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Truth and consequences PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 30 March 2016 19:47

Who’s to blame for Donald Trump?

One answer is the Republican Party. The GOP elite, the indictment goes, opened the door for a telegenic talker brashly promising easy solutions to complex problems by ignoring faithful working-class Republican voters who were angry over their economic pain at a time when the party’s upper echelon were prospering.

Another answer is the news media. Prosecutors in this case claim news organizations aided in the birth of the Trump phenomenon by giving him a forum to play to voter resentment with false claims and blatant misstatements unfettered by fact-checking or background investigation.

Some of the most astringent critics of the news media’s role in empowering Trump are influential members themselves of news organizations. Doubtless they are haunted by the infamous performance of the press in the 1950s as an unwitting accomplice of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin’s contribution to the darkest chapters of political persecution and demagoguery in American history.

To this day, journalism students are taught that the press enabled McCarthy’s witch hunt by blandly reporting his charges against those he falsely targeted as Communists or Communist sympathizers without context or analysis. News organizations reported McCarthy’s words accurately, lending them credibility, but the words were lies.

Some of that has been evident in the Trump coverage, mainly that of television news organizations that were well aware that Trump is a mesmerizing entertainer, a surefire ratings booster when he’s on a screen. The uncritical coverage lavished on him by some cable outlets adds to already abundant evidence that television news programs are often more about entertainment than communicating information.

The New York Times analyzed the free publicity given to presidential candidates and determined that the amount given Trump, which was far more than any other candidate, was the equivalent of $1.9 billion worth of advertising.

This was provided, ironically, by institutions Trump purports to loathe. Frequently tossing out the term “disgusting reporters” at his boisterous rallies, he ridicules members of the press and has incited his followers to become so agitated they’ve roughed up newsmen and women. Trump’s campaign manager was charged Tuesday with battery for manhandling a female reporter working for an online news service at one of the rallies.

After a slow start, a number of daily newspapers are putting Trump’s statements to a truth test. Newspapers are publishing ratings of Trump’s veracity by PolitiFact and are doing their own in-depth reporting on the candidate’s claims. The findings? An astonishing accumulation of Trump falsehoods, deceptions and assertions that reveal an abject ignorance of, or contempt for, American values. PolitiFact, an investigative team on the Tampa Bay Times with affiliates in a national network of newspapers, has found that by a wide margin Trump is the least truthful of any presidential candidate of either party. For PolitiFact’s 2015 “lie of the year” award, so many statements by Trump were contenders that the organization gave the title to “the many campaign misstatements of Donald Trump.” Of 117 Trump statements analyzed, PolitiFact found 90 that were mostly false, false or in the top lying category—pants on fire.

Separate newspaper investigations have shone light on such bullet points on Trump’s checkered resume as his overrated business career, which includes four bankruptcies, and the allegations of fraud at Trump University.

Both electronic and print media have done thorough reporting on Trump’s public record of misogyny in his long list of crude-bordering-on-depraved comments about women.

This is the same Trump who is the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination and could conceivably become president of the United States.

Who’s to blame for this appalling prospect? Hold the Republican Party accountable for some of it. Put some blame on the news media too. But that doesn’t cover it.

The angry voters who early on were entranced by a candidate who seemed to share their rage and speak their language can get a pass. But now the cat is out of the bag and the facts are there for anyone who wants to read them. Trump has been exposed as dishonest, uninformed on the subjects a president needs to know about and contemptuous of basic human civility. From now on, win or lose, Trump is the voters’ responsibility.

Such a pretty place PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 23 March 2016 18:19

Such a pretty place, this city called Port Washington.

Built on the tiered shore of a glacier-cut freshwater sea, it captures and shares freely with anyone who values natural beauty a treasure of majestic water views from its hills and through the corridors of its streets.

Like most treasures, this one has had to be defended, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Examples of the latter can be found, like bookends, on the south and north edges of the downtown. 

The massive We Energies power plant has filled lake views from ground level to high in the sky for more than 80 years and, after being reborn as a modern gas-fired plant, can be considered a permanent fixture. Some might count it as progress that the plant now has four smokestacks that are about half of the height of the five that once towered over the lakefront.

The north bookend, the condo building at the corner of Jackson and Lake streets, represents a more egregious theft of Port Washington views in that, in a case of gross planning negligence, it was allowed to rise above one of the city’s signature hills. The towering brick mass destroyed inspiring views of Lake Michigan from the east side of St. Mary’s Hill.

