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. 


Monday, November 2, 2015

TIME TO BREAK THE CYCLE OF FALSE POLITICAL OUTRAGE

By Dominique Paul Noth

I have genuine problems with President Obama in education, where it has taken him a long time to put his arms around the miscalculations within his department’s testing obsession.  I’m sure there are other well-meant decisions that can be criticized as too facile. 

Overall, though, we are watching how easily his opponents’ rhetoric goes over the top in a way that attracts media pile-on and can plant beliefs in the public’s head that time proves debatable or flat untrue.  As usual it is always easier in foreign matters we Americans know little about but domestic deceptions are also frequent.

It’s actually not new, long a part of the political game. But this generation ought to be growing up. The tendency to demean individuals with too broad a brush and then watch the mistaken pronouncements turn into universal folklore has gone on for ages, but these days are made both easier to spot and more prone to pack journalism from cable to social media, and by political opportunists who can throw big money into the trashing heap.

Carter turns out to be better president
than widespread myths suggest.
Let’s take the lingering myth that Jimmy Carter may have redeemed himself as an exemplary international citizen (Nobel Peace Prize 2002) but was a lousy president for four years. But look at how many of his achievements as president either bore fruit or have become accepted vision. That includes stuff the modern public doesn’t know he started, such as the Department of Energy and modernizing the role of the vice president. 

Reagan (and we could do a whole article on how he is mischaracterized by both political camps) removed the solar panels Carter installed at the White House. Does anyone today think that was a lame Carter idea? His plea to make energy conservation, price controls, new technology and maybe even an extra sweater a way to reduce US dependency on oil was painted as silly then. But today conservation is part of everybody’s plans. The Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt still holds and may even have set the model for Bill Clinton in the Balkans and Obama’s patience and stubbornness during setbacks from Libya to Afghanistan.

Whatever his genuine failures – as opposed to manufactured ones, which historians are more and more demonstrating was the case with the Iran hostage crisis -- he also appointed Paul Volker to the federal reserve and emphasized human rights in the face of what many demeaned as bad politics. If we want to talk about lousy presidents, can we discuss the guy who led us into the nation’s most misguided war and supervised runaway corporations that almost dragged us back into a Great Depression?

Putting Obama's words in perspective.
Obama, a savvy politician, is likewise not totally blameless, but he is being savaged for stray words not deeds. The public trusts his intelligence, maturity and optimism – so overall the public knows what he means even when he uses an overly broad sound-bite.  Take, “if you like your doctor you can keep him” under the Affordable Care Act.  That’s actually not what he said, usually it was more like “If you like your health plan you can keep it.”  He obviously didn’t know and should have how many lousy health plans there were out there.

But most people understood that was not a promise against any health storm, though opponents tried to make it seem a blanket statement. The observant knew Obama assumed the doctor you liked belonged to a good health plan that fit all the basic requirements of the ACA or soon would in common decency. He also should have anticipated that health providers would play a blame game, sending out warning letters denouncing “Obamacare” as they dropped patients without explaining how they could move to their own or rivals’ better coverage. Obama was seeking a memorable phrase that went too far -- but most people knew just what he meant. 

Yet for that blunder, Obama was rewarded with Pinocchio of the year or Pants on Fire for 2013 by the media referees. He was pretty much taken to the woodshed – and spanked harder as the launch of the ACA website went awry. It did blunder though seems remarkably smooth now. Commentators have only belatedly reported how the early website was overwhelmed in part by more Republican governors than expected who refused to help their states create a separate and probably cheaper exchange.

Today (except in Wisconsin) the states  are creeping aboard  the idea of a state exchange or accepting expanded Medicaid because the citizens do have friends in other states and realize how much easier finances could be for families. 

There are some ready fixes for the admittedly complicated ACA, but in the current atmosphere of political extremism the White House fears to bring them up because that “lie of the year” set a pattern for attack. 

Yet even the current media tea leaves do support Obama on this – in a few years the ACA will be as much a part of the American fabric as Social Security.  Moreover it is proving not a dictatorial takeover.  Some progressives wanted it to be totally government-run single payer while conservatives still think it is a government takeover though the complications stem largely from protecting the existing private health industry. Obama didn’t bolt to either extreme, which may explain why the large jury of consumers has become supportive despite the raging critics.

