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….