Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Remembering Marsh Shapiro


Of all the things I will remember about Marsh Shapiro, my fondest memory will be of the great kindness Marsh showed to our kids – kids who are now young adults, and like their parents, have spent many hours in Marsh’s company at his famous Madison establishment, the Nitty Gritty.

Marsh passed away this morning after a long fight with brain cancer.  I first met Marshall Shapiro at a Boys State Basketball Tournament in the 70’s.  He was already well-known to the broadcasters in the state not only for his “Marshall the Marshall” kids TV show on Channel 27 in Madison from 1964 to ‘68, but for his enthusiastic sports reporting following his career in children’s TV.  Marsh got his foot in the door in TV the old fashioned way.  His first job at Channel 27 was sweeping floors.

My friend George Hesselberg has written a fine obituary for Marsh for the State Journal.

In 1988, when I moved back to Madison from Los Angeles and was doing a morning show with the smart and pretty lady who would become my wife, one of my most fun duties was doing live radio commercials for Marsh’s famous restaurant, the Nitty Gritty.   He named the restaurant after the 1963 Shirley Ellis hit song. 



Here’s a shot of the famous “birthday bar” at the corner of Frances and Johnson Street, just a few blocks from the Kohl Center.  Marsh insisted that Toni and I dine at his fine establishment at least once a month  (he and his wife Susan insisted we dine on his tab) to make sure I had a good sense of what was going on at “Madison’s Official Birthday Bar” for the radio commercials.  We liked the place so much that we often went there and dined on our own tab – and both our kids have a collection of Nitty Gritty birthday mugs from having celebrated many birthdays at the Nitty Gritty.  You got your name in lights, they rang the birthday bell for you, sang the birthday song for you, and gave you a souvenir mug for celebrating your birthday at the Nitty Gritty.

As our kids became young adults, and were accepted as students at UW-Madison, they both got what I called “The Tim Morrissey Tour of Campus” a few days before they moved into the dorms.  They’d both had official orientation through the UW-Madison’s SOAR program (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration), but I insisted they get MY tour of campus, from MY perspective, which centered on the campus in the 60’s, and my narrative about what the war protests were like, my pointing out of what I considered the historical places – like where the teargas flowed during the Dow Chemical riots, the place where young Bob Fassnacht died when Sterling Hall was blown up, and the role the UW protests had in bringing the Viet Nam war to an end.  Our son Dru got my orientation in 2001 before his freshman year, and then Mallory in 2003.

And the tour always included lunch at the Nitty Gritty.

I’d call Marsh and tell him we were coming in for the “orientation tour” lunch, and after we polished off our Gritty Burger Baskets, Marsh would join us at the table.  He gave Dru and two years later Mal a spirited account of what it was like to be in Madison in the mid-to-late 60’s.  He’d point to a booth in the corner of the restaurant and say “that booth is where the Armstrong brothers, David Fine, and Leo Burt planned the Sterling Hall bombing in August of 1970”.  He’d point to the bandstand and say “we had live music every night of the week here, and that stage has seen the likes of Cheap Trick,  Bonny Raitt, Muddy Waters, the Luther Allison Blues Band, and a lot of other bands you’ve never heard of, but went on to become very famous back in your parent’s day. “  He explained how the Nitty Gritty had become sort of a haven for the leaders of the protest movement and the counter-culture in Madison.  He’d look Dru (and later Mallory) in the eye and say “I know Tim has told you to read Tom Bates’ book called ‘Rads’ and I hope you have, because it’s a great account of those days here.  And you’d better have watched 'The War at Home', too!” 

Marsh was so full of life and enthusiasm when he gave those personal orientation talks to the kids – his performance was unforgettable.  And when Toni and I would stop in for lunch during the years the kids were students at the UW, Marsh would always join us and give us a report: “Dru was in the other night with a bunch of his pals – he took them to that picture on the wall and showed it to them”. Marsh covered several of the walls of his restaurant with black and white 8x10 photos of the famous coaches, athletes, entertainers, and luminaries who had dined there, and was kind enough to put up a picture of Toni and me with the kids.  Or we’d hear “Mallory was in the other night with a bunch of her gal-pals from the dorm”.  Marsh was the ultimate restaurateur: he treated you like family.

When Pat Richter retired as Athletic Director of the UW in April of 2004, his “unofficial” retirement party was upstairs at the Nitty Gritty – and Marsh was kind enough to invite Toni and me to be a part of that wonderful gathering.

Many things will be said about Marsh, his kids TV days, his sports reporting days, his role as restaurateur to the community, his love of the city and his many contributions to it through the Alcohol License Review Committee, his generosity with the American Family Children’s Hospital, but I’ll remember Marsh best for those wonderful “orientation” talks he gave our kids.

Rest in peace, Marsh.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Media Interviewing Traumatized Children: WRONG


There seems to be a consensus of professional news writers and editors that the coverage of the tragic mass murder in Connecticut Friday morning generated more false and misleading initial reports than any other major national news event in memory.  I learned a long time ago, as a student at the Media University of Learning the Hard Way, that the first reports of any spot news story are almost always wrong, because initial reports often come from the most unreliable of all sources: eyewitnesses.

Ask any trial lawyer how reliable the testimony of eyewitnesses is, and how often, under questioning, their story falls apart.

Part of the problem with the Connecticut mass murder coverage is that almost every national news organization has abandoned the journalistic principle of attribution, and anchors and reporters state assertions as though they were fact-checked truth. Consider these statements:  His mother was a teacher at the school and he went to her classroom first and killed everyone there.  He was buzzed into the building by a security guard. Not only did those statements and many others reported as “fact” prove false, let’s remember that for several hours at the beginning of the slaughter, the media didn’t even get the shooter’s name right.  They parroted what police said, and police got it wrong.  The days of having a second source or confirming information are apparently long gone.  But the media didn't "attribute" the source of their information on the name, so - that's a mistake on their part just as much as it is on the cops.

As a broadcast news anchor for more than three decades, I know how this works, and I understand the pressure to provide “content” for the ongoing coverage.  You interview a “source” whom you believe to be credible, and report their assertions as fact – when often, their assertions are completely false.  It’s a true dilemma: you’re faced with two options (report it, or don’t) and neither one is practically acceptable.  If you don’t report it, someone else will “beat you to it”.  If you do report it and it turns out to be false – your tough luck.

The mistakes and errors in “fact” I can understand, but what I can’t condone is the exploitive interviews with traumatized children, moments after they’ve experienced a horrific tragedy, which their minds are often not capable of processing.  The Poynter Institute in Florida, journalism’s standard-keeper, discourages interviewing children as was done Friday, saying “What is the journalistic purpose in interviewing a juvenile?”  Child Psychologist Dana Gaffney, who worked with the survivors of the Columbine massacre in 1999, says “Children who are witnesses to violent events or tragic occurrences are victims in their own right.  They may not be the direct recipients, but as witnesses they are profoundly affected”.  She has advised reporters ever since Columbine not to interview ANY child or young person who has witnessed injury or death.

Police have no choice but to interview traumatized children as they gather evidence to try and solve a crime or enhance immediate public safety, but they are rigorously trained in the appropriate techniques to use with child witnesses, with a goal of protecting the children, who are likely in shock, from further stress and trauma.  Reporters interviewing traumatized children are creating more drama and, truth to be told, simply filling airtime.

