Sunday, February 26, 2017

One Nation, Divisible By Fake News

This “fake news” thing is like an aging hi-yield nuclear weapon.  It’s dangerous and unstable. And it’s not a play-toy, though some practitioners of fake news, according to multiple reports, just create fake news for the hell of it. Some are highly paid spinmeisters, some are just kids adept at the technical aspects of the internet.

Though I’ve never had a single course in journalism, I’ve been in the news business for a long time. I learned from some pretty tough teachers: experience, and mentors whose bedrock principles were accuracy, fairness, and restraint.

It’s not like that any more, though.

In no particular order, these are my thoughts on the rise of fake news and how dangerous it is.


Deregulation and leveraged buyouts decimated local radio, TV, and print newsrooms. In the Clinton era, Clear Channel bought up every radio station it could, and when it couldn’t sustain the debt load, shed personnel – starting in the news room. The same economic pressures from the advent of the internet, Craig’s List, that started the problems with radio soon spread to local TV and print newsrooms.

While news gathering was becoming expendable as "too expensive" to the suits who run broadcasting at the local level, the network TV operations were creating more and more “news” programming. Because of the vastly different economics driving network TV, news (and "reality") programming is a lot cheaper than scripted shows.

The influence of local news diminished, and the influence of national news rose.

The Rise of Social Media and Specialized “News” Sites

Just as broadcast stations are constantly hungry for more content, social media sites presented a huge opportunity for content creators to spread content from their websites. Outfits like Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Huffington Post, and Democratic Underground – just to name a handful – exploded in popularity because of Facebook sharing and Retweeting.
With varying degrees of slant, the stuff on these sites is not “news”. It is not, in most cases, written by impartial journalists, but rather by people who are helping promote a certain mindset or point of view.

Because we tend to filter out the news we don’t “agree” with, and expose ourselves to media which is congruent with our mindset, many of us have lost the ability to discern what is real, fact-checked, verifiable news, and what’s opinion. Far too many people who see a “story” headlined “Obama Behind Secret CIA Move To Impeach Trump” actually regard this sort of thing as “news”.

In the span of a decade, we’ve become a nation of people who can’t even agree on what a fact is.

Network News Headquarters Are In New York

This familiar map of the electoral results of the last election illustrates perfectly the divided nature of our country. News, by and large, originates in New York City or Washington DC. Network newsrooms are staffed by people who live in blue states. “Normal” to them has nothing to do with an outlier like Donald Trump, which is why at first they didn’t take his candidacy seriously (HuffPost covered Trump’s campaign as “Entertainment” for months) and later, as he steamrolled candidates from the Republican mainstream, they didn’t really know what to make of it.

With the exception of Fox News, liberal points of view dominate the mindset of people who work in network newsrooms, whether they’re producers, writers, reporters, or anchors. Even though they are professionally neutral, their default mindset is more liberal than conservative.

The Cult Of The Brand

Many reporters, who used to have a status about 15 notches below the national anchors, now seem to be as concerned about “developing their brand” as they are about presenting the facts in a neutral manner. Now, “reporting” has become a brand-builder: you’ll hear the national network correspondents use phrases like “my reporting indicates that….”

Even fledgling reporters at the local level are paying close attention to how they are presented, the kind of stories they do, and the manner in which they deliver the story all as part of “building their brand” to advance their career.

Fake News

All the things I’ve mentioned here have given rise to the dangerous phenomenon of “fake news”. People can’t agree on facts; the media outlets they choose reflect their personal bias; and the default position of the news gatekeepers is liberal.

The most dangerous part of all this is the “I’m entitled to my opinion” mindset. If you choose to believe Jenny McCarthy’s spewings on vaccination, and disregard the peer-reviewed reports of medical experts, you’re confusing opinion and fact. And that’s one of the many reasons you’re vulnerable to fake news.

And when there’s an entire professional class of people dedicated to making you doubt everything you hear and read, and label what they don’t like as “fake news”….well, we’re all in trouble.

Without facts, the decisions we as a nation have to make are no better than a roll of the dice.

