of stations by women and minority groups. The FCC has been dragging its feet for a decade on this policy, and there's little chance they can wrap up the proceeding and repair 20 years of regulatory negligence in a few months. The Circuit suggested that if the agency can't meet the deadline (essentially the end of this year) the panel would consider throwing out all media ownership rules, relying on Section 202(h) of the Telecommunication's Act.

But the most important will be the DC's Circuit recently released net neutrality decision. Every Tuesday and Friday, the collective telecom nerds gathered waiting for the decision. The FCC's move to reclassify broadband under Title II was a major move, and the court's upholding of the policy will dictate, probably more than any other single factor, what the internet will be moving forward. Because the rules were upheld, citizen access to the internet content will not be controlled by non-state actors. That's a huge deal. You have no first amendment protection against a private company limiting your speech or your access to speech. This regulation, which is not without its problems, will provide a social democratic approach to regulating the relationship between you and your ISP, and make it hard for them to keep you away from legal content.

Media Rants wishes Chris Terry the best of luck in his new position! 

Friday, June 03, 2016

Media Rants: Gun Debate Free Zone

MEDIA RANTS


Gun Debate Free Zone

From the June 2016 edition of The SCENE 

How much gun violence needs to occur in northeast Wisconsin before the mainstream media forces meaningful debate about the issue? Public officials openly sweep the matter under the rug, as in this statement from Governor Scott Walker after 18-year-old Jakob Wagner opened fire at Antigo High School and was then himself shot and killed by police:

"It's really trying to address everything from bullying, to mental health issues, to just how we deal with anger and aggression in society today. And, again, there's no one thing. There's not one easy solution. It appears to be a rifle, so unless people are going to ban hunting, which from even the most extreme I haven't heard much of that talk in the past, it's pretty clear that that route wouldn't be the answer.”

While waiting for the legislature and governor to “address everything,” recent history suggests we will continue to address nothing.

Lest you think the Jakob Wagner tragedy was unique in our region, let’s review other local gun events for which we are still waiting for Mr. Walker and his legislative minions to “address everything”:

*In September of 2013 two men openly carried AR-15 assault rifles to the Appleton Farmers Market for “self-defense.” Shortly after, a “cluck or duck” campaign showed the absurdity of the fact that a Wisconsin city can ban live chickens or other animals at special events, but not guns.

*In March of 2014 a gun was fired at UW Oshkosh Reeve Union during an evening social event. Thankfully no one was hurt.

*In May of 2015, 27-year-old Sergio Valencia del Toro killed Adam Bentdahl, Jonathan Stoffel, and Jonathan’s 11-year-old daughter Olivia on the Fox Cities Trestle Trail bridge. As with Jakob Wagner, del Toro displayed obvious warning signs to his family and acquaintances, but nothing that would prevent him from owning firearms.

*In October of 2015 a man was shot in a downtown Oshkosh parking lot; he survived but sustained serious injuries.

*In September of 2015, 31-year-old Samson Gomoll committed what prosecutors called “straight-up, cold-blooded murder” when he shot his girlfriend Stacey Strange at the couple’s apartment on West 10th Street in Oshkosh. Gomoll had multiple firearms in the apartment including an AK-47 assault rifle.

*In December of 2015, 46-year-old Brian Flatoff held hostages at gunpoint at the Eagles Nation Cycle Club in Neenah. The resulting chaos led to the police killing of the club’s owner Michael Funk. Attorney General Brad Schimel whitewashed Funk’s death, but a Post-Crescent editorial lambasted the so-called good guys with guns: “Something is broken in the Neenah Police Department. The department is dysfunctional. The leadership is absent.”

*In December of 2015, a man was shot outside of a business on the 700 block of Oregon St. in Oshkosh. The victim survived but the identity of the shooter remains unknown.

These northeast Wisconsin gun tragedies are not atypical; what’s chilling is just how typical they are. And it’s not just adults we are talking about. The internet rumor busting website snopes.com found this statement to be true: “Toddlers killed more Americans than terrorists in 2015.”

Why do we live like this? Or maybe the better question is why do we allow our citizens to die like this? From a media perspective, the short answer is that the establishment press is unable or unwilling to sustain a debate about gun rights and the Second Amendment that might last longer than an evening of local or cable news. A missing airplane or the latest Donald Trump inanity can get weeks or even months’ worth of obsessive reporting and commentary. Gun journalism appears mostly after a tragedy, but then usually to remind us why nothing can be done given the politics of the issue.