In the sense of news reporting, children like the ones interviewed on live TV Friday provide no useful information, and tell us nothing about what it was like to be inside the classroom when bullets were flying that any adult couldn’t already guess.  Rescuers at Sandy Hook School wisely told the children to close their eyes, so they wouldn’t see and remember the bloodshed around them.  Is there any sentient adult with an IQ above room temperature who can’t figure out how it “feels” to be in the middle of a shooting?

Children are NOT small adults.  Even if their parents “gave permission” for the interviews, the parents are often traumatized and making poor decisions.  When CNN started to get huge pushback from adults who barraged CNN with social media messages late Friday afternoon, imploring them to STOP running interviews with the children, Wolf Blitzer (at 4:28 PM) announced that CNN’s reporters always ask permission from parents before interviewing children – as if that makes it all OK.  One social media post titled "Tell CNN to Stop Interviewing Children" got 56,000 "likes" in the first hour it was up.

There is a huge body of legitimate, peer-reviewed academic research about how children process traumatic events, research that was done following the 9-11 attacks.  Researchers learned that children process television coverage of tragedy and disaster far differently than adults.   They learned that children don’t understand the concept of video replay, and every time they see the towers fall, they think it’s happening all over again.  As I’ve maintained for years, television’s default position is “EXCESS” – so they play videotape of the towers falling over and over and over again.  And researchers learned that when children see disaster and trauma on TV, they think it’s happening in their own neighborhood – because the TV is in their home.  They don’t have the ability to adequately process the information like adults do.

That’s why parents have been advised by child psychologists for years to keep their youngsters away from TV coverage of disasters and traumas.  Children have a completely different view of such things, and can readily be traumatized over and again by watching repeated broadcasts of disaster.

One more rant: the young man who murdered all the children and teachers is not “evil”.  He’s mentally ill.  He didn’t do it because we’ve “kicked God out of the schools”.  He did it because he is mentally ill and we can’t “make sense of it” because his mind hasn’t been making sense for quite some time.  We need to examine not only our gun laws – the most lax in the world – but our mental health system.  That’s as much a part of the debate about ending these tragedies as keeping 30-round clips (or, as in the case of the Colorado theatre killer, HUNDRED-ROUND CLIPS) out of the hands of everyone except soldiers.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Too Fat To Be President


CAUTION: This post contains bitter and graphic sarcasm.  You are likely to be offended.

Barbara Walters outlived her usefulness many years ago, and like so many other people who haven’t found anything else to do in their golden years (she’s 83), she keeps doing TV shows which presumably appeal to women her age.

On her annual (make that “superannuated”) most fascinating people show the other night, she asked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie if he was too fat to be President.

It would seem that Babs has lost more marbles than one might suspect of someone who achieved octogenarian status several years ago.  She’s become like the embarrassing great-aunt who asks insanely inappropriate questions or makes wildly ill-advised statements at family gatherings.  It’s time for Babs to start a foundation or spend her time cultivating gardenias or something.

Consider that the nasty things I’ve said above about Babs are in poor taste and questionable judgment, because it’s not kind to make fun of old people.  We have laws about discriminating against old people. Lord knows we have plenty of people holding jobs well past an age when any other rational person would have retired to pursue dreams and hobbies.  Politics seems to have more than its fair share of fossils and mummies who hang on year after year, until they die in office.  John McCain outlived his usefulness 25 years ago.  Mitch McConnell and Harry Ried should find something else to do, and Ried is a juvescent  73.

The detestable and decrepit Strom Thurmond hung around the Congress for 48 years, finally croaking when he was 100 in 2003.  A broadcasting colleague of mine who lived in South Carolina in the 1990’s while her husband did graduate work at Clemson University said the natives told her they wouldn’t vote Thurmond out of office, even though they knew he was senile, because “it would be rude”.

Southern charm, I guess.

Fred Risser may be sharp as a tack, and in full possession of all his faculties, but for God’s sake, Fred, give somebody else a chance.  He’s 85 and apparently still hasn’t found anything useful to do with his life, other than jab the taxpayers a decade ago for that so-called “law office” shack /eyesore that they tore down to make way for the new county courthouse building.  The county offered the absurd sum of 728 thousand bucks for the tiny pile of boards Risser’s old man put up sometime in the 16th Century, and Great Grandpa Risser demanded 1.7 million dollars for it.

He got somewhat less than that.

It’s still very much OK in America to hate fat people and ridicule them.  Fat people are lazy, they smell bad, they hog up way more than their fair share of health care dollars, and they’re stupid and should just die.

So when Babs asked Governor Christie if he was too fat to serve as President, instead of shooting back “aren’t you too old to be doing this?” the Governor handled her asinine question with grace and aplomb. 

God, I hate fat people.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Revolt of the Appliances


We knew the clothes dryer was on its last legs.  What began as a high-pitched squeal a few weeks ago morphed into an annoying lower-pitched groan a few days ago, and late Sunday morning, after we gave both dogs a bath and transferred the towels from the washer to the dryer, the sound of metal-on-metal issued forth as the dryer drum rotated through its last few revolutions, and then gave up the ghost in a shuddering CLUNK.

My bride and I disagree on whether this is the “original” clothes dryer at the Compound (for the uninitiated, we refer to our home as “The Morrissey Compound”) or if this was a replacement model.  When we bought the house in 1998, we bought a brand-new washer and dryer from Kennedy-Hahn Appliance in Waunakee.  Toni says we replaced the set about seven years ago, and she’s probably right.

Since the Packers were not playing until Sunday evening, we piled into the giant, gas-sucking foreign-made SUV and trekked through the snow to American on the Beltline, and, a half-hour and $607 later, came home and wondered what to do with the dryer full of wet towels.  The model we selected will be delivered and set up on Friday, the old one will be hauled off to wherever such things are hauled, and in the meantime the laundry will pile up.

We’ve had a run of several appliance failures in the past few weeks.  The dishwasher crapped out; a consultation with my friend Jay, who owns a company which repairs appliances, led me to conclude that rather than replace the water pump in the existing machine, I’m farther ahead to just buy a new one.  We’ll get around to that – probably some time this spring.

About a month ago, the microwave oven suddenly made a horrible noise and the interior of it lit up with all sorts of sparks and electrical discharges, and it died right there.  The thing was about 15 months old. A year ago in June I got a hefty paycheck from a writing project I’d just completed, and went out and spent a bit of it on a brand new microwave oven, a new toaster, and a new coffee-maker.  There was nothing wrong with the old microwave; it’s just that, like the washer and dryer, we’d bought it when we moved into the Compound in 1998, and I figured it was probably near death.

I put the old microwave into storage, thinking one of the kids might want it at some point, and because it would cost me $25 to buy a sticker at the Town Hall and then set it on the curb for the men to pick up. So, I wound up bringing the old microwave back up into the kitchen, cleaning it up, and putting it back into service (it continues to work like a charm), going to the Town Hall, and spending the $25 to slap a sticker on the “new” microwave, which has now gone to wherever such things go after they disappear into the bowels of the Town truck.

Just before Thanksgiving, Toni’s “mixmaster” (I don’t know what else to call it; it’s the thing that mashes the potatoes) gave up the ghost, so we had to replace it tout de suite.

It’s the revolt of the machines around here!

