Friday, November 20, 2015

FACEBOOK, CHRIS ABELE AND DEAD PEOPLE

By Dominique Paul Noth


Mayor Henry Maier died two decades ago --
except on Facebook.
Thinking of the Internet and Smart Phones first has forced a remarkable change over the last two decades. Now for  gossip as well as  regular news -- with the opportunity to add personal commentary as if the world cares -- everyone is embracing Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat or even Periscope depending on which one the younger generation is pushing on their parents and grandparents.

Such social media demands a major lifestyle change for older people who got their news through newspapers, radio and three TV networks. The most common and familiar, however, with 1.5 billion users, I’m now tempted to drop -- Facebook. Because there I keep finding chicanery.

And I keep seeing dead people.

It’s not just me being attacked by zombies, but hundreds of people, apparently many who worked for either The Milwaukee Journal or Milwaukee Sentinel or the merged paper that resulted in 1995 (there are thousands of such retirees, many in the Milwaukee area).  Dozens of them have even befriended the dead people (a Facebook technique where you hit Like when all you meant to do was Look)  partly because of confusion about how social media works, partly out of believing these pages were intended as memorial tributes to people who died, in some cases before Facebook was created.  

Dick Leonard, Joe Shoquist, Tom Lubenow, Henry Maier, Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek to name the most recent few. All have one thing in common.  They’re dead. In some cases for years.  And no one at this writing has taken credit or blame for resurrecting them with old photos and even posting for them!

Leonard and Shoquist were longtime distinguished editors at The Journal. Maier, who died in 1994, was the Milwaukee mayor for 28 years and a particular nemesis to both newspapers, engaging in tirades or feuds with these editors and others. Lubenow was the gruff beloved state editor I watched collapse and die of a seizure on the newsroom floor in 1989, an event impossible to make light of. (That is the same Fourth and State newsroom that is speeding its own death throes, descending from independent local voice to prop for E.W. Scripps and now sold to the Gannett newspaper empire.) 


Bembenek in 1981, just before being charged with
killing her policeman husband's former wife.
Bembenek fought her image as a killer through court pleas and prison escape, earning tons of media coverage because she was a leggy ex-Playboy Bunny (Shoquist once referred to her in a meeting of editors as “our own little murderess”) – even gaining TV appearances before dying in 2010. The circumstances of the case, to be sure, became legend for the public as well as the media.

Newsrooms were full of jesters who enjoyed gallows humor, myself among them, so the guessing game of whodunit on Facebook has extended to many who deny participation. It’s hard to accept the notion that this is the work of some lovable scamp because of my larger concern:


There is way too much untraceable ghoulishness and perversion of facts already dominating the social media.

Facebook along with Twitter (500 million tweets each day) have all slid almost imperceptibly into being accepted as news sources and preyed upon by political camps.  Their biggest hits are regularly reported on cable news, which has its own algorithms to itemize them.

That should open the door for a bigger discussion about the uses and misuses of new technology, even as journalistic conferences ponder whether print is permanently dead or, like Dracula, will rise from its now unmistakable coffin.

(I just attended a large and thoughtful Manhattan conference of theater critics from around the nation, where only a quarter were from print – a state of affairs that is confounding both media companies and traditional entertainment executives on how to get their messages out.  It was here that a prominent Broadway press agent recounted how one early-allowed Tweet from a respected source drove more box office business than he could lay at the door of three major print papers’ reviews).

People use Facebook and other social media as folks once used Christmastime letters to catch up casual acquaintances and sometimes even strangers on family activities.  For both annoying and devoted family purposes, FB photo pages show off children, pets, d├ęcor, gardens, meals, sports events, travel interests – all for families and “friends.” But few turn down friendship requests though these often turn out to be pitching products or sneaking in links and attitudes to “stories of interest” with provocative comments woven in. There are some reliable sources sprinkled about (without gatekeeper, once the function of journalism) among this assortment of wacko news, satiric commentary and diatribes you might actually Like (Trump in full fetter) without ever considering voting for the guy. And suddenly you’re on the Trump marketing list. 

