Monday, March 16, 2015

Being Safe Out There

We may never know exactly what happened when a Madison police officer shot and killed Tony Robinson earlier this month. Too much has already been said by people who know very little about what happened. All they needed to know to spout off was one of two things: an unarmed black kid was killed by a cop; or, a cop was assaulted by a crazed kid and what you’d expect to happen, happened.


As a nation, as a state, and in this case, even as a city, we are too divided to really listen to each other. Too many people insist on being heard, yet they have no time to listen. For too many people, there’s no middle ground; it’s all black or white. For some, the President is a Kenyan Muslim who’s going to declare Sharia Law and appoint himself President for Life; for others, he’s doing the best job possible under extremely trying circumstances. Scott Walker is either the antichrist, or the reform Governor the Badger state needed.


And now, among too many people in Madison, it would seem that anyone who “questions the manner in which police services are provided” (to paraphrase a meme from the movie “A Few Good Men” that’s going around a lot) is automatically a cop-hater. No middle ground, no rational discussion. Either you support the cops and never question anything they do, or you’re a cop-hating anarchist who doesn’t deserve the protection they provide.


When NBC Reporter Ron Mott and other national TV people did their damndest to paint the incident in Madison as “another Ferguson”, the local reporters told them to look around. Madison and Ferguson have nearly nothing in common.


The Madison cop who shot and killed Tony Robinson will not face criminal charges. I base that opinion on the FACT that in the entire history of Wisconsin as a state, in only ONE incident where a cop shot and killed a person did the police officer face criminal charges. And there are dozens of such cases every year. We can debate how cops should be trained to react in these instantaneous and extremely tense situations, but, it’s not going to affect the outcome of the Tony Robinson scenario one bit.


My bona fides as a non-cop-hater are solid. My grandfather was a Wisconsin State Patrol officer. Two close family members are cops. Another is an FBI agent. From childhood on, I was taught that the cop is there to protect you, someone to seek out when there’s trouble. No one in my family ever told any child “the policeman will come and put you in jail if you’re not good”.


But my experiences are not the same as a lot of other members of society.


What’s it like to be a cop?  I don’t know, and never will. I have opinions and attitudes about what it must be like to be a cop, suppositions formed from impressions gleaned while talking with my family members who are cops. But I know about as much truth about what it’s really like to be a cop as most folks know what it’s really like to be a tuba player.


Let me share one story with you. On a hot day last summer, I drove my giant gas-sucking SUV to the Octopus Car Wash on Park Street. It was a busy day with lots of cars in line. Right ahead of me was one of those Madison Police Department TEST (Traffic Enforcement Safety Team) cars – a big, black, unmarked Crown Vic bristling with antennas but carrying regular Wisconsin auto plates.


The uniformed Madison cop who was driving the unmarked cruiser was just ahead of me in the line at the cashier’s station, and as he stood in front of the huge glass widows that let you see your car being washed, I came up and stood next to him and started talking to him about his Crown Vic. How many miles on it, was it comfortable enough to be his “office” for an eight-hour shift; did it perform and handle well; did he get to take it home - small talk. He politely answered all my dumb questions.


I asked him if he knew another Madison cop, a cop who had been my daughter’s varsity basketball coach at LaFollette High. He did (no surprise); that led to more small talk. One of the other girls from that basketball team is now a Madison police officer. Just conversation, passing the time as the guys at Octopus dried and polished our cars up. Just a few minutes of inconsequential communication.


Our vehicles were both finished about the same time, and we walked out of the customer waiting area and headed toward our cars. The officer, who was a step in front of me, stopped and turned and said “hey – thanks for the conversation.” I gave a somewhat quizzical look and said “sure, why not?”  He said “nobody just talks to cops like that any more unless they know you personally. They either have an angle and want something, or they just plain don’t like cops. It’s pretty rare when somebody treats us like another guy just waiting for his car in the car wash, and passes the time by just making conversation."


That’s pretty sad.