Most of the other big stuff is in good shape, though.  We put in a new water heater ($875) a couple months ago; the stove and refrig we replaced in ’09; American Family Insurance put a new roof on the house and outbuilding after that big hail storm in April of ’06; and in ’07 we put in a brand new and much more efficient furnace and air conditioner.

I figure we ought to be good until the washer craps out, and, when we’ve replaced that, and the dishwasher, that should be the end.

I hope.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Loopholes and Entitlements


What do you think of when someone uses the word “loophole”?  Odds are it’s something negative.  You could say Ryan Braun beat the steroid charge because of a loophole.  A loophole in the law to most people means it’s a way around a law, clearly defeating the intent of the law.  If you ask most folks what a tax loophole is, they’ll tell you it’s a way to get out of paying a tax that other folks pay.

Closing a loophole is almost always regarded as a good thing.

But in the political lexicon of 2012, we’re now hearing a lot of politicians use the word “loophole” to describe a fully lawful, long-established tax deduction.  Like home mortgage interest.   Kind of like they use the word “entitlement” when talking about Social Security, lumping it in with SNAP (food stamps) and other dog-whistle terms that get the Tea People all wound up.

When I hear politicians talk about closing tax loopholes, I’m never sure what they mean because they’ve so muddied the term “loophole” the way they muddied the term “entitlement”.  Don’t tell somebody who paid into Social Security every paycheck for 45 years that it’s an “entitlement” program, unless you want to get a stern lecture about your use of the word.

Now they’re talking about closing some tax loopholes, so the nation doesn’t fall off the “fiscal cliff” (another one of those annoying political terms).  To the typical American dweeb, who wouldn’t know a Schedule A if it bit him on the butt, it sounds like a good thing.  You betcha – close those loopholes that the rich use to get out of paying taxes!  The vast majority of Americans use the 1040ez form and nearly three-quarters of all Americans now file their annual income taxes electronically.  If you use the 1040ez, you can’t itemize your deductions.

I’ve never used the 1040ez form.  There have been quite a few years when my wife and I filed a tax return over a hundred pages long.  Every year, our tax guy, Marshall Mennenga, helps us figure out how much we should be sending in for estimated quarterly tax, and he and his staff do all the heavy lifting every year in January when we provide him with the stuff he asks us to keep track of, and one of the things we keep track of is how much home mortgage interest we’ve paid in the past year.

Deducting home mortgage interest is not, as I see it, using a “loophole”.  Home ownership is a good thing, and one of the many ways the government encourages it, is to allow you to deduct your mortgage interest cost.  Home ownership, for most people, is the foundation of the American Dream, and the home mortgage tax deduction helps a lot of people afford to become homeowners.

Don’t call my home mortgage interest deduction a “loophole” unless you want an on-the-spot rant from me.  And don’t get me started on Social Security….

Monday, November 26, 2012

Some Comments on the Death of WTDY


Last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, 8 employees of MidWest Family Broadcasting who worked in news and on-air on WTDY-AM, including my friend and long-time radio partner, John “Sly” Sylvester,  were summoned to a meeting and fired by General Manager Rick McCoy.  The station now broadcasts continuous Christmas music, and indications are that sometime after the holidays it will switch to a sports-talk format.

While last Wednesday’s mass firings signal the death of WTDY as a local talk station, it also signals the death of any credible news effort on the part of MidWest’s group of radio stations in Madison, leaving Clear Channel’s cluster of stations (WIBA-AM, et.al) the sole surviving active radio newsgathering operation in town. Without news and traffic reporters, MidWest has ceded local coverage of winter storms, tornados, floods, and other such events to the other stations in the market.

WTDY’s death actually was a long, drawn-out drama that began in July of 2003 with the death of William R. Walker, who took his father William E. Walker’s small radio operation and turned it into a thriving group of more than 40 radio stations in 4 states.  His death was a blow still resonating in the group, which departed from his template for success that involved serving the community with a strong news presence and local on-air personalities.

I was a shareholder, manager, consultant, and on-air performer in the group that employed me for the better part of three decades, until November 18, 2008, when Glen Gardner and I (we were doing the WTDY morning show at the time) were thrown under the bus.  Glen’s analysis of the death of WTDY is better than anything I could write.  This is what he posted Sunday:

In my opinion there are two types of (commercial) broadcast operations; those that are sales-driven and those that are programming-driven. In a sales-driven operation the sales department in effect runs the station. If they can’t or won’t sell a particular product it goes away. In a programming-driven operation it’s the product side of the company that drives the business model. The Sales Department is given a product to sell and they sell it. MidWest family used to be a programming-driven organization with people like Bill Vancil, Dick Record, Jonathan Little, Tim Morrissey and many others calling the shots.

Then superior sales people like Robert Lewin would go sell it and be compensated well for their craft. At MidWest the tables have turned and that is bad for local radio. Sometimes good programming takes a much higher skill level to market. It takes product knowledge and passion. It takes more work. Lazy sales departments are much more comfortable selling large chunks of commercial matter across many frequencies because it takes virtually no skill, which means a bunch of low-paid flunkies can sell it by the truckload. That also drives ad rates down which provides less resource for local programming. It’s a truly vicious cycle.

The other major problem with a sales-driven model is a lack of regard for the real implications of the loss of solid local programming, news and personalities. In these times radio is really not needed as a music delivery medium. I’ve got 60 gig of my favorite songs on my Galaxy III. It’s 24 hours of WGLEN. Every song I ever wanted and about 20 gig of songs I can’t even tell you why I have. I just don’t need radio for music anymore (that’s coming from a 56 year-old guy, can you imagine what the 25-year-old-thinks?). So, what goes between the songs on a music station is critical and the real future for radio is the spoken word format as music importance fades.

What MidWest did with these and other firings is got rid of not just people, but local product. All those news people not only supplied WTDY with product, but all the other music stations in the building. When the weather got bad it was Tim and I and other newspeople who broadcast across all the signals to supply the local content that people depend on. I can’t wait to see what happens the first time there’s a blizzard, tornado, flood or other disaster. That’s what they fired! They fired their local product and will be left with a bunch of jukeboxes that will be worth less and less as music becomes less important to the radio listener. They fired what goes between the songs!

They also fired their best shot at survival.

Let me give a quick example of sales-driven versus product-driven that you may be old enough to remember.  During the gasoline crisis of the 70’s, gradually Americans shifted to smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.  Cadillac sales personnel whined to GM that they had no small, fuel-efficient cars to sell. As a result of the constant din from the sales folks, Cadillac put the Cimarron into production in 1981.  It was one of the biggest failures in auto marketing annals, right up there with the Edsel.  A mere 132 thousand Cimarrons were sold during its 7-year production run.  What the sales people didn’t realize was that Cadillac buyers didn’t give two hoots in hell about fuel economy or smaller cars.  They loved those big gas-sucking barges with the giant V-8 engines and tons of chrome.  That was Cadillac’s market niche, and they dominated it.  This is why sales people don’t make good organizational leaders.

Former MidWest Madison Vice President and General Manager Bill Vancil agrees wholeheartedly with what Glen says above:

You are spot on Glen! The scenario you've described is the reason I retired from the business. But, hats off to the determined programming pros like Pat O'Neill, Tim Moore, Jim McGaw and others who keep a flow of relatable programming finding its way to the remaining listeners despite the encumberance of the sales driven forces you've so well described. The convulsions that have taken place within broadcast management have opened "Pandora's" box even wider.