Last Word

To understand what’s going on in the red/blue rural/urban divide, read UW Professor Kathleen Cramer’s excellent book “The Politics of Resentment”.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Is A Political Earthquake Coming?

Ask the scientists at the CalTech Seismological Laboratory how tricky it is to try and predict an earthquake. It’s a very, very difficult task. So many variables. So many unknowns. But I spoke with a longtime acquaintance yesterday in the course of doing the part-time day job that keeps me off the streets, who’s predicting a political earthquake.

Just as pressure builds and builds and finally lets go with a shift of tectonic plates, he thinks resentment against the political class, which has been building for quite a while, increased exponentially since the last debacle we called an election, and that we’re beginning to see the signs of a huge shift.

The news for the past several weeks has been full of political rallies and town hall meetings, and they’re getting progressively more nasty. People are beginning to demand that the politicians they send to Washington election after election start listening to them.

The politicians who thought they were immune from dis-election because of Gerrymandering and the power of incumbency, now have a lot more to worry about than being primaried by the NRA.

One middle-aged woman at a town hall meeting with her Congressman last night stood up and told the politician that her health insurance was literally a matter of life and death. When she saw his attention begin to wane, she said, angrily, “what kind of health insurance do YOU have” and suddenly the entire auditorium broke out in cheers.

It used to be that people hated Congress, but thought their own representative to Congress was a nice person and not part of the problem. Now, that’s changing.

Most of the people I know don’t give a rat’s ass about which bathroom someone uses, they didn’t think Obama was coming for their guns, they think building the wall is a stupid waste.

But now that the slower buffalo in the herd have finally figured out that their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act is….omigod….OBAMACARE….they’re suddenly starting to pay attention.

And those TV ads you see every 10 minutes from AARP showing our new President promising to save Social Security and Medicare? Folks are suddenly starting to get wise to what Paul Ryan and his pals really want to do with Social Security and Medicare. And that’s making them very uneasy. 

They've figured out that the billionaire (?) President and his billionaire pals that he has running things might not be too concerned about how much their Social Security checks are for. Or if their 401K will carry them through retirement.

And the regular folks are starting to make noise about it.

Although the spinsters would like us to believe that this noise is being made by “paid, professional protesters”, in their quiet moments alone, the pols are starting to figure out that enough regular folks are riled up that an earthquake may just be coming.

Monday, February 20, 2017

I Am An "Enemy Of The People", I Guess....

I didn’t get anywhere near as worked up as a lot of my media friends did over the weekend, when our new President called the media “the enemy of the people” Friday afternoon. If you scroll through the list of my 658 Facebook friends, probably half or more are members of the media. Another third are musicians, and the rest are just cool folks who are friends.

My social media feeds this weekend were filled with angry or disgusted posts from friends, about our fledgling President’s latest rant, which was clearly designed to serve up more red meat to his “base” of supporters. What bothered me far more over the weekend was President Trump’s reliance on Fox “News” for his information about terrorism in Sweden, rather than the world’s most sophisticated intelligence gathering apparatus, which is at his beck and call.

I don’t feel a need to push back against his silly statements and hateful Tweets about the horrible media. I understand that when people say they hate the media, or that the media lies, they’re not talking about the people like me, who give news on their local TV or radio station, or who play the music on their favorite radio station. Most people, I think, just don’t like the OPINIONS given by one side or the other in national media.

That’s another thing. Opinion. A lot of folks – way too many – can’t tell opinion from fact. And, with all the professional liars (on both sides) spinning every political story, the task has become more difficult. What annoys me to no end is the people who post absolute, unbelievable crap to their social media…stuff like “Obama Secretly Behind CIA Move To Impeach Trump” and then, when called on their BS, righteously reply “I’m entitled to my opinion!!!!!!!” 

Well, I suppose technically, you are. But this is kind of like the malaprop so often repeated everywhere that goes “the proof is in the pudding”, which makes absolutely no sense. The real quote is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, which makes perfect sense.  Like that old saw, there’s something missing from the “opinion” defense: you are entitled to your INFORMED opinion, not entitled to mindlessly regurgitate patent nonsense.