Cops, be safe out there. Not all of us hate you.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

I Couldn't Say No To Armand

Our home – The Morrissey Compound, as I call it – is in a very quiet suburban area of Madison; a tiny enclave of seven homes in the middle of a nicely wooded tract of land. The homes are built in a huge circle, and our driveways all lead to a giant, round cul-de-sac. There’s never any traffic. It’s quiet and peaceful. The only noise you’ll hear is from the neighbor’s dogs (or, more likely, our two Collies) or the wildlife that abounds in the tiny neighborhood.


Last night around 7, as my wife and I were watching “Better Call Saul” on the DVR, there was a knock on the door. The dogs immediately went on high alert. I can see the giant cul-de-sac and part of our driveway from my reclining chair, so I looked out and saw – nothing.  No car in the driveway, no car parked in front of our house in the cul-de-sac.


I got up, turned on the porch light, and opened the door.  There stood a small young man – couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old – dressed in a heavy winter coat, holding a shovel. He was barely as tall as the top of the shovel. I said “hi”. He said “I’ll shovel your driveway for five dollars.”


We’d had 2 or 3 inches of snow and there were still just a few flurries in the air. I’d figured to hand-shovel the driveway the next morning for some much-needed exercise. So I said to the young man, who was looking me right in the eye, “nah. I can take care of it.”


The only word I can think of to describe his face at that moment is “crestfallen”.  I think the last thing the young man expected to hear was “no”. He was stunned. His mouth opened a tiny bit as he processed the rejection. It seemed to me that he just couldn’t understand why anyone would turn down his offer.


There was a moment of silence, as the dogs poked their heads out of the door and assessed the situation.


The young man was still frozen in silence, and then, slowly, he turned and started down the porch steps. I said “wait a minute. Where do you live?” He turned to face me,  pointed to his left, and said “right over there”. I said “do you live with Daphne?” Daphne, our neighbor two doors down, is a saint. She works in some management capacity at UW-Health and takes in foster children.  He said “yes.”


I said “will you do a good job?”  His face lit up, and he said “for sure!” I said “OK then, go ahead; and come knock on the door again when you’re finished.”


I closed the door and explained to my bride what was going on. I told her when I saw that crestfallen look on the young man’s face, I felt a real pang. He really wasn’t ready to hear a “no”. I told her I felt I had to say yes when I saw that face.

My wife is one of the few people who know that despite my huge frame and usual business-like (some would say “gruff”) manner, the heart of a teddy bear beats inside my chest.


I fetched my wallet, and decided to take a ten-dollar-bill out of it, and stuck it in my pocket. We resumed watching Bob Odenkirk ply his talents as a sleazy lawyer. About 15 minutes later, there was another knock on the door.  Again, I paused the DVR.


There he stood, his shovel at his side, and he said “I’m done.” I said “did you do a good job?” He said “yes.” I handed him the folded ten-dollar-bill. He didn’t look at the bill to see that it was a ten and not a five. He looked me in the eye and said “thank you” and turned to leave. I said “what’s your name?” He said “Armand.” I reached out and shook his hand, and said “we’ve just done a good business deal. Good luck to you.” He said “thank you” again and turned to leave the porch.


I went back to take my place in my ultra-luxurious reclining chair, and my wife and I made some small talk about young Armand the entrepreneur and resumed watching Saul ply his trade.


What I didn’t tell my wife is that what I really saw on our front porch last night was not a kid with a shovel looking for work.  What I really saw was a time-warp playing out on our front porch.


That wasn’t Armand from two doors down at Daphne’s house.  That was me, in the small village of Hortonville, back around 1957.


Monday, February 16, 2015

It Has Nothing To Do With Evolution

Scott Walker knows darn well that the “Theory” of Evolution is about as solid as scientific theories get. The European reporters who asked the question of him last week were just indulging themselves in a bit of progressive humor, knowing full well that Walker would never give them a definitive answer. 


He can’t.


And the reason he can’t is because he’s running for President, which, despite what you might hear in various enclaves in The City Of The Perpetually Offended (Madison), is his right to do.


And because he’s running as a Republican, he knows he can’t answer the question because he doesn’t dare “take a position” on anything that has to do with science, because no matter which position he might take on a question of science, some Republican voter will be ticked off.