Consumers are on their own in this circus with convoluted trapeze wires. Who understands in this environment how self-aggrandizement must be tempered by self-censorship? Who reads those manuals of use? Who has the time? Anecdotally, it seems, normally smart people believe what they read online far too readily – and don’t look broadly enough or deeply enough into the consequences. If you’re in the proud mood to show off a new family toddler, you are hardly ready to question the “what a beautiful baby” response from a pervert. 


A studious Abele is posed on
the mailers being sent to
Milwaukee County homes.
Politicians have particularly noted the possibilities of exploitation through their trolls. The big Milwaukee County race for February primary and April election has become seriously problematical on social media because one side has far too much money to throw down that rabbit hole.

There are many people who believe Chris Abele is two-faced in real life but he certainly is on Facebook.  It’s actually a fairly common practice in public life – maintaining both a personal page and an official page – but it can certainly become rather sly.  If you hit his personal Chris Abele page, he sounds like the world’s most benevolent heir to a billion dollar fortune, giving generously in money and words to LBGT causes, international women’s rights, even classical arts.  Here are his photos with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and attending ceremonies for Pope Francis. Nicest guy in the world over here, advocating the right causes and people.

If instead you visit what you also think is a personal page (and it’s the most heavily promoted) Chris Abele for County Executive, you will find his minions flooding Facebook with photos and videos of his attendance at parks events and union meetings, truisms painting him as so rich he can stand above the petty political (Can’t Be Bought, he claims, while wags point out that’s because he’s too busy buying).

This is actually his political site (“Authorized and paid for by Chris Abele for County Executive, Jeff Peelen, Treasurer”) but few notice the fine print.


Chris Larson announcing his run against Abele.
This is the page where social media is caught up in what TV viewers and mailboxes have come to know – a major early money outlay by Abele to change what internal polls have shown, a fading image among county voters.  So everything is being thrown hard into his contest against state Sen. Chris Larson, the young progressive and former county board supervisor who is pumping hard on how Abele's 
 dictatorial tendencies are being camouflaged by his Democratic background. 

Abele is flooding the air with TV ads and homes with mailers claiming he has risen above those rotten “political insiders,” while Larson is exposing his own political insider status and money that has increased his power over the county board and ridden roughshod over criticism.

Turn from the Internet into real life and you can understand Abele’s practices better. When they elected him to succeed Scott Walker, many thought from his resume and pronouncements that he would bring a business sensibility as well as compassion for the moral social issues that Milwaukee County deals with daily.  They thought he would open both drawers on his mental desk – business background in one drawer, concerns about working families and transparency in the other drawer. Maybe he would even mix the contents of the drawers together as good public servants should. 

Now one of those drawers seems to have slammed shut and locked, while opening wide the big business drawer. He merrily sells county parcels around the new Arena for a dollar each, trusting that will encourage business development and squeezing out supervisors and angry citizens from any say in the matter. (These are the same citizens and small business owners whose entrepreneurial spirit has made Water Street and the Third Ward thrive.) He imposes a mental health plan that uses community experts at the top but retains the true power for his own bureaucrats, chosen free of county board approval.

Abele has to reclaim his early image as a caring efficient manager, which Larson has correctly identified as his weak spot, given that revolving door of experts he can’t work with and his footsie with GOP legislators expanding his control over even public education.

But Larson is still the underdog because of Abele’s money and his history of support for progressive causes, along with his renewed aggressive salutes to those camps he seemed to have abandoned.  It all requires county voters to look under the hood at the accusations he has been “Walker Lite,” an adamant executive short-tempered with opposition, trying to sell his own slate of familiars against the Democrats he claims to support.

He’s got the money to launch an early strike of “Shock and Awe.” Don’t remind him that didn’t work in Iraq.

But here’s where the Internet comes in, and his forces have been busy bees there.  Since   establishment media doesn’t follow Abele’s every move or every press release, you have to go to Facebook to keep abreast of what he is saying and doing. Woe if you ever Like any charity giving or general belief, and woe if in seeking information you strayed onto the Like button and seem to be supporting him in voting terms.