One more rant point from your humble enemy of the people: those who insist government should be run “like a business” or that “America is a Christian Nation”. Successfully governing and successfully running a business takes two very different skillsets. My plumber would not be a good heart surgeon just because he understands how plumbing works. Business and government have different goals, operate with different parameters, and answer to different constituencies.

And that “Christian nation” stuff? Our founding fathers - speaking of wall-builders -attempted to erect a huge, insurmountable wall between government and religion.

But that’s part of the foundation of our federated republic that a lot of “democracy” folks conveniently forget. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Concrete Clete And Don The Bridge - Spinning In Their Graves

Doing some research for a story for my part-time job with Public News Service, I ran across several reliable reports indicating that at least half of Wisconsin’s roads are substandard. Not that you could tell from the concrete and steel extravaganzas like the recent work in Madison, pictured above, re-engineering and rebuilding the Beltline – Verona Road interchange.

They must have poured a million cubic yards of concrete rebuilding that monstrosity. I drive through that interchange three or four times every week. It’s now far safer, easier to navigate, and quicker. But it meant two years of constantly changing lane assignments and bewildered drivers who couldn't figure out where to go, which exit to take.

However, if you drive just a few miles outside of Madison, and all the new interchanges that have been built on the Beltline in the past decade, you’ll find roads that are literally falling apart. News stories abound from counties which are actually considering going back to gravel roads, ala Iowa, because they can’t maintain their paved roads.

This is a topic that grinds the gears of a lot of rural Wisconsinites, who see the untold millions of dollars being spent on freeway interchanges in Madison and Milwaukee, and the big road bucks spent in the Fox Valley, while their own county roads are disintegrating. It fuels the rural/urban divide that’s dominated politics in the Badger state for the past decade or so.

A bit of history.

So far as I’m concerned, the biggest visionary when it comes to roads in Wisconsin is Tommy G. Thompson, the state’s most-popular-ever Governor, who in 1988 championed his “Corridors 2020” plan, to improve Wisconsin’s roads -and I mean roads all over the state-  with a goal of helping the state’s businesses and tourism flourish. When I moved back to Wisconsin from Los Angeles in 1988, Highway 151, the road from Madison to the place where I was born and raised - the Fox Valley - was mostly two-lane concrete, and it was falling apart.

Now, of course, 151 is a divided four-lane thoroughfare from Dubuque to Fond du Lac. Tommy’s vision was for good, safe roads, in every part of the state, to help farmers and merchants get their products to market.

On my way up to the Fox Valley last week, I passed through the construction zone on I-41 where they’re rebuilding the entire I-41-441 interchange (above). One thing is certain; our state’s traffic engineers are in love with those “flyover” ramps. They’re everywhere along I-41 from Oshkosh to Green Bay. Years ago, when the Highway 441 bridge over Little Lake Butte des Mortes was built, we called it “The Polish Connection” because it linked Higway 41 with the town and city of Menasha, home to a lot of ‘sconnies of proud Polish heritage.

Now, the interchange is a huge tangle of flyover ramps, connector ramps, lane dividers, and enough concrete and steel to build a medium-size city.

The photo above was the bane of my existence for a couple years – the Marquette interchange in Milwaukee, a hopeless tangle of roads and exits, similar to what they’re now doing with the Zoo interchange in Milwaukee. Every time we’d visit my son and his wife and our granddaughter, when they lived in Milwaukee, I’d have to navigate this concrete monstrosity. Even as one who cut his teeth on southern California freeways, I would white-knuckle it as I had to go through the Zoo interchange construction, and then battle for lane-changes through the Marquette interchange.

Politicians in this state have evolved from public servants with a part-time job in the legislature in Madison, to full-time diners at the public trough, secure in their posts because of the worst gerrymandering in the nation, and with no fear of being defeated by an opponent from the other party. The guv, who is constantly running either for President or his next term, is an ideologue who thinks it’s OK to borrow, borrow, borrow for road construction projects, but God forbid he should agree to raise the gas tax a few cents to help maintain roads in rural Wisconsin, lest some future challenger say “he RAISED taxes!!!”