Republican voters, by and large, have come to distrust science. A Paul Vale column in the HuffPost a few days ago revealed some staggering statistics: according to a Pew poll in 2009, 54% of Republican voters believed in evolution. A 2013 Pew poll showed only 43% of Republican voters believe in evolution. That’s a pretty significant switch in four years – to go from a slim majority to a solid minority that thinks – well, I don’t know what they think.  I guess they go with the Adam and Eve story.


And because of those numbers, in front of a crowd of international reporters in London, Scott Walker was forced to delight them by “punting” on the question.  The squeals of glee from Democratic punsters could be heard all the way across the Atlantic.


Before you get too smug about your own scientific beliefs, be advised that only 60% of Americans believe in evolution.  Pew research discovered the older you are, the more likely you’ll believe Adam and Eve and not Charles Darwin. The Republican Party has come to rely on older voters and evangelical Christians as its base.  That’s not a theory of mine; it’s more research from Pew.


The acute polarization of American politics is also at play in this “evolution” question. Over the past several years, Republican voters have come to mistrust science. Blame people like Rick Santorum, Glen Beck, Michelle Bachman, Newt Gingrich, or whomever you’d like, but, as I learned decades ago in college, the longer those “don’t trust the smart folks” views are held, the stronger they become. Hence, the stronger the divide.


I know enough about marketing to know that if you’re relying on an ageing base, you’re not “sustainable”, to use a current buzzword.


Some day, the Republicans are going to figure that out. But probably not during this Presidential election cycle. Just ask Scott Walker.



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thanks - a Million!

I knew it was getting close. Some time in January I looked, and it was over nine hundred seventy-five thousand. And this morning, I looked again, and it was over a million.  A million page-views on this blog, that is. A million of anything is a lot, and I’m elated to have reached that milepost here.


Thank you.


I started this blog in ’09, just as a way to chronicle things I was thinking about. I had no delusions that anything would ever go viral. It was just a way to express myself, without any editorial oversight. I’m told that blogs have become passé now. I don’t care. I love to write, and I have really enjoyed blogging here.


I haven’t been very faithful to this blog lately. Three posts in December – one, early in the month, which generated a LOT of hits, was when I posted about the late Paulie Heenan, and how we really need to rethink how we deal with cops who take someone’s life. And, this is the first post of 2015.


I have been busy; busier than I’d like to be, in fact, now that I’ve passed the golden age of 65. As a self-employed writer, I’ve whittled my workload down to two gigs. My main job, the one that’s taken a great deal of time the past several months, is redeveloping and reinvigorating a website I was commissioned to create in 2009 by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Foundation.


You’re welcome to visit this site, which is now called WBA Newsroom. Crawl around it and find all sorts of things useful mainly to working broadcast news people in Wisconsin – reporters, photographers, news managers. It has quick links to Wisconsin laws specific to gathering news in the Badger State; how to pronounce unusual Wisconsin place-names like Shawano and Oconomowoc; how our state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws work, as relates to the news media; and all sorts of (I hope) other cool stuff.


Ever since the great recession in ’08, a lot of veteran news people have had to find other work (something I know more than a little bit about), and the Broadcasters’ Association was wise to realize that since so many of us long-timers were gone from newsrooms, and not around to mentor the younger folks, an online resource might be just the ticket to help fill that void.


I’m also in charge of the social media platforms for the WBA Newsroom site.  You’re welcome to search “WBA Newsroom” on Facebook and “like” us there; and, if you wish, you can follow us on Twitter, where you’ll find us at @WBANewsroom.  I try to showcase some of the great work being done by Wisconsin broadcast newsrooms via the Facebook page and Twitter account.


I’m also starting my sixth year as the Wisconsin producer for Public News Service. You can find an archive of the news stories I’ve produced at this link. We try to find important stories the “mainstream media” sometimes overlooks, and draw attention to them via our distribution network of hundreds of Wisconsin radio and TV stations and newspapers.


But now, things have calmed down a bit, and I’m going to find time to unleash some snarky rants on this blog again.