Here are some additional very articulate and insightful words about the demise of WTDY from Deana Wright, who was a news and traffic reporter for WTDY until last Wednesday.  Her statements will have real broadcasters shaking their heads in amazement.

I was often amazed when I would speak at events or attend community functions, that so many people had never heard of WTDY...didn't even know where it was on the dial. You can have the best product but if nobody knows it exists your audience will not grow. And, if folks were listening to Sly...the emphasis on 'If"...then what was being done to recycle those listeners and keep them listening to Kurt's "Forward" show and beyond? I was there for the last 3 years and none of us in the newsroom were ever asked to do a personal appearance for a client...at least to my knowledge. That's another way to attract folks who don't currently listen.
 The way I see it several things needed to happen including more focused positioning of the station (positioning statement was non-existent), the creation of promotions aimed at increasing station awareness, much more community involvement, goals should have been set with the staff involved...and a plan implemented to reach those goals, and the station should have been more concerned with servicing our core listener...hard to do, though, when that either hadn't been identified or we just weren't privy to that information. You know I once asked our PD what the station's cume was...I wanted that info to include in a talk I was giving at the state capitol and later at UW-Madison...he replied, "what do you mean, cume?...smh. And I followed that question with another, "who is our core listener?"...the answer?..."I'm not sure, you'll have to ask Randy". As you know, I've worked in major market radio for more than 15 years...and syndication and voice tracking is now the norm at most stations, which contributes to the demise of local programming.

Deana is the daughter of the late Reverend James C. Wright, the Madison civil rights pioneer, and her radio credentials are top-notch.  She came back home to Madison a few years ago to join the WTDY staff after a successful career in some of the largest radio markets in the nation.  What her post so dramatically illustrates is that people who were clearly out of their depth in running a news-talk operation had been appointed to positions of power by a management core that had so clearly abandoned the concepts that Bill Walker used to build MidWest.

Many former MidWest employees posted on social media sites after hearing the news of the death of WTDY comments like “Bill Walker is rolling over in his grave”.

Best of luck to all the people, including my friend Sly, who are now looking for work.  Trust me, better days are ahead for all of you, but the same can’t be said for the company that fired you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Voter Fraud Take Two


A few days ago I posted a rant concerning  State Senator Alberta Darling’s claim that Mitt Romney might have won Wisconsin, had there not been such extensive voter fraud.  To refresh your memory, President Obama won Wisconsin by well over 202 thousand votes out of 3 million cast, which is a margin of victory of about 7%.

The post got a lot of pageviews, because I linked it to my Facebook page.  I got some pushback from friends on the right, who insist voter fraud is real and it’s hard to track down.  And yes, I do have plenty of friends on the right.

I shouldn’t call it “pushback”; I should call it discussion.  Because that’s what it is.  In discussion among adults, civilized people don’t try to bully someone into accepting their point of view.  We don’t “push back” when others disagree with us.  And that’s one of the things that’s gone so wrong in American politics.  It’s ALL pushback.  The politicians don’t discuss; they argue.  And way too often, they ridicule, just as I ridiculed Senator Darling in my prior blog post on this.  They seem unable, or at least are certainly unwilling, to sit down and discuss.

In the polarized political world of 2012, politicians and political parties work against each other, rather than for the people.  They don’t finish a day of work at the Capital – either in Madison or Washington DC - and have a beer together at the Avenue Bar or wherever.  They retreat to their own enclaves, where they plot and scheme on how to get the advantage on the other party.  They live in their own echo chambers.  Lefties have MSNBC and righties have Fox News.

Friends and colleagues discuss differences and work them out.  Anyone in a successful marriage knows how this works.  We learn that there are certain things where our partner will not compromise –and in a good marriage, the list is short – and we don’t try to make our partner abandon a core value by shouting them down or ridiculing them.  Since Adam and Eve, that hasn’t worked, and it never will.  We learn to work together for the betterment of our marriage and our family.

To me, the simple fact is, the Republicans need the Democrats, and the Democrats need the Republicans.  They have different core values and different principles and different outlooks, but they used to work together pretty well, back in the days when Tommy Thompson was a Republican Governor with a Democratic Legislature, back when we had great leaders like Tip O’Neill and Bob Dole in positions of power.  They used to balance each other.  And they still could, if they’d stop the posturing.

So, should I have toned down the harshness in my post about Senator Darling?  Probably.  I could have simply made the case that voter fraud to the extent that she alleges seems highly unlikely.  Is there fraud?  Probably.  Is it hard to prove?   Yes, by its nature.  But 202 thousand cases of it?  When no one in Wisconsin has ever produced a single, tangible, prosecutable piece of evidence, it’s difficult to take seriously an allegation of the magnitude Darling alleges, particularly when one considers that she is more than likely advancing an agenda.  Had she said one percent of the votes cast were fraudulent, I would still ask for evidence, not allegations or hearsay.  We take our elections seriously in Wisconsin, and undermining confidence in our vote-counting system is a serious charge, one that needs to be backed up with, at the very least, ONE specific incidence.

If Senator Johnson saw a vanload of what he called “illegal voters”, I want a description of the van, the exact time and place that he saw it, and – if possible – a license plate number or partial plate number.  In this day and age of smart phones surreptitiously capturing everything – from a spouse’s indiscretions to a candidate’s speech to donors – you can’t tell me there are 202,700 instances of voter fraud unless you back it up with something tangible.  Mistakes in the tally?  Of course.  Deliberate manipulation of vote totals by election officials?  Seems possible.  Ask Kathy Nickolaus some hard questions.

We face very serious issues and have to make some hard decisions as a nation.  Someone needs to remind Paul Ryan that the very reason Medicare came into existence – and this is within most of our lifetimes, friends: July 30th, 1965 - is that insurance companies refused to sell health insurance to people who were old or sick. Giving vouchers so we can go to the insurance companies is NOT the answer.  It’s a lesson of history we should have already learned.  But we can’t continue to allow the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to grow as it has been, without doing SOMETHING about it.  Both sides need to work together to find the best solution.

Kind of like that “sifting and winnowing” phrase on that plaque on Bascom Hall that embodies “the Wisconsin idea”.

We need to tone it down, pay less attention to Chris Matthews, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Charlie Sykes, and the other players in the media/entertainment complex, and start listening more to each other.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The 7-second Commute


Today marks the beginning of my fifth year of being self-employed.  Four years ago yesterday, my former business partners stabbed me and my friend Glen Gardner in the back and threw us under the bus in a palace coup.  I’d put in a total of 30 years with the company, the last 20 here in Madison;  Glen had 14 years; we were both partners/shareholders in the company; both of us had held senior management positions within the company.  Our lawyers went to work, and Glen and I won separate settlements, which were “sealed” at the request of our former partners, who didn’t want anyone to know how costly a lesson it was for them.  A few days after the lawsuit was settled, my wife and I went to Spring Training in Arizona for 12 days, crossing another item off the bucket list.

The bus moved on, Glen and I remained friends and business partners, we stopped getting up in the middle of the night to go to work doing a morning radio show, became our own bosses in the “gig economy” of 2009, where, like a freelance musician, you stitch together “gigs” (jobs/assignments/engagements) to keep money coming in, create new enterprises (in our case, online enterprises), and if you’re lucky, like we were, you end up running your own show with no one to answer to but yourself.  You’re rewarded appropriately for your hard work, and if you screw up, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.