No city government officials now in office deserve blame for that aesthetic sin. In fact, current aldermen signaled last week that they are prepared to defend Port Washington views from yet another encroachment.

That encroachment is a 120-foot high, 40-inch diameter telecommunications pole topped with a microwave dish that an Illinois company wants to erect in downtown Port Washington.

When the Common Council learned of the plan to install this monstrosity in a parkway along Main Street across from the Ozaukee County Administration Center, it quickly passed a resolution giving it some muscle to regulate such structures.

Even with the resolution, there is no assurance the city will be able to prevent the eyesore from growing into Port Washington’s sky like a mechanical version of Jack’s beanstalk. The zoning code forbids a structure of this height (taller than the Lake Street condo) at the Main Street location, but state law trumps local ordinances and gives communications utility companies the right to put their facilities where they want subject to “reasonable” municipal regulations.

Any regulation that keeps this sort of thing out of a small-town downtown should be considered reasonable per se. 

Everyone gets it that communications antennas and the like are necessary trappings of the advanced technology on which society is increasingly dependent. Yet there has to be a balance that gives appropriate weight to the aesthetic damage done by these facilities. State regulatory agencies need to do more to determine whether their placement in sensitive areas serves a genuine need more than the profits of communications companies.

The bureaucrats who will review Port Washington’s objections to the 120-foot structure should give the community credit for having put up for years with an eye-aching communications structure in its downtown district—the tower that stands high over Wisconsin Street on Billy Goat Hill flaunting a virtual erector set of metal appendages. One of these ugly fabrications is more than enough.

Win or lose, this conflict of community aesthetics with structures serving commerce will not be the city’s last. Elected officials will be challenged, especially when the height of buildings is at issue, to weigh benefits of commercial development against this city’s priceless aesthetics—and to never forget that this is such a pretty place.

Keep democracy messy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 16 March 2016 16:06

Sunshine Week, this week’s national observance of efforts to assert the public’s right to know what its government is doing, brought a sunny news release from Gov. Scott Walker’s office. It announced that Wisconsin’s chief executive was issuing an executive order “to promote open and transparent government through the implementation of best practices and performance dashboards.”

Translated from trendy business jargon to plain English, it seems the order essentially directs state agencies to respond to public records requests from citizens and the press in a timely and efficient manner.

That is what the law requires.

Wisconsin has laws mandating that government records be available to the public and government meetings be open to the public. Even so, the movement to keep government open to scrutiny is a work in progress, as the governor himself made clear last summer when he and Republican leaders of the Legislature attempted—in secret, of course—to severely weaken the open records law.

The attempt was abandoned in the face of a furious public response. Other moves to withhold records, including officials’ emails, colored the Walker administration as hostile to transparent government.

The “Sunshine Week initiatives” referred to in the news release may be a PR initiative to change that image. If they are also a sincere effort to improve access to government records, the governor will deserve any public approval that comes from it.

One thing is certain about the so-called sunshine laws based on the public’s right to know: Without them government officials would be less accountable to the people.

The appeal of managing public affairs without the aggravation of the public watching is difficult to resist, judging from the frequency with which it is attempted at all levels of government. Examples abound in the Obama administration, Congress, and state and local governments.

Public scrutiny, of course, makes government officials’ jobs harder. The frustrating complaints, competing demands and tedious intrusions by citizens, not to mention pesky journalists, all interfere with the smooth execution of the business of government. And that is as it should be. Because government is not a business; it is not a well-oiled machine. Democratic government is a messy operation. 

In the councils, boards and commissions of Ozaukee County, when conflicts with Wisconsin’s open government laws occur they often take the form of misuse of exceptions to the open meetings law. The law allows closed meetings in narrowly defined instances involving government personnel and negotiating purchases or contracts. Whether through the intent of officials or faulty advice from ill-informed legal counsel, the exemptions are sometimes wrongly applied and matters that affect the public in important ways are settled behind closed doors.

Even when exceptions apply and closed meetings would be legal, officials who are weighing whether to close the doors should keep in mind that shutting out the public contributes to taxpayer cynicism and distrust of government. 

In the City of Port Washington, no fewer than four issues are currently being dealt with by the Common Council in meetings from which the public is excluded. Three of them involve land owned by the public. 

Citizens expect to hear and see their representatives debate issues vigorously, not to cast unanimous votes ratifying agreements made in private sessions. Disagreement among officials and divided votes in public forums are signs of a healthy democracy.

That’s what the public wants to see on the government’s “performance dashboard.”

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