Thanks for all your “clicks” over the years – thanks more than a million, as a matter of fact – and I’m looking forward to getting back in the habit of speaking my mind here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Hugh Hefner Is Dead, And Other Nooz

My bride, who was watching a local TV newscast as she was doing her early-morning prep in our master suite, came to the landing above our media room (where I was sipping coffee and scanning the TV news channels) and said “they just said Hugh Hefner is dead, went to a commercial break, (at this point I already knew what the punchline was going to be) and then came back and said he’s not dead – it’s just an internet rumor.”

We had a laugh at their expense.

The “Hugh Hefner is dead” rumor, which was started by an online “news” site yesterday, was swiftly debunked by Hef himself, on his Twitter account, a couple hours after the rumor was started. No, the Playboy founder and world’s oldest adolescent was very much alive, by his own assertion, and doing the sort of things that Hef does.


I’m not going to single out the local TV station that reported Hef’s death as news…and then, no doubt, during the commercial break, fielded calls from viewers saying something like “hey, folks – you’re reporting an internet rumor – Hefner’s not dead”. Nor will I criticize or scold the on-air folks who read the item off a teleprompter from a script prepared by a (presumably) 20-something “producer” who has never been taught or mentored to do something called “fact-checking”.


There will be no finger-wagging and no acerbic chiding because this sort of thing happens with frightening regularity on local and national TV nooz broadcasts. Stuff that’s just plain not true – and, in so many cases, easily proven so – gets on the air. Social media is full of false death reports, often rendered in such a convincing fashion that it’s hard to tell if the report is truth or fiction.


The thing is, so many 20-somethings, working long hours at low pay as TV nooz “producers” learning the biz, haven’t been trained by skeptical veteran broadcast journalists who may have actually known a newsroom boss who said “if your mother says she loves you, check it out and get a second source”.


Had the “nooz producer” simply typed “hugh hefner dead” into Google, it would have (any time after about 9AM Sunday) returned dozens of results leading to stories – real, actual, fact-checked news stories – debunking the “hef is dead” rumor.


A far more interesting development, as far as consumers of TV news should be concerned, is NBC News Chief Political Correspondent Chuck Todd recently fessing up that the reason he (and scores of other nooz units) don’t challenge politicians when they deliberately lie on Meet The Press (or any of scores of other nooz programs) is because if they call them on the lie, they won’t get “access” to that politician any more.


Apparently, it’s important to “get access” to politicians who deliberately lie.


This is far, far more scary than reporting a (false) rumor that Hugh Hefner is dead.


Radio has just as much fake news (or outright lying) as TV, particularly since the fellow above began calling himself “America’s Anchorman”, implying that what he does for three hours every day on his radio show is nooz, not entertainment. As I’ve pointed out many times, in Rush’s early days, his program was actually far more entertaining than it is now, because he didn’t pretend to be doing news. He ran a very original radio show, timely and topical, full of sarcasm (which so few people understand) and biting wit.

But it seems to me that still about half of his listeners today– give or take – actually think what Rush is doing is “news” and not entertainment, and he does nothing to dispel that misconception.


At least Paul Harvey would bill his broadcasts as “news and commentary”.


Hugh Hefner is still alive – at least, as of noon Monday 12/29/14 – but news is apparently on life support, being replaced by nooz. There are still a bunch of us old-schoolers around, though – who learned by making mistakes and getting a story wrong, and being called to account by a newsroom superior who cared more about being accurate than being first.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Good Neighbors

I took the photo above on a February morning in 2011, standing in my garage, realizing that the drift on the right side of the photo was just under four feet deep. And thanking my lucky stars that “work” for me was a home office, just a few feet away, with a fully-equipped studio and a broadband internet connection.
Snow days are comin' again, my friends. Maybe sooner, maybe later, but they're comin'.

A few years prior to when the picture was taken, I’d have had to make the slog through my drifted-shut driveway at 2:45 AM, out of our huge unplowed cul-de-sac, up a steeply inclined road to get out of our neighborhood, connect via snow-covered streets to the Beltline, then slip and slide six miles west on the Belt - BEFORE the plows started work around 3 AM, get off, and battle another mile of snow-covered city streets to get to the broadcasting station. 

That’s why for many years I've had an all-wheel-drive SUV with good ground clearance and the best set of snow and ice tires Tom and Linda Holmes could provide.  When you’re a news anchor, you can’t call in. You have to get to work.