What would a sustained debate about how to handle gun violence look like? I think a great starting point would be the position taken by former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his 2014 book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. After presenting an exhaustive look at the history of the Second Amendment, Stevens demonstrates persuasively that the Amendment was designed to prevent the federal government from interfering with the power of each state to ensure that its militias were “well regulated,” and to protect the individual right of gun ownership for persons actually serving in a state militia. Stevens then suggests five extra words that can “fix” the Second Amendment (Stevens changes are in italics):

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”


Many NRA members and others who continually obfuscate any meaningful gun discussion will insist that Stevens is wrong on his Second Amendment history. But what if he is right? The function of an ethical media (I realize “ethical media” is somewhat oxymoronic in our time) is to break through the obfuscation and provoke intelligent debate. If Stevens’ provocative suggestion could get more national media attention, candidates for state and federal office could continually be challenged to argue for or against it. That won’t solve our gun problem overnight, but it would at least put an end to the “gun debate free zone” that’s held sway for too long. 



Sunday, May 01, 2016

Media Rants: Wisconsin Primary Postmortem

MEDIA RANTS


Wisconsin Primary Postmortem

Less than a year ago, the dominant corporate media narrative regarding presidential campaign 2016 predicted the inevitable coronation of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton as the nominees of their respective parties. Back then, the major challenger to Jeb was supposed to be our own Scott Walker, and few in the establishment thought that Bernie Sanders would last until the Wisconsin primary (let alone win it).

Because the voters elected not to cooperate with the establishment narrative, Wisconsin’s April 5th primary took on an added significance. The national media gave much attention to our state, and for the first time in months people across the country associated Wisconsin with more than just Making a Murderer, beer and cheese, and the Green Bay Packers.

Here are some takeaways from what will go down as one of Wisconsin’s more memorable primary years.

Reince and Beans: The Chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, is a Wisconsin guy and big Scott Walker fan. Reince and the RNC created a 2016 primary calendar tailor made for Walker: they front-loaded the calendar with deep red states that should have been open to the Wisconsin governor’s brand of conservatism, and they made sure Wisconsin was the only state to vote on April 5th, something blatantly designed to give Walker a national platform six months before the general election. As it turned out, Reince’s maneuvering wasn’t worth a hill of beans. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz outflanked Walker on the right wing, stealing all of the attention and votes in the red states; Walker’s campaign ended barely 70 days in. A primary process designed to pacify the Koch Brothers and other big donors while quelling dissent within the party ends up on a path toward the most fractious nominating convention in GOP history.



Dems Felt The Bern, But Not The Burg: Bernie Sanders’ campaign is rooted in the idea that social change only comes about through the power of grassroots movements. In fact when challenged as to how he will get anything done as president, Sanders insists that millions of people will come to Washington and pressure the congress, whose members will have no choice but to succumb to the “political revolution” staring them in the face. 


Wisconsin gave Sanders a great chance to put the revolutionary strategy into practice. Would he be able to get his energetic supporters to turn out for state Supreme Court candidate Joanne Kloppenburg, the progressive challenger to Rebecca Bradley, the right wing judge appointed to the court by Scott Walker? As it turned out, no. True, Kloppenburg was outspent and was the victim of some nasty special interest advertising, but the disturbing fact remains that thousands of people who voted for Sanders (or Clinton) did not vote in the supreme court race. You’d think that advocates for a political revolution, if they intend to be anything more than human campaign slogans, would be able to educate voters about the consequences of “undervoting.”

Right Wing Talk Radio and Civility: Given his national appeal to alienated, low income white voters with less formal education, Donald Trump should have done well in Wisconsin. At the national level, Trump’s campaign has been boosted among such voters by right wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh and his mini-mees like Sean Hannity. In Wisconsin however, right wing radio turned against Trump (who in their alternative universe is somehow “liberal” compared to other GOP candidates).

Right wing radio in Wisconsin is led by Republican hosts comfortable with the GOP establishment and big donors for whom Trump has displayed mostly contempt. These hosts called out Trump for his lack of civility, the irony and hypocrisy of which was somehow lost on the national media. Trump is an obnoxious bore, it is true, but right wing radio in Wisconsin is about as a civil as a hungry piranha fish. They make their living off of demonizing liberals, union members, and anyone else who opposes their agenda.