Even members of Governor Walker’s own party are now starting to realize the shortsightedness of this inane partisanship when it comes to our state’s infrastructure, and there are clear signs of unrest among the Republican ranks.

Our state has a tradition of elected leaders who made their reputation with roads and bridges. Back in the early 60’s state representative Cletus Vanderperren proudly wore the nickname “Concrete Clete” because of his propensity to support every project the state’s road-builders would come up with. In 1967, Don Tilleman ran for mayor of Green Bay on the platform that it was time to build a bridge to connect the east and west side of Titletown. People called him “Don The Bridge Tilleman” and now, the Mason Street Bridge in Green Bay bears his name.

Concrete Clete and Don The Bridge are rolling in their graves, disgusted that a state once so progressive in building infrastructure now can only seem to throw its resources at building monstrous interchanges around the state’s bigger cities, while allowing the rest of our rural roads and bridges to crumble.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Another Nail In The Coffin Of Radio News

When I moved from Los Angeles to Madison in 1988, the group of radio stations I worked for, and bought an ownership stake in, had an 8-person news gathering operation. So did two other Madison radio companies. And Wisconsin Public Radio had a large and active radio news gathering operation. All told, about 30 people were involved in gathering news for Madison radio.

Those days, of course, are long gone. Now, a handful of radio news people are left, including folks like my friend Teri Barr, who now works alongside my former colleague Jimmy McGaw in the morning on WOLX-FM. And former colleague Robin Colbert, who’s still doing the news thing for the WIBA stations.

Radio news. The first department to be cut when radio broadcasters have to tighten the belt another notch.

Lest I be accused of painting with too broad a brush, there are still radio groups, outside Madison and Milwaukee, that underwrite a decent, if less robust than a decade ago, local news gathering operation. One of them was the Woodward Broadcast Group, headquartered in Dubuque, which owns a half-dozen radio stations including WHBY-AM in Appleton.

WHBY (which stands for “Where Happy Boys Yodel”, a story for another time) was the station I grew up listening to in the 50’s and 60’s. When a blizzard would hit the Fox Valley, I had my little transistor radio set to WHBY in the early morning, hoping to hear the money phrase: “Hortonville Schools will be closed today.”

Mom still lives in her lakeside home in Hortonville. So when I drive from Madison to visit her, after I get through the speed-trap in Rosendale and leave Highway 26, just south of Oshkosh, to pick up what’s now called Interstate 41, I tune in WHBY to find out what’s going on.

At least, I used to.

But not last week Thursday, when I went up to visit mom – who is now 89 – and take her to lunch. I didn’t tune in WHBY because I’m mad at them. A few weeks ago, in their latest purge, they handed walking papers to an old friend and former colleague, Rick Schuh. Downsized. Expense cutting move. Whichever euphemism you prefer.

This is Rick, his wife Melissa, and their young family. I expropriated this picture from Rick’s Facebook page and I hope he doesn’t mind. But I wanted to put a face on this rant, to show you the kind of people who are now becoming extinct: radio news people.

With Rick's untimely exit from WHBY go years and years of knowledge and experience covering Wisconsin news,not to be replaced. Rick’s covered everything from the Teresa Halbach murder case (the trial of Steven Avery and his nephew) to city council and school board meetings all over the Valley to severe weather outbreaks to bad car wrecks. All in a day’s work.

And, I’m happy to report, Rick landed on his feet quite quickly after being thrown under the bus after his many years of exemplary work at WHBY, and is now in the financial services industry. No more 16-hour work days, long nights of covering council and board meetings. Rick traded that in for a regular, predictable schedule and a reliable paycheck. Rick’s a smart and personable guy. He’ll do well.

I grew up relying on morning radio news to tell me what was important, whether it was a news story, a sports score, or a school closing. My kids got that info from the TV set in their bedroom. And now we get it from our smart phone or iPad. Who knows what my grandkids will be using.

Another mile down the road, another page of history turning, another nail in the coffin. Pretty soon all we’ll be left with is “fake news” and “alternative facts”.