When I was doing the news anchor job up in the Fox Valley 30 years ago, on “blizzard mornings” the County Sheriff’s Office would call me at 2:30 AM and say “we’re going to have a plow and a cruiser at your home in 15 minutes to take you to work – no way you’re going to make it in on your own today”. They wanted experienced news anchors on the air, mainly to tell people to stay the hell off the roads until the plows had a chance to make a few passes.

I titled this post “Good Neighbors” because I have some of the best, in our little tight-knit neighborhood of 8 homes that all have driveways that let out onto a huge, round cul-de-sac.  It’s been pretty much the same group of families for many years.  We all know each other, we all get along with each other, and we all watch out for each other.

During those blizzard days before November of 2008, when I’d be battling the snowmeggadon at 2:45 AM to get to work, my wife would be left to fend for herself to get out of the driveway (which would likely have drifted shut again, about a half-hour after I departed) and get to work.

But I never had to worry. Either my good neighbor Anthony, next door to the west, or my good neighbor Sam, next door to the east, would trundle their snowblower over to our house and clear out the driveway so my wife could get to work.  Or my good neighbor Dean, two houses to the west, would come over with his ATV and plow out our driveway.


Here’s a shot from a blizzard morning in December of ’09. That’s good neighbor Dean’s big red Dodge Ram truck behind Anthony's tree, half of which was blown down in that windstorm this spring - split the tree right in half! Dean's busy clearing out his driveway; and across the way Tim (there are two of us named Tim in this small neighborhood of 8 homes) and his wife are shoveling out their driveway. Tim is, among other things, a volunteer firefighter for our Township. He also manages a downtown entertainment venue. His wife is a teacher.


Here’s another shot from that morning, before I dug out our driveway. Because of the way our lot is landscaped, that’s one huge mountain of snow-covered decorative limestone on the right.

One of the things that inspired me to pen this post was a column written by my friend George Hesselberg for the State Journal a few years back, in which he talked about the partnership he and his neighbor established as joint owners of a snowblower. George put the column up on his Facebook page the other day, and after reading it, it reminded me of my own situation last winter. Or maybe it was the winter before – time flies, and all – when my good neighbor Anthony’s snowblower went out of commission right at the beginning of the snow season.

The first big snowfall, Anthony came over and asked me if he could borrow my machine – that he planned to buy another one to replace it, but that wouldn’t happen before he had to get his fancy long, low, black Lexus out of the driveway and off to work. I said “why buy a new one?  I’ve got two – this new big-ass two-stage Power Max Toro, and my little two-cycle single-stage machine for those annoying little 2-3 inch snowfalls. Just come into the garage (I gave him the code for the external garage-door-opener thingy you can see on the vertical wall in the picture below) and take it whenever you want.”


Here’s a shot of my fleet of snowblowers and shovels.
Well, good neighbor Anthony said the only way he could accept that deal would be if he could use it to plow out his driveway and then do mine. I said that was absolutely unacceptable, and that if I was any kind of decent neighbor, I’d just blow out his driveway until he got around to buying a replacement.

We talked a bit more, but I could not dissuade Anthony from wanting to snowblow my driveway as compensation for use of the machine. Long story shortened, several weeks later Anthony had somebody look at his busted machine, and all it needed was a small, inexpensive part to fix it.

In my younger days, I moved around a lot, to a lot of different cities in a lot of different states, never living in one place for more than a few years; so I never really got a feel for what the phrase “good neighbor” means. We bought our house – which we refer to as The Morrissey Compound – in 1998. It’s the longest time – 16 years, going on 17- that I’ve lived in one place since growing up in my folks’ home in the Fox Valley.

Now, I have a clear understanding about “good neighbors”. The kind I have. The kind I’m thankful for.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Long Past Time For Change

Michael Brown is dead and Eric Garner is dead, and the cops who caused their death will just have to live with whatever really happened, just as former Madison cop Steven Heimsness will have to live with whatever really happened in November of 2012 when he shot and killed Paul Heenan.  The common thread among these three cases is that an officer of the law killed an unarmed person.

 The difference is, in Madison, Steven Heimsness is no longer a cop, because the community reacted with outrage, and the powers that be did something