Sunday, January 13, 2008

Oy ...

Initially, I did not read Stew Rieckman's column in the NW this morning because I recognized it as being one of those "omnibus" pieces on several, typically unrelated, subjects...

I hate these things. They piss me off to no end. Rieckman's weekly column runs about 600 words and today he wrote about three subjects -- a possible school board referendum, the proposed smoking ban, and the Sawdust Days approval by the city council. Any one of these topics alone is worth spending 600 words discussing in some depth. Instead of doing that, his readers got some remarkably vapid crankiness with a dash of sarcasm that was twice interrupted by ... more vapid crankiness with a dash of sarcasm.

Miles Maguire picked up on this, highlighting the section on the city councils fast-tracking of the Sawdust Days permit, which is worth a walk-through:

Headline: Sawdust Days gets OK from Council

Reaction: With this bunch it is wise to listen to what they say but watch what they do.

To a person the Council says it wants public input, interaction and openness in government. Their track record says otherwise. Giving approval for the 2008 Sawdust Days Frankenfest before allowing concerned neighbors to comment seems contrary to the concept of embracing citizen involvement with city government.

Let me just get this out of the way before moving on. I love Sawdust Days -- and I mean this genuinely. It's the only event during the calender year where the entire city is invited to participate in an activity as a community. Oshkosh desperately needs more of these things, not fewer. They don't all have to feature carnies of dubious immigration status and rampant displays of adolescent posturing, but Oshkosh is a town that doesn't get together for a common purpose ... ever. If you want this town to succeed, that needs to change. If you don't like Sawdust Days, propose something new. Don't just dismiss it with a silly name and move on like what you've just said is acknowledged by all. It's not.

Whether it's being called a "Frankenfest" or "Dirtball Days" or any of the other familiar refrains, the criticisms of Sawdust Days are -- and it pains me to be this trite -- comically bourgeois. "Oh, I just can't stand all those poor people with their low-class carnival games, Miller Lite consumption, and teen pregnancy!"

Well, I'm sorry, douchebag, but poor people live in Oshkosh too.

The fact of the matter is that if Sawdust Days were not held in the middle of the city -- if it were instead held at the Sunnyview Expo Center, for instance -- no one would care who went. It could be ignored, made fun of from afar and otherwise segregated from the eyes of people who like to think of Oshkosh as a place that consists of only the people they know.

So if you're going to criticize Sawdust Days, do so for public safety or health reasons or offer an alternative that can be attended by everyone in the city. If the sight of women in halter tops and middle-aged men in skin tight cut-offs offends you, then let me take this moment to apologize for the crimes against fashion made by all of your neighbors who can't afford to shop at the outlet mall.

Anyway, we were talking about the approval of this year's Sawdust Days and allowing a public comment period prior thereto:

But then again, it doesn't make any difference if the public comments before, during or after an issue. The council will go through all sorts of reassurances, consolation, pity, and hand wringing before ignoring the publics' concerns.

Such as when? An example here would have helped and given some authority to what is an otherwise sweeping claim that the people who have been invested with power here in Oshkosh are ignoring the very people who put them in charge. I can think of an example off the top of my head: there are usually numerous complaints by the people who live around Titan Stadium about the noise and commotion that follows high school football games. These complaints tend to die down following the season, but year after year they arise just as the school year starts, and year after year nothing is ever done.

Here's another one: complaints have also been known to come from the people who live in the neighborhood of the Leach Amphitheater during Waterfest.

These seem like remarkably similar situations. Perhaps juxtaposing them might reinforce the validity of the statement that the council members have a track record of ignoring these kinds of concerns from locals.

Now we come to the glaring problem with this column:

Trust me. This is the quintessential done deal. The "insiders" get the deal. The neighbors are done.

Of the people I can most vividly remember begging me to "trust them" nearly all were trying to swindle or humiliate me.

Reporters -- and even columnists -- should never ask their readers to "trust them." Readers do that implicitly every time they pick up the paper. When a journalist has to explicitly ask for his readers' trust he comes off looking like a used car salesman. If this was an "inside deal," as Rieckman claims, then show us some proof. What follows is hardly acceptable:

Here's a suggestion that the seven members of the council might find illuminating. Ask your parks director what direct connection and personal interest he has in Sawdust Days. Then determine if he is an unbiased, objective steward of public parks and has the best interest of the neighborhood at heart. Here's a hint: The guy's hobby is Cajun and Zydeco music and hot sauce.

Maguire is very to-the-point over this graf: Why doesn't The Northwestern answer this question? Or even ask the question of Mr. Stephany itself?

Insinuating impropriety is not something that should be done lightly, and while there appears to be a possible conflict of interest here, noting Mr. Staphany's appreciation for bayou folk music and Tobasco raises more questions in my mind than it seems to answer. For example: I did not know that such an obscure hobby was so lucrative -- just how profitable is singing in Creole to the rhythm of a washboard and accordion these days? Is there some kind of niche market here in the Midwest for that kind of thing? Does Mr. Stephany go on tour in the summer time hawking the albums of Boozoo Chavis and bottles of Kick Yo Ass hot sauce or does he just share his interest with the rest of the city during Sawdust Days?

To put it another way: tell us what you mean in plain English. Stop trying to be cute -- it's not working. If Mr. Stephany's a crook, call him a crook. I only see some coy dancing around the issue here on Rieckman's part and a subtle attempt to call Mr. Stephany white trash by noting his taste in music is similar to that played at a "Frankenfest" of a mid-summer's monstrosity. If you don't know, God forbid you should have ask a few questions and maybe do a little research ... You know, like, the job of a journalist.

Be sure to let us know what you find out and how that builds public trust.

Because Rieckman is such an authority on public trust that he can just simply ask his readers for their trust ...

This last line is a fairly arrogant coda to what is already a ridiculous segment. Basically, Rieckman engages in one of the most common and loathsome traditions of civic discourse in Oshkosh: it's not my problem, someone else should worry about it. Well, this time around it actually is the NW's problem. Pick up the phone, write an e-mail, get the answer or the quote. Readers buy the paper looking for facts and answers, not conspiracy theories and gross speculation.

Quick: what was Rieckman's commentary about? I bet you had to think about that for a second... That's because instead of discussing an actual important issue -- the whole public input into Sawdust Days issue -- we've been discussing what a shoddy piece journalism this column was. When that happens the real problem -- giving people a chance to comment on public policy -- gets obscured by the nonsense issue (bad reporting) and is allowed to persist.


Ronald Kane Hardy said...

JB - Will you please consider writing a weekly Sunday Editorial for You can maintain your anonymity as long as you maintain your insight and wit.

I'm serious. Please?



Ronald Kane Hardy said...


Joshua Cowles said...

I agree. Even if you can't commit to something so regular, your participation would be most welcome.