That may be why most GOP candidates are taking the ACA off the table when they return to their districts no matter how they voted in the House. 

The point is, the public needs to be cautious about historic truisms and Pinocchios. They don’t reflect what is really happening.  In a few years it is the media that may look proboscis obsessed.

That ought to bring us to “boots on the ground.” Two and even three years ago, Obama promised “no American boots in Syria” or something like that –in context it was about how he would not repeat the Bush error in Iraq of heading an invasion. 

He clearly didn’t mean a total embargo on military trained people inside these now unstable and even migratory borders of Syria and Iraq, but that he would not make the mistake of mass invasion of a country based on neo-con misunderstanding of the role of American exceptionalism in world affairs. In reality there have been hundreds of US military advisers there quietly for a year.

The media is partly right to worry about “mission creep” that once trapped us in Vietnam, but fewer than 50 advisers who may be drawn into combat hardly qualifies as mission creep, not when US planes are flying thousands of sorties a year. 

There is also humanity pressure on Obama to do more -- millions of Syrian civilians fleeing the conflict, hundreds capsizing in overloaded boats. The suffering is a goad to American involvement even though internationalists think nations closer to the disaster should be stepping up first.

In a vastly shifting situation Obama is taking measured approaches against Isis that are open to criticism. (Why not a fly zone?  Why such trust in coalition power after Libya? If the Saudis also hate Isis, where are they?) These are important questions for mature debate. But at least Obama is thinking them through not overreacting as Bush did and the critics are. He apparently won’t let the dead hand of past sound-bites control his thinking.

Yet now the media has exploded over his announcement of less than 50 advisers – maybe because it was two days before Halloween. They play an endless rotation of old videos of “no American combat boots” from past years and suggest that landing these military specialists in Syria with no timetable for extraction violated his promise. A story in one national newspaper was even headlined:  “Obama Vows to End Two Wars, Now Starts a Third” – without noticing he did stop two wars and never started a third.

The critics gain some validity since the White House downplayed the announcement and is playing semantics to insist these are not combat troops and then conceding they could wind up in combat in certain situations.

Yet the central mission of mixing armed strength with diplomatic maneuvers remains unchanged. This for the media is something like “keep your doctor,” an invention that may pass into popular history.

Ryan uses Obama blame to sidestep
his own wheeling-dealing.
We just got an attempt at more of the same false history from the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who went on “Meet the Press” to lie about Obama.  Ryan was actually trying to deflect media attention from the House of horrors he is now running. When he didn’t get the support he hoped for he grabbed some doubting right-wingers by promising he would keep comprehensive immigration reform on the shelf through the 2016 presidential election – a surefire way to make Latinos turn out for the Democrat.

Ryan’s excuse for more delay follows those old “make up your own history” canards.  Obama is “untrustworthy on this issue” because he’s secretly rewriting laws and putting himself above Congress, Ryan claims. But in truth Obama has acted in the open. He waited for years for the House to act, still wants them to and mainly as a goad used his executive authority to create limited entry for “dreamers” and their families. After losing the first round the idea is still moving through the appeals process. 

Despite all the claims that his youth represents change, Ryan wears a century old hat in political trickery. Many consider his economic thinking equally outdated.

He is counting on a duped public unaware of how the Obama policy on immigration happened – relying on ignorance and kneejerk distrust of any Democrat.  Is he expecting them to be fooled again when the group that refuses to act on immigration blames the other side for acting?  As Obama has constantly said, his executive order on immigration disappears the minute Congress passes a decent reform measure, which Ryan says he won’t allow, though the Senate in bipartisan fashion has done it.  Ironically, court action could make Ryan eat his own words.  While the executive order is temporarily blocked, it could be upheld while Obama is still president – and then all the blames falls on Ryan’s House.

It takes awhile for realities of history to refute the political myths so many people not only believe but also pass along. But perhaps the public is growing up. Certainly it should no longer accept the immediate hysteria for ratings that seems to have taken over both politicians and talking heads.  American optimism ought to mean believing that We the People are at the very least paying better attention.

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.