Voter ID Will Serve Its Purpose: On the evening of the primary, our own Congressman Glenn Grothman argued that Ted Cruz or Donald Trump could be the first Republican to win Wisconsin in a general election since 1984 because "Hillary Clinton is one of the weakest candidates they ever put up, and now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is gonna make a little bit of a difference as well." This means that Grothman believes every Democrat who’s won Wisconsin since 1988 benefited from voter fraud; if he does believe that he should be calling for congressional hearings. Or, and more likely, he believes that voter ID will suppress Democratic votes just enough to allow the GOP to prevail in a close election. Some are angry at Rep. Grothman for his comments, but he probably should be thanked for confirming what voter ID opponents have suspected for years: the law is not about fraud (of which there is negligible evidence in Wisconsin), but about helping Republicans maintain power.


Missed Opportunities: The national media staked out in Wisconsin for two solid weeks before the election. That should have been a great opportunity to get candidates to go on the record about critical issues facing the state. Instead we heard mostly talking points culled from stump speeches, with little Wisconsin focus. What a shame. 


Thursday, March 03, 2016

Media Rants: Ebony and Avery

Ebony and Avery

Media Rants By Tony Palmeri

From the March 2016 edition of the SCENE

Like large numbers of Netflix subscribers, I binge watched Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’ “Making a Murderer.” Before watching the series, my knowledge of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey was similar to most Wisconsinites: I knew that Avery spent 18 years in jail for a crime the Innocence Project proved he did not commit, got released with much fanfare and not too long afterwards was convicted of murdering young photographer Teresa Halbach. The evidence against the hapless Dassey never seemed as strong, but I remember in 2006 being convinced by prosecutor Ken Kratz’s media presentations that he was probably guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

After watching the series I’m not quite ready to say that I think Avery/Dassey are innocent or even that enough reasonable doubt exists to warrant a new trial. But I am troubled by two things. First, in hindsight it is now clear that media coverage (especially television) of the Avery arrest and trial in 2006 and 2007 was awful. Second and more important, outrageous wrongful convictions are something that people of color in American have had to deal with for many generations. Why has there been so little public outrage at that fact?

On the awfulness of the media: some of the most cringe inducing scenes in “Making a Murderer” involve press conferences with prosecutor Ken Kratz. Most of the so-called journalists in the room come off as deer caught in headlights; they seemed unable or unwilling to press the prosecutor to support his statements. The most egregious example occurred on March 2, 2006 when Kratz held a press conference providing lurid details about how Ms. Halbach was brutally raped, stabbed, shot, and burned to death by Avery and Dassey. The press conference, which included charges for which Kratz did not have evidence  and were ultimately not what Avery was convicted of, succeeded in making it next to impossible to impanel a jury that did not already have an impression of the case. Because media outlets across the state chose to report Kratz’s comments, Avery’s attorneys saw no benefit to asking to move the trial out of Manitowoc County.

In fairness to the media, they could not have known in 2006 that Mr. Kratz would turn out to be a major league dirtbag. On the other hand, Journalism 101 should have taught them to be more inquisitive before becoming mouthpieces for the prosecution, especially given what we now know were highly questionable methods used to extract a confession from Dassey.

What about the lack of public outrage over wrongful convictions? Given the massive public outrage as regards Avery’s case (over a half million people signed an online petition asking President Obama to pardon him—something he has no power to do), you would think that wrongful convictions are rare. Not so. Reporting about the National Registry of Exonerations, the New York Times said that, “A record 149 people in the United States were found in 2015 to have been falsely convicted of a crime, and of those, nearly 4 in 10 were exonerated of murder . . . All told, its researchers have recorded 1,733 exonerations since 1989.” Five of the convicts exonerated in 2015 were facing death sentences, which should make even the most ardent pro death penalty advocates pause and reconsider their position. None of the exonerated individuals were the topics of documentaries, media sensationalism, or petition drives, yet the injustice against them was every bit as great as what happened to Avery for 18 years and what some believe is happening to him again.

African-Americans face the most blatant injustices in the system. According to criminal justice reporter Michael McLaughlin: “There's no way to know for sure, of course, but data about wrongful convictions show that blacks who are exonerated after a bogus conviction have served 12.68 years on average before the good news, according to Pamela Perez, professor of biostatistics at Loma Linda University. It takes just 9.4 years for whites and 7.87 for Latinos.”

White Americans sometimes get involved in efforts to raise awareness of the plight of African-American inmates falsely accused. Probably the best historic example was the case of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer whose quest for freedom took off after a book and a Bob Dylan song raised public awareness. Mumia Abu Jamal and Assata Shakur have whites supporting them, but primarily in the activist community.

Would “Making a Murderer,”  and Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, be getting so much open show of support if the parties accused were Black? The painful truth is probably not. Let’s close with a reworking of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory.”

