By Tony Palmeri
from the December 2005 issue of The Valley Scene
In February of this year Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson died at the age of 83. Amnesty originated in 1961 after Benenson, then a London lawyer, published an article in the Observer called “The Forgotten Prisoners.” In a subsequent series of letters called “Appeal For Amnesty,” he alerted readers to the plight of political prisoners around the globe, many in jail or tortured only for disagreeing with their government. The article and letters received an overwhelming response.
The late Peter Benenson
Since 1961 Amnesty has grown to over one million members in more than 160 countries, sponsored campaigns on behalf of more than 47,000 prisoners of conscience, and won the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. All this was the result of a simple act of citizenship—Peter Benenson writing a newspaper article and some letters.
In this fourth annual TONY awards column, I celebrate simple acts of citizenship that occurred in our region during 2005. The citizens involved typically must confront a corporate establishment media that is often hostile, frequently uncaring, and too often mouthpieces for the very powers that active citizenship speaks truth to.
None of the 2005 TONY laureates have had Amnesty-like global effects--at least not yet. But their simple acts of citizenship represent symbols of hope in a region where an iron triangle of big government, big business, and big media exert undue influence in determining not only what issues will gain prominence, but how those issues will be framed.
The 2005 TONYs go to those individuals and groups who challenged the Iron Triangle with a Benenson style sense of duty. And the winners are:
*Rally of the Year: The “Citizen Rally for Balanced and Complete News Coverage” organized by Green Bay activist Becky Katers. Sparked by the Green Bay Press Gazette’s refusal to cover a protest outside congressman Mark Green’s office, in June a group of citizens rallied outside the Gannett paper’s headquarters. Katers said “A community newspaper has a solemn duty to provide objective, thorough and unbiased reporting of the news, with no partisan favoritism, but the Press Gazette has repeatedly failed to meet this standard.”
*Best Political Campaign Coverage: OshkoshNews.Org. Thanks to OshkoshNews.org and its main blogger Miles Maguire, no voter in Winnebago County can say they do not have enough issue and candidate information. When it comes to campaign coverage, OshkoshNews is a model of responsible media.
*Best Individual Media Activist: Tina Haffeman, Oshkosh resident. The Downing Street memo along with other documents arguably represents smoking gun evidence that George Bush had secretly decided to go to war by the summer of 2002. In June Oshkosh Northwestern Executive Editor Stew Rieckman wrote a column headlined “Downing Street memo lapse borders on media malpractice.” In it he wrote, “Frankly, I was not aware of the controversial memo until the persistent inquiries by a reader, Tina Haffeman, sent me to the Web.”
*Best at Standing up to Bullies: The Oshkosh Cobblestoners. In 2005 monied interests allied with the Chamber of Commerce engaged in an unprecedented effort to buy Oshkosh Common Council seats including the new elected mayor position. They were mostly successful, in part because the Gannett press derided as “Cobblestoners” those who refused to raise and spend massive amounts of campaign cash. The Cobblestoners (Paul Esslinger, Brian Poeschl, Cheryl Hentz, Joe Jungwirth) get a TONY for showing that it’s better to lose an election and speak your mind than to sell out to big business and big media bullies.
*Best Display of Real Patriotism: Democracy for America, Fox Valley. In May a group of citizen activists tried to get the Appleton Common Council to pass a resolution urging Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to vote to repeal the USA PATRIOT Act. After the Council defeated the resolution on a 14-2 vote, group spokesman Lon Ponschock told the Post-Crescent that “I would like to think we could have gotten a better reaction from the council in support of something that 380 other cities in the country have done.” Losing the vote does not diminish DFA’s vital work in support of liberty and justice for all.
*Youth Activist of the Year: Rachel “Angel” Aiken, age 16. Ms. Aiken has been an active participant in anti-war protests. In 2005 she also became active in the movement to get Kentucky Fried Chicken to eliminate the torturous abuse that chickens suffer on factory farms. Soon Rachel will be starting Wal-Mart protests.
*Citizen of the Year: Geoff Matze, Oshkosh. When the Oshkosh Common Council awarded a no-bid contract to the C.R. Meyer Corporation to build Leach Amphitheatre bathrooms, Matze launched a one-man effort with no help from the local press to find out if the action was proper. The Attorney General’s office eventually came to the conclusion that the city broke the law. Journalist Cheryl Hentz gave Kudos to Matze for “having the courage to challenge city leaders when he believed that they did something wrong and overstepped their bounds. More cities need residents who are not afraid to have the courage of their convictions and who will stand up for what they believe is right.”
Peter Benenson was fond of quoting an old Chinese proverb: “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” We should all pledge to help the 2005 TONY recipients keep the candle lit.
Prior TONY Award columns can be found here, here, and here.
Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is
an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.