In my case, during the transition, I had a wonderful safety net and unwavering support from my wife, who had just begun an exciting new career with UW-Health after a couple decades in broadcasting, a position which not only paid the bills but provided the critical element of a health insurance benefit.

A few days ago, Glen was joking about his “four-second commute to work” – from his home in suburban Boston to a client’s office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, via Skype.  Glen does spend a fair share of his time on airplanes, travelling from Massachusetts to Iowa to be face-to-face with clients in the Hawkeye State, but a lot of business can be handled these days with a dependable and fast internet connection. Both of us do a great deal of work in the virtual world, online.  I’m a producer for a national news service with 24 million weekly users based in Boulder, Colorado, 977 miles from my home in Madison, and do free-lance writing.  Glen figures it took about four seconds for him to establish the Skype connection with one of his clients; I figure it takes me about seven seconds to go down half a flight of stairs (we have a multi-level home with half-staircases) to my office and be “at work”.

It wasn’t always a 7-second commute, that’s for sure.  Years ago when I worked in the Fox Valley, I did morning radio – EARLY morning radio – which for years meant getting up in the middle of the night, at 3 AM, and driving to the studio.  I never lived that far from any of the stations I worked at, but the early commute often happened before the plows were out in the winter.  If the snow was really bad, I’d be picked up by a Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy and taken to work.  In the days before cell phones, police wanted the radio people on-the-air, to pass along travel information.

During my year-and-a-half stint in New Orleans in the early 80’s, the commute was a breeze – about 10 miles from Metairie to downtown New Orleans, most of it on I-10, which always seemed to move briskly, and weather was never a real issue.

When I lived in southern California in the mid-and late-80’s, my home was in Palmdale and my office was in Woodland Hills – 58 miles down the Antelope Valley Freeway to I-405 to the 101 Freeway, and then up Topanga Canyon Boulevard.  The photo at the top of this post shows a typical morning commute in southern California. On a good day, I could do it in 2 hours and 15 minutes – one way.  On a bad day, 3 hours.  That’s a lot of time in the car every day.  And 4 or 5 days a year, there was snow to deal with, something California drivers are NOT good at.  Palmdale is at about 2,700 feet; but to get to LA, you have to go up and down the Escondido Summit, which is at about 3,200 feet, and it will snow readily at that altitude.  I still have some videotapes of news broadcasts, where the CHiPs (California Highway Patrol) would actually have to drive frightened motorists cars down the Escondido Summit, because they were paralyzed with fear and refused to drive after skidding a few feet.

During my last few years in radio, I lived about 8 miles from the radio station, would rise at 2:20 AM and be at work a little after 3 AM.  6 of the 8 miles were on the Beltline, and many a wintry morning I was on the Belt before the plows.  So I bought an all-wheel-drive SUV and had Tom Holmes put on the best snow/ice tires money could buy.  Never once did I get stuck, and often Pam Jahnke (The Fabulous Farm Babe) and I were the only people who could actually navigate the parking lot at work at 3 AM, which tended to harbor huge drifts.  Back in those days, she had a big, black “Ag-Wagon”, a Chevy Suburban with huge mud/snow tires.  Either one of us could bust through anything mom nature could throw at us.

I don’t miss the commute to work, and now I roll out of bed at the sinfully late hour of 5:30 AM.  Instead of a mad dash through the shower and jumping into my clothes and heading right off to work, I now let the dogs out for a while, have a leisurely cup or three of coffee, have breakfast with my wife, check the morning news on TV, read the paper, and then make the 7-second commute down to my office.  I have disciplined myself to be behind my computer and at work no later than 7 AM.  After 90 minutes or so (depending on what the day’s schedule is), I head off to the health club (4 miles), come home and shower and change, and deal with whatever has to be dealt with.

As far as I’m concerned, the old George Herbert quote is true: living well is the best revenge.  And – Glen got married yesterday, so it’s a whole new reason to remember November 18th!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Senator Darling and the Huge Lie About Vote Fraud


Last Sunday, on Milwaukee TV Newsman Mike Gousha’s weekly public affairs program (“Up Front with Mike Gousha”), the veteran broadcast journalist’s guest was State Senator Alberta Darling, who represents one of the more right-leaning areas of the state, including such wealthy enclaves as River Hills and Fox Point, and communities including Germantown, Mequon, and Thiensville.

When Gousha  (pronounced “goo-SHAY”, in case you’re not familiar with him) discussed the election results with Senator Darling, she said if Wisconsin’s Voter ID law had not been blocked, Mitt Romney might have won the state.

WHAT?

This campaign season will almost certainly go down as the one marked by the greatest number of lies ever told, but Darling’s assertion is patently absurd.  President Obama won Wisconsin by over 205,000 votes .  In other words, by a number of votes just a bit smaller than the number of people who live in Madison, and about twice the population of Green Bay.  So Senator Darling wants us to believe that there were over two hundred thousand fraudulent votes cast in Wisconsin’s Presidential election.

This is complete and total horse-puckey.

And yet, Darling and her fellow travelers continue to assert massive voter fraud in the state, offering absolutely no evidence of any. Earlier this year, Senator RoJo The Clown told tall tales – never supported by one iota of evidence – of busloads of illegal voters in Racine.  It’s a right-wing meme: voter fraud is everywhere!!!!  These people are delusional.

It disgusts me not only that people like Senators Darling and Johnson can spew this manure essentially without challenge from any “reporter” or “journalist”, but that so many people, even those with IQ’s above room temperature, will repeat it.  An insignificant percentage of people watch shows like Gousha’s, but I still think he – and others who practice this art – should pursue a far more aggressive line of follow-up questioning when pols like Darling spew this utter nonsense.

Mitt Romney lost Wisconsin for many reasons, but one of them is NOT voter fraud.  His running mate Paul Ryan, caught in the lie about the Janesville GM plant (among many other huge untruths), was a drag on the ticket.  Obama won Wisconsin by seven percentage points, but every reliable poll showed  Obama’s lead smaller before Romney picked Ryan.  Every poll showed Wisconsinites clearly supported the auto bailout, and even Ryan’s emotionally-choked speech about the boys he went to high school with losing their jobs at the hometown GM plant couldn’t be sold to Wisconsinites, who have a clear recollection of how, when, and why that plant closed.  Lyin’ Ryan was re-elected to his seat in Congress, but he and Mitt did not carry Janesville or Rock County.

Mitt Romney lost Wisconsin for a myriad of other reasons, not the least of which is he had almost no appeal on social media, which made him look even more old-fashioned than his ideas about women.  President Obama had more than 31 million “likes” on Facebook, contrasted with Romney’s 11 million.  Obama had 21 million followers on Twitter, contrasted with Romney’s 1.6 million Twitter followers.  This is a crystal-clear sign that the Republican campaign strategy was defective.

The list of reasons Wisconsin went for Obama and not Romney is long, and it’s difficult to explain an electorate that votes Ryan back into Congress, but against sending him to the White House; selects Tammy Baldwin over Tommy Thompson, but also strongly supports Governor Walker (who is the REAL up-and-coming Republican star, not Paul Ryan); and gives the Republicans even more control in the legislature.