Ebony and Avery covered differently on the ‘Net and TV
Google “National Registry of Exonerations” on my laptop keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?

We all know that cable television is the same where ever you go
There is exploitable good and bad in everyone
But when the show’s about a white convict we learn to live, we learn to give each other
What we need to survive together alive

Ebony and Avery covered differently on the ‘Net and TV
Google “National Registry of Exonerations” on my laptop keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?

Ebony, Avery covered differently on the ‘Net and TV

Ebony, Avery, oh



Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Media Rants: Censored in 2015

Censored in 2015


From the February 2016 edition of the SCENE 

Since 1976 Sonoma State University’s Project Censored has challenged the news media to meet their First Amendment responsibilities. Annually the Project compiles a volume of news stories "underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the United States.” Walter Cronkite said that “Project Censored is one of the organizations that we should listen to, to be assured that our newspapers and our broadcasting outlets are practicing thorough and ethical journalism.”  Bestselling author and activist Naomi Wolf asserts that, “Project Censored is a lifeline to the world’s most urgent and significant stories.” 

Project Censored is famous for its nontraditional definition of censorship, referring to it as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to have a free press.” They argue that censorship includes not just stories that were never published, but also “those that get such restricted distribution that few in the public are likely to know about them.”


Censored 2016: Media Freedom on the Line (Seven Stories Press) continues the Project’s annual exploration of what a panel of judges determines to be the top 25 most censored stories of the year. The top three are (1) “Half of global wealth owned by the 1 percent,” (2) “Oil industry illegally dumps fracking wastewater,” and (3) “89 percent of Pakistani drone victims not identifiable as militants.” I’d say that #3 is a good answer to the question “why do they hate us?” In fact, just about every story covered by Project Censored is an answer to the question of why there is so much despair and tension in the world. If mainstream media met its responsibility to give the stories proper treatment, we would of course not see an end to despair and tension. But we WOULD see less ignorance and confusion about the causes of trouble in the world, and less ignorance always leads to more positive action on behalf of reform.

Over the years when I have written about Project Censored, some readers have responded by saying that the organization’s approach to censorship seems too conspiratorial. Such readers argue that news media can only cover so much given time and space constraints, and to favor some stories over others probably has more to do with commercial pressures and “giving the audience what it wants” rather than actively “censoring” certain stories. I think there is some legitimacy to that critique; the northeast Wisconsin corporate media wall to wall Packer coverage for 20 to 30 weeks out of the year probably has more to do with a ratings calculation as opposed to news directors willingly dumbing down the audience’s knowledge of critical labor, political, environmental and other challenges facing regional communities.


Sometimes censorship is the simply result of journalistic laziness. My spouse Lori and I recently experienced the consequences of journalistic laziness when she decided to take out nomination papers to run in the April election for Oshkosh Common Council. When she took out the papers in December, she was told by the Oshkosh City Clerk’s office that she needed to obtain 200-400 signatures by January 5th. When I asked my friend and former Oshkosh Mayor Paul Esslinger if he could get some signatures, he pointed out that the requirement was actually 100-200 signatures. Republican Senator Rick Gudex and Republican Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt were able to get the law changed so as to promote the entry of more candidates in city council races. When Lori showed up to get her 120 signatures certified on January 4th, she was told by the Clerk’s office that the requirement for Oshkosh was still 200-400 signatures; for some unclear reason they believed the law did not apply in a place represented by one of its chief sponsors (Senator Gudex).  Even the members of the Oshkosh Common Council we contacted about the signature requirement were not aware of the law. On the morning of January 5th, the Clerk’s office contacted Lori to say that they called the Government Accountability Board in Madison and that in fact the requirement was 100-200 signatures. Lori will be on the ballot in April. We will never know if potential candidates were deterred from running because they were given inaccurate information.

Sure, the Clerk’s office should know the law. But the real problem in my judgement was that the Gannett press, local television and local radio simply did an awful job of reporting on the impending campaign season and the requirements for running. These are the same media who regularly lament the shortage of candidates.

I would argue that the mass media minimization of the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was the most censored national story of 2015. Sanders has spoken to record crowds, raised huge amounts of money from mostly small donations, and completely shifted the Democratic Party primary debate to the left. He also polls well against any Republican nominee. All that, and yet for the New York Times and other establishment media, Sanders is virtually invisible.

OneNew York Times article quoted a senior citizen Trump supporter who said that “This election is the first in my life where we can change what it means to be a Republican.”  Memo to the Times: the same is true for the Democrats this year—your readers would know that if you would stop censoring Bernie’s campaign!