Media Rants: Happy Anniversary to (Me)dia Rants
Happy Anniversary to (Me)dia Rants
By Tony Palmeri
The first Media Rants column appeared in the August 2002 issue of The Scene. By my calculation, that makes this November column the 100th (!) rant. When the column debuted, I wasn’t sure I’d have the discipline demanded by 10 rants, let alone 100. But here we are, 8 years later, still trying to shed light on the ways in which corporate establishment media can, in the words of the late and great Madison Capital Times editor Bill Evjue, be “used to reduce the people to conformity and dumb acquiescence.”
Given that the New York Times, Washington Post, regional Gannett tabloids, radio and television outlets, or even alternative web sources aren’t exactly lining up to talk to me about this most momentous anniversary, I guess I’ll have to interview myself. So here’s a retrospective of sorts on the last 99 columns.
Question: How did the Media Rants column get started?
Answer: In the summer of 2002 then SCENE editor Tom Breuer called and asked if I’d be interested in writing for the paper. Back then I wrote a weekly electronic newsletter to accompany a television program called “Commentary” I hosted and produced with my heroes Doug Freshner and Jim Mather. Somehow Tom got on the newsletter email list, and he liked it enough that he thought I might be able to contribute something worthwhile to the Scene. The name “Media Rants” was Tom’s idea. The first column was a critique of the local press’ annual and shameful subservience to the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Question: What writers have influenced your thinking and style?
Answer: All conscientious media critics owe a debt to the late George Seldes. Probably the greatest investigative journalist in American history, Seldes in the 1940s published a newsletter called “In Fact” which is now widely regarded as the prototype for how to expose the shortcomings of the establishment press.
Given that Media Rants is a monthly essay, stylistically I’ve been guided by my favorite essayists. I respect and admire the rebel passion of Thomas Paine, the moral clarity of George Orwell, the principled prose of I.F. Stone, the sheer eloquence of Christopher Hitchens, the wisdom of James Baldwin ("I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."), the unpredictability of Alexander Cockburn, the stinging humor of Molly Ivins and Maureen Dowd, and the in-your-face rhetorical flourishes of James Howard Kunstler. I’ve disagreed with each of these wordsmiths at various times yet stand in awe at their contributions to the craft of writing.
Question: Do you have any favorite Media Rants columns?
Answer: My favorites are the ones that make at least some minor contribution to our understanding of local history (“Press Coverage of McCarthy” from April of 2006; “Earth Day at 40” from April of 2010; “King Karma: Yesterday and Today” from March of 2003), challenge local and state establishment media to do better (“The Magruder Media’s Ethical Compass” from November of 2002; “Northeast Wisconsin’s Iron Triangle” from August of 2003; “It’s Not a Witch hunt if There’s a Witch” from June of 2004), counter the insane pro-war journalism of the last 8 years (“Will We Hear the Winter Soldiers?” from March of 2008; “Media AWOL on National Guard Coverage” from March of 2009), and take a stand for rational public discourse (“Fighting Reactionary Politics: Real Conservatives, Real Liberals, and Real Radicals Must Work Together” from April of 2005). I also look fondly on the tributes to Robert L. “Doc” Snyder and Doug Boone, and interviews with my friends Curt Andersen, Stephen Richards, Jo Egelhoff, and Ron Hardy.
Question: Most memorable Media Rants moment?
Answer: UW Oshkosh Professor of Political Science James Simmons found the essay “Deconstructing Don Kettl” (July 2004) interesting and asked me to publish a revised version of it in the Wisconsin Political Scientist Newsletter. The essay situated Professor Kettl, formerly of UW Madison and widely recognized as governor Tommy Thompson’s most revered academic, as a symbol of the extent to which UW profs had become tools of power rather than challengers to it. Some of Professor Kettl’s colleagues at UW Madison lambasted Dr. Simmons for publishing the piece, reducing it to nothing more than a cheap-shot personal attack. The irony was that the tone and vacuity of their complaint validated the thrust of the essay better than anything I could have said or written.
Question: What kind of response has Media Rants received over the years?
Answer: Though it’s now conventional wisdom to say “no one reads anything longer than a Facebook wall post anymore,” the fact that Media Rants does have an audience keeps me writing it. When the Appleton Public Library invited me to participate in a debate about the movie “Good Night and Good Luck” in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people in attendance who recognized and appreciated the column. Media Rants columns also led to several invitations to lead discussions at the Harmony Café in Appleton, as well as numerous appearances on Wisconsin Public Radio.
Question: Any final thoughts?
Answer: I just want to thank everyone who has supported Media Rants over the years, especially those readers who take the time to offer constructive feedback. Many thanks also to Scene publisher Jim Moran and current editor Jim Lundstrom for making space every month.