The 2003 TONY Awards

Tony Palmeri's Media Rants

From the December, 2003 edition of The Valley Scene

The year 2003 may be remembered as American journalism's most shameful ever. From propagating misinformation about Iraq, to obsessing over sensationalistic stories, to lobbying for a repeal of FCC ownership rules, national media in 2003 became synonymous with corporate greed and caving in to government power. As noted by Bill Moyers, "Giant megamedia conglomerates that our founders could not possibly have envisioned are finding common cause with an imperial state in a betrothal certain to produce not the sons and daughters of liberty but the very kind of bastards that issued from the old arranged marriage of church and state."

At the state and local levels, the situation wasn't much better. With some notable exceptions mentioned in this column, the corporate Wisconsin press sunk further into irrelevance and big business boosterism. The November Media Reform conference in Madison at which Moyers spoke and which was attended by almost 2,000 reform advocates received virtually zero coverage. As for northeastern Wisconsin's corporate media, 2003 saw mostly Gannett style underreporting, conformity, and editorial mediocrity.

But some Wisconsin journalism in 2003 did advance the cause of democracy while meeting high standards of integrity. To them I proudly offer a 2003 TONY Award:

*Best Local Journalist: Cheryl Hentz, Eye on Oshkosh (www.eyeonoshkosh.com). No journalist in the Fox Valley does more than Cheryl to hold elected officials and the mainstream media accountable. On television and in print, Cheryl dares to ask the tough questions, and she does it in a nonpartisan and fiercely independent style. Though I often disagree with her point of view, Cheryl's a boat rocker. We need more of those in the journalistic ranks!

*Best Letter to the Editor: In April, five Green Bay area high school students (Charity Robison, Jeanna Lott, Shannon Pechauer, Amiee Blaisdell, Bryan Bessa) wrote a letter to the Press Gazette exposing the sham "hearing" that the legislature's Joint Finance Committee held in the region. They wrote, "Most committee members in attendance were very rude. As people spoke, committee members talked and joked among themselves. They laughed and talked. Some of the members walked around during the testimonies . . . Their complete lack of common courtesy and their total arrogance certainly opened up our eyes to how state government works." I urge these young muckrakers continue to put pressure on our arrogant and corrupt legislature.

*Marketplace of Ideas Award: Sean Fitzgerald, Lake Winenbago B2B (www.winnebagob2b.com). Most local business publications include nothing but promotional puff pieces. In Winnebago B2B, publisher Fitzgerald engages the community in a serious discussion of issues. While much of the Valley press rolls over and plays dead on the issue of Tax Incremental Financing, for example, in March Sean (who supports TIFs) actually published a pro and con debate on the topic.

*Best Feature Series: Mike Ivey, Madison Capital Times. In May, Ivey published a three part series on how corporations in the state avoid paying taxes. He revealed that the state loses up to $100 million each biennium because of tax dodging schemes.

*Most Courageous Editorial: In August the conservative Wisconsin State Journal published an editorial advocating gay marriage. They said, "The campaign for gay marriage has a long way to go. More than changing laws, it involves changing minds. But Wisconsin, led by a Republican governor, passed the nation's first gay rights law in 1982. We could once again show our nation the right path. The cause awaits courageous political leadership."

*Most Improved Column: Stew Rieckman, Oshkosh Northwestern. In previous years, Executive Editor Rieckman's weekly column struck me as high on schmoozing and low on substance. In 2003, he persistently took on pompous politicians on both sides of the aisle. Rieckman recently ripped the Republicans for their cynical attempt to lay a foundation for defeating Doyle via exploitation of issues like gay marriage and concealed weapons. He said, "More than 600 people in Oshkosh who lost their jobs in the past 12 months may think there are more important issues."

*Most Valuable Muckrakers: Mike McCabe, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (www.wisdc.org) and Jay Heck, Common Cause/Wisconsin (http://commoncause.sitemanager.ims.net/). In 2003, McCabe and Heck continued to educate us about the environment of corruption and incompetence that pervades Wisconsin's political institutions. While the corporate media's lazy reporting too often aids and abets politicians' efforts to keep us in the dark, McCabe's and Heck's nonpartisan analyses and advocacy keeps the torch of Fighting Bob burning.

*Most Principled Progressive: Becky Katers, Clean Water Action Council (www.cwac.net). If and when Fox River polluters are truly held to account for what they've done to our most valuable natural resource, it will be due to the efforts of fighters like Becky Katers. For almost 20 years, Becky has taken on paper industry executives and flacks, elected officials, and the compromised corporate media that uphold them. In 2003 she even demonstrated how mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, in their effort to gain acceptance from politicians and polluters, were ultimately undermining efforts to save the river.

Journalism professor William Woo says that, "A press that is hostage to its investors is no more a free press than one that is hostage to government." Let's hope that in 2004 American journalism pledges to resolve its hostage crisis and pursue TONY Award standards of advancing the cause of democracy by holding power accountable.

Tony Palmeri is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.