Currently the Assembly Democrats, the Democratic Party, the veterans, the boys and girls clubs, breweries and universities and the Milwaukee Rep are listed as “Liking” Chris Abele’s campaign page on Facebook, though if you talk to component members they are voting for Larson.  The only photos of courtesy meetings with union groups like the laborers and sprinkler fitters show up on this page.  Any sprinkler fitters out there who clicked Like?

Recently a video from the page pushing the worth of Abele had a number of noted political activists and public officials listed as Liking Chris Abele, though they tell me they were only seeking information.  The list included many leaders of the effort to oust him including Marina Dimitrijevic,  Rep. Chris Sinicki, Chris Capper Liebenthal and dozens of other known names who may even years ago said they Liked his page but didn't mean in perpetuity and certainly not on the eve of removing him.

It may be easy right now, more than four months before the elections, to shrug such misconceptions off as passing moments unlikely to fool anyone.  But this is the Internet and the track record of fooling or misunderstanding is always playing tag with the vaunted freedoms the new technology offers. Unfriend away to stop this, but nothing seems to die on the Net no matter what routine protections you may take.

This dilemma is going to grow. Journalistic centers at one time could boast about controls and monitors – and even then rank lies could slip into highly regarded pages.  There is no attempt by many on the Net to exercise restrain, to the point that venom has become the coin of the realm. 


Robert Redford as Dan Rather in "Truth."
The new movie “Truth” recounts a decade late how Dan Rather and “60 Minutes II” were driven into exile after citizen journalists on the Internet went badly awry in the haste to play gotcha. The movie is clearly on the side of the Rather team, which made the mistake of trusting a source who was dissembling about where he got some documents, but it also clarifies how wrong those Internet know-it-alls and citizen investigators were – to the point that they became pawns in burying an important story about George Bush and how he escaped serving in Vietnam.

In “All the President’s Men” in 1976, also exploring journalistic pursuit of facts that Nixon didn’t want out there, a well known movie actor named Robert Redford portrayed a reporter whose face was then unknown to the general public, Bob Woodward. In 2015, the still famous Redford is portraying someone, Rather, whose face may actually be better known from years anchoring CBS News. This is worth mentioning because Rather’s celebrity was no protection in this new age,it may have been a goad,  while Woodward’s non-celebrity didn’t prevent him taking down,through dogged “follow the money” reporting, the sitting president.

Rather may well be the first major head on the pike of citizen journalism.  Another sad historic note about “Truth” – some wonder if it might be writing The End to the sort of journalistic standards that have given way to social media snooping as the New Reality.

A variation on this theme occurred in 2014 in the third season of HBO’s “Newsroom,” a fictional vision by Aaron Sorkin of television news. But there is a startling sequence that is quite factual about media coverage of the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.  Police work triumphed in that case but had to fend off front page headlines and swirling false  certainties from CNN,  Reddit and other Internet loose cannons that actually victimized innocent people – and by this point establishment media was a co-conspirator, reporting the mistakes as facts.

This is the cycle of 24/7 coverage we can expect to continue and muddle before illuminating, snaring several innocents and mistaken politics in the process. Especially since now mainstream media listens and reacts to Twitter and Facebook almost as much as it does to traditional outlets. It has already happened with the Paris slaughter by Isis – politicians seizing the opportunity to blame the influx on needy and innocent Syrian refugees, then on the Second Amendment fabrication that if there had been 15 people at the heavy metal concert carrying concealed weapons, everything would be different.  If Isis uses the Internet to recruit the unthinking, they now have helpers in such GOP politicians as Wisconsin Gov. Walker.

But if you watched cable news after Paris, you can also see some self-correction and self-imposed determination by veteran TV journalists to not let social media define the agenda.

This new technology stirs unknown currents for our future. The good of freed information has to be weighed against the bad of unscreened information, of users who get taken in by just getting views they already agree with.  Will the online public at large retain common sense or will it be stampeded by its own obsessive behavior? 

Underneath I’m an optimist. But I keep seeing dead people.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


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