But one thing is certain to any person capable of rational thought: voter fraud had NOTHING to do with it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Folly of Secession


To hell with Texas.  There have been rumblings of secession down there in the Lone Star State for years, ever since President Obama was first elected, but now the secession noise is even louder.  There are rumblings and petitions in other states, to be sure; even here in Wisconsin a number of dweebs have signed some sort of petition calling for the “orderly” withdrawal from the U.S., but the most consistent noise has come from Texas.

The devil’s advocate in me says the rest of us – I mean the other 49 states – should encourage the Obama administration to take the Texans up on their request.  I mean, this is the state where idiotic crap like “Obamacare will force all Americans to be implanted with a microchip” is taken seriously.  The state Bill Maher said was afraid “Barack Obama’s secret Negro army was going to invade them”.  The state where a significant number of people believed President Obama would institute Sharia Law in the U.S. if elected to a second term.

So I say we call their bluff and take them up on it.

After all, what is Texas known for – The Alamo?  Nice piece of history, but it’s really a crappy little old building that you’d barely notice in San Antonio if somebody didn’t point it out to you.  Oil?  Hell, we got plenty of that stuff in other states.  Cattle? Same thing.  Texas Instruments? What has that company innovated lately?  Wool? More of it comes from Texas than any other state, but we’ll be OK without their contribution.

Three of the nation’s top ten population centers (Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio) are in Texas, and the Lone Star state is big – second only to Alaska – but it’s still only about 7.4% of the area of the U.S.

When we allow Texas to secede, we’ll need to shut down all the federal installations there.  All the Army bases, all the V-A Hospitals, all the Federal Courthouses, Federal Administration Buildings (Social Security, IRS, et.al.) shut down; all the U.S. Post Offices; shut down all the NASA stuff;  anything connected with the Federal government – gone.  Shut down.  All Federal assets – military hardware of all sorts, NASA computers, Postal vehicles, all that stuff will be removed as quickly as possible, and what’s left one year from the date of secession you can have.

We won’t take any more Federal Tax out of Texans’ paychecks, nor Social Security nor Medicare or any of that stuff.  And as for what Texans have already paid in for Social Security, et.al. – well, we’ll just consider that liquidated damages for the cost of closing all Federal institutions in Texas.  Y’all can figure out your own retirement plans and medical coverage, just as so many of you Texans have been yammering about.

We’ll take Puerto Rico as the new 50th state.   Their flag looks like yours anyway.

And, since Texas receives more funds from the Federal government than it sends to Washington, the rest of us will enjoy the small economic boost we’ll get from that.

Good luck, and good riddance.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dat’s How Dey Talk In ‘Sconsin, Inso?


Last night I had a fun Facebook exchange with my friend Dick Alpert, erstwhile morning host on WIBA-AM in Madison who now masterfully handles traffic reporting duties for the all the Clear Channel radio stations in Wisconsin, from their Milwaukee hub.  Dick is from Sheboygan, but you couldn’t tell from hearing him speak.  Like most broadcasters, Dick has that neutral diction that sounds the same all across America.

The exchange started when Dick posted that he had heard someone on the police scanner say “Highway One Hundred” – which is one of the many main thoroughfares in the Milwaukee metro area.  The reason for his post is that those of us who have been around the state for a while know that people in Milwaukee – which, by the way, is usually pronounced with two run-on syllables - mwokee –by the natives, invariably say “Hiway a hunnert”.  Not “Hiway one hundred”, but “Hiway a hunnert”.

That post kicked off a sting of follow-up comments from folks who appreciate the true Wisconsin accent, as heard in communities like Milwaukee, Sheboygan, the “holy land” between Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan, and pretty much everywhere above HiWay 8.

Part of this unique regional speech is characterized by a more “German” syntax, where you hang the vowel on the end of the sentence; part of it is reflected in the “th” sound being replaced with a “d” – as in dese/these, dem/them, does/those, and so on.  And a part of it is unique articles which ‘sconnies innately understand – like “inso”, which I believe is a contraction of “isn’t it so?”, which you would hear in any conversation, like “dem Packers really are playin’ good now, inso?”

And, of course, you have to drop your g’s to speak proper ‘sconnie .  It’s “playin”, not “playing”.  And the popular new nickname for Wisconsinites – ‘sconnie – comes from the way so many people who live here pronounce the name of the state: ‘sconsin.

The area around Sheboygan and the holy land (the communities of St. Anne, St. Nazianz, Holy Cross, etc. in Calumet, Manitowoc, and Sheboygan Counties) speaks an intensely pure form of ‘sconnie, and to navigate the area, you’ll need to know things like to those folks, a cook-out is a fry-out (they have frequent brat-fry events), a barbeque sandwich is a hot tomale, and scores of other terms which are really not part of mainstream ‘sconsin speech.

For years, I worked with a young woman from Hilbert, who had learned to adapt her speech to the neutral broadcast inflection, but hearing her on the phone speaking with a friend from back home, she’d slip into the native tongue, and say things like “Yah, den, I gotta work Friday ‘till five, but den I’m comin’ back over by yous for dat big brat fry dere havin’ by Johnny’s ma’s place, ya know, so you guys should meet me dere, inso?  Yah, den, we’re gonna get all loopy, inso?”

You don’t go over to someone’s house; you go over by their house.  “Yah, hey, I heard Jim is stayin’ by Frank’s place fer a while – guess da old lady got fed up wit his drinkin’ and carryin’ on, and went to work and trew him outta da house.  He says ta her, he says, dat was just da Leinie’s talkin’ da udder night when I come home and called ya a bitch, but she din’t buy dat story, so out on the street he went.” (Notice how the past tense verb is hung onto the end of the dependent clause.)

If you can follow that long sentence in the paragraph above, you know that “went to work” doesn’t mean “went to work”, but that it’s just a common filler phrase indicating any sort of action, such as “went to work and bought another round for da whole bar, yet”.  And no one in the Badger state calls it Leinenkugel’s; it’s Leinies.

Verbally indicating agreement with a friend during normal conversation might sound something like “Yah, too yet, once, I’m da same way, inso”.

Please don’t think this post is meant to belittle or make fun of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Wisconsinites who speak this unusual language.  I thoroughly enjoy hearing it, just like I enjoy hearing a good Minnesota accent, or a good Canadian accent – although “accent” doesn’t really do it justice.  It’s really another dialect, and part of what gives us character – inso?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nastiest, Costliest Election EVER


Finally, in a couple days, the damnable ads will be over.  The Baldwin-Thompson race will go into the history books as the nastiest political election ever, the most expensive election in Wisconsin history, and the second-most expensive U.S. Senate race in the nation.

The final tally is not yet in, but we already know a few things with more than a fair amount of certainty.  The race between Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson will be recorded as the meanest, nastiest, most disgusting political race in our lifetimes.  99% of the ads run in this race were negative.  That’s not a figure from some think-tank or foundation that’s really a front for conservative or liberal money.  It’s the figure released by a number of university-based research groups, like the Wesleyan Media Project.

Week after week, we heard Tommy question Tammy’s patriotism and Tammy question Tommy’s patriotism.  Tommy said he wasn’t questioning Tammy’s patriotism, he was questioning her judgment.  But that’s not the image that was portrayed in the attack ads he ran about one of Tammy’s 12 votes concerning the 9-11 victims.  Tommy’s ads were filled with visual symbolism (like the constant presence of the U.S. flag on screen) and rife with patriotic platitudes, mouthed by people who were boldly identified as members or former members of the armed services, if not actually in uniform.  Those images say “patriotism”, not judgment.

Tammy’s ads were equally obnoxious, using pictures of Tommy looking old and haggard, a clear visual implication that Tommy is no longer an energetic cheerleader for the state, but an old, wrinkled white man who cashed in on his connections.  And there was Tammy’s ad implying that Tommy was fully invested in Iran’s quest to build a nuclear weapon, complete with some boyish announcer who constantly mispronounced “Iran” – which I’m not sure was an act of stupidity on the announcer’s part, or a deliberate attempt by the Baldwin forces to use the popular mispronunciation “eye-RAN” to invoke another emotional tug from low-education low-information voters.

And will any of us ever forget Tammy yelling “You Damn Right” several hundred times a week in Karl Rove’s attack ads?

According to reliable, reputable non-partisan research groups (like the Annenberg Foundation’s Public Policy Center) two Wisconsin TV markets – Madison and Green Bay – were among the top five in the nation for political spending.   The Baldwin-Thompson race accounted for more than 35 million dollars in TV ad buys – the most in Wisconsin history.  As of the end of last week, Wisconsinites were exposed to an average of 763 ads a day in the Presidential race (counting the ad buys in Wisconsin’s five largest TV markets – Neilsen breaks WI into 8 markets) and a stunning 852 ads a day in the Baldwin-Thompson race.

Most of these TV ads (in the 80% range) were paid for by a very small group (fewer than 100) of extremely wealthy people.  As the graphic at the top of this rant illustrates, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for essentially unlimited funds from essentially anonymous donors.  And don’t kid yourself:  both sides have cashed in on the Citizens United decision.

Had the entire nation been exposed to the incessant drumbeat of “You Damn Right” and “He’s Not For You Any More” that Wisconsinites have had to stomach for the past month or so, it might have been enough to create the tipping point of revulsion that will motivate an aroused citizenry to force meaningful change in the crooked game of money and politics.

But I’m afraid that it’s going to take a couple more election cycles and another round or two of disgusting, misleading, nasty TV ads to finally motivate the people of this country to demand change.

After all, it’s time for us to start “enjoying” the Black Friday ads again.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Family and Friends in Sandy's Path



My daughter is hunkered down with her beau in White Plains, New York – the northern end of the New York City metro area – and has been trading graveyard humor with me on the internet all day long.  She was sent home from work mid-morning, when there seemed no doubt remaining that this was going to be a big one.  A ‘sconnie girl at heart, she’s joked with me about how to make sure the beer stays cold after the power goes out, and she sent mom a 20-second video which she made by sticking her i-Phone out the window of her beau’s condo and capturing some howling wind noise and horizontal rain.

I’m concerned about her, but not worried.  She’s smart and resourceful, and is imbued with the independence that was my mission as a parent to impart in her.  Mom was the nurturer and practitioner of unconditional support; I was the loving but pragmatic parent, who tried to teach her about the unfairness of the world, how good things are worth working for, who encouraged her to stretch her wings and be her own person and to get out of the nest and see the world.

Her beau, John, has long ago passed all the parental tests regarding the “nice guy quotient”, stability, level-headedness, maturity, and all the other tests young men must pass with “the father”.  I am glad they’re together, and glad that she has another loving family to keep an eye on her when danger threatens.  John’s parents live in Connecticut, they’re second-generation Italian-Americans (which makes my second-generation Italian-American wife so happy), and they've accepted my little girl into their hearts and home.

My life-long friend Mike was up and at work at 3 this morning.  He’s a newspaper editor in New York City, and he’s facing a lot of long hours ahead as the storm moves through the big city.  Mike and I grew up with a Tom Sawyer-like childhood in Hortonville, spent countless hours together finding adventure in the pine forests and clear, cold creeks around our village, slept under the stars just about every summer night, worked on the high school newspaper together, went off to different colleges and chased different dreams, but we still share the unbreakable bond of being best friends in our formative years.

The photo at the top of this post is of the flooding at Mariner’s Harbor, on the north end of Staten Island, and was taken by one of the photojournalists on Mike’s staff.  There won’t be much rest in the next day or so for any of the hard-core newsies in New York City like Mike.  He joked with me in an e-mail this morning that before he left for work he’d put his basement up on stilts and got the shop-vac out of the garage in case it has to be pressed into flood-control duty during the storm.  Mike’s wife is used to having her husband answer duty’s call when most everybody else, except emergency workers, is sent home from work.  They met as college students and have been together since the 60’s.  More than once, Mike’s wife Barb has volunteered her services to help him get news covered and reported.  She knows the routine.  And she knows he’ll disappear again for untold hours next week, covering the election.

My thoughts also turn to my great friend and business partner, Glen, who will ride out the storm in his suburban Boston home.  We covered more than a few blizzards, tornadoes, and severe storms together during our radio years – first as competitors, then for years as colleagues and partners.  Since our radio days, we've worked together on two online news outlets, both of us making the transition from big buildings with studios and transmitters, to work-spaces in our homes, on computers with fast internet connections and studios of our own design and construction. 

Glen spends a lot of his time on airplanes since he moved back to Massachusetts a little over a year ago, as he still takes personal care of clients in Iowa.  We joked back and forth a day or two ago about how he got out of Cedar Rapids just in time to get home and hunker down for the storm.  His biggest concern will be not “if” the power will go off in his neighborhood, but how LONG it will be off.

And I’ll have thoughts of new friends – friends I've never even met in person, like Sarah and her family in New Jersey.  I've known Sarah’s dad, a Pulitzer Prize- winning author from Madison, for years; and became “acquainted” with Sarah when her dad, bursting with pride, mentioned that Sarah had started her own blog.  Such is the nature of things in the 21st Century, that we can have friends, through social media or the internet, that we've never actually met in person – yet we've become acquainted with them through mutual interests and can truly count them as friends.

I’ll be thinking about these family members and friends as I devour the news about Hurricane Sandy – and I’ll pray that they’ll all be safe and sound, and that the worst consequences of the storm will be some short-term inconvenience in their lives.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

More Debate Ramblings


This photo, copyrighted by The Associated Press, shows an amicable Tommy and Tammy shaking hands before their last “debate” Friday night at the Marquette Law School Library.  Moderator Mike Gousha’s hand is just visible in the lower left of the photo.

I think it’s safe to say Tammy and Tommy won’t be shaking hands again in the near future, if they can avoid it.  This Senate campaign has ended up in the muck, and both are throwing it.

Some people who’ve known Tommy for a long time say he reluctantly went along with Karl Rove’s attack ad on Tammy’s 9-11 Patriotism; some who’ve known Tammy a long time say she had no option but to counter Tommy’s 9-11 smear with one of her own.

This is what politics has become: both candidates with their own sets of facts, who refuse to directly answer questions about specifics, and simply repeat whatever lines their handlers have told them to use when talking about the subject.  You can’t pin them down; even when a competent moderator like Mike Gousha asks Tommy directly about his pandering to the tea party with his remark to the tea people “who better than me to do away with Medicare and Medicaid?”  Tommy just pivots and says “I’ve been a moderate conservative all my life”.

Both Tommy and Tammy could benefit greatly by hiring an elocution coach; Tammy more than Tommy.  Tommy’s tortured pronunciations and shattered syntax are part and parcel of his very well-known public persona, and a well-spoken Tommy Thompson might even be a net negative.  We’re used to his bluster and his dropped g’s and his repeated mispronunciations (“Ahmadeenajon”) and constant flubs like “Gulf of Hormuz”.

Tammy’s not nearly so well-known in Wisconsin, and her halting answers and constant interjections of “ahhh…” make her responses to debate questions seem uncertain.  In the closing moments of Friday night’s debate, when Gousha got to the 9-11 (non)issue, Tommy launched into an obviously well-practiced response about not questioning Tammy’s patriotism, but her judgment.  Tammy’s “I am outraged that Governor Thompson would make a political issue of a national tragedy” speech, no doubt also calculated and practiced, came off as stilted and rehearsed.  Unfortunately, this is the kind of stuff – style elements, not substance – that tend to stick in the mind, and play too large a role in the decision-making process about who’s the better candidate.

Mercifully, the “debates” are now over; no more Tammy and Tommy; no more Barack and Mitt; and a creature named Sandy will take center stage on the national news reports for the next couple days.

The cynic in me buys into the assertion that we get the kind of government we deserve.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Performance Anxiety


So, this is The Donald’s “October Surprise”?  This is what you got, Donald?  A five million dollar gamble that the President won’t take you up on your offer?

In case you haven’t heard, The Donald is offering that obscene amount of money to a charity of the President’s choice if he’ll “reveal” his passport application papers and his college application papers.  Or something  birther-ish like that.  The text, if you care to read through it, is below.  You can click on it to enlarge the print.

The Donald is a performer, not really a realtor or politician.  He craves attention.  I know something about this sort of thing.  Most folks who operate in the public eye – news anchors, like I was; performing musicians, like I was; TV and movie stars; public speakers; all kinds of people who risk ridicule and criticism if they fail or take a mis-step in the public eye have some form of performance ego that drives them to take the risk, because they crave the reward.

This isn’t a bad thing.  In the appropriate dose, it enables you to go on functioning when the public laughs at you for falling down – whether it’s an actor’s blown line, a news anchor’s gaffe, a musician’s sour note, or whatever.  If you can’t take the criticism that comes with being in the public’s eye or ear, your skin is too thin for it.

Rush Limbaugh has it; it’s one reason he’s been a successful entertainer.  He can blow his own horn with the best of them.  But Rush doesn’t have anywhere near as much of this stuff, whatever it is, as The Donald.  Years ago, Rush attempted to do what Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Alan Colmes, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and scores of others have: parlay your radio success into TV success.  Rush’s ill-fated TV show lasted about five-hundredths of a second.  It was obvious that Rush, who can be devastating behind a radio microphone, became a sniveling, stammering failure when a guest or audience member challenged him or called BS.  (This does NOT include Rush’s similar ill-fated attempt to be a “commentator” for ESPN, another stint that lasted a few seconds in 2003, when Rush credited Donovan McNabb’s success as a quarterback to the “NFL’s desire that a black quarterback do well”, exposing El Rushbo to a few tens of millions of folks for the racist that he is.)

This is why you NEVER hear a caller disagree with Rush on his radio show.  He does not perform well when challenged.  He has learned to play to his strengths, and he does it more successfully than any other talk show host on radio.  Or, at least as well as Howard Stern.

But The Donald?  Man, whatever that stuff is, he’s got more of it than anybody I’ve ever seen or heard of.  Perhaps so much of it that it may be his undoing.  If you take the time to read his “bet” (above), you must acknowledge that there’s a HUGE amount of ego in his writing.  “I did this, I did that, no one else could do it” sort of stuff.  The Donald’s schtick goes well beyond the parameters of performance ego.  This man is infatuated with himself.  He parlayed his daddy’s 20-million-bucks into a huge fortune, a formidable brand, and a successful TV show.

But this – this constant birther BS – is over the top.  It has nothing to do with promoting his brand, either as a real estate development mogul or a TV star.  Some day, the media will stop dancing to The Donald’s tune; stop giving him what he so desperately wants (attention).  I think that will make The Donald an even more desperate person, an even sadder spectacle than he is now.

That’s what you got, Donald?  Birther stuff?

Your schtick is getting old.

The Associate Press holds the copyright to the photo at the top of this post.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Scrap the "Debates" - and the Polls


I’ve ranted many times that the so-called debates aren’t really debates; not in the traditional sense, not in the collegiate sense, and certainly not in the Lincoln-Douglas sense.  I think it’s time we abandoned the tradition, unless we can make it more like a real debate, and while we’re at it, let’s scrap the damnable political polls, too.

Americans, and in particular the media, treat the Presidential election as though it were some sort of prize fight or horse race.  I’m not sure the Presidential election was ever meant to be merely a spectator sport.

So much attention is paid to who’s up and who’s down in the polls, and if you take the time to look back on the last dozen or so Presidential elections, in nearly every case, within a couple of weeks of the election, the polls show the race to be essentially a dead heat – the difference between the candidates is inside the margin of error for the poll.  Just like the polls show right now.

Even in the 1980 Carter-Reagan election, the Gallup Poll (which is usually regarded as the most prestigious, but is often prone to the greatest error, particularly when it differs by more than 3% from other established and reputable polls) had Reagan only a 58% favorite.  Depending on your age, you may recall that on election night, it was such a Reagan landslide that the national TV news networks declared a Reagan win long before the polls closed on the west coast.  Carter ended up carrying only five states.

That election, with the early network projection of Reagan’s landslide, caused a minor flap.  The Constitution is pretty specific about who can vote, when the vote is to be held, and how it is to be applied (the whole Electoral College thing ought to be thrown into the trash), but it says not one word about how the results of the election are to be reported to the people.  So, the networks made essentially a gentleman’s agreement that they wouldn’t project the winner of the election until after the polls had closed on the west coast.

Since the 1988 election, the League of Women Voters – which had traditionally run the debates – was kicked to the curb by the politicians, who formed “The Commission on Presidential Debates”.  That was a huge win for the politicians and a huge loss for the people.  About all the Commission does is cater to the special desires of the candidates, with no accountability to the citizenry.  The Commission allows the candidates to make up their own rules, and has led to the wide variance in the quality of moderators, from the passive style of Jim Lehrer to the more active style of Candy Crowley.  Martha Raddatz and Crowley both acted like actual journalists, in trying to elicit specific answers from the candidates, but like Lehrer, they allow the candidates to simply repeat sections of their stump speeches unchallenged.

Unless and until the electorate shows the desire to actually have the candidates debate issues and to be called on it by the moderator when they spew stump-speech nonsense like “government takeover of health care”, the electorate would be better served by having no “debates” whatsoever.  And I’d further suggest that the networks and various news organizations make another gentleman’s agreement to stop reporting polls of any sort.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re essentially meaningless, and shed no light whatsoever in the real issues the candidates should be addressing.  The polls are nothing but a popularity contest.

While we’re at it, as long as we’re getting rid of the debates and the polls…and the Electoral College….we might as well reverse the Citizens United decision, which says corporations are people, and take a serious look at reforming the dominance of money-influenced politics.

I know: asking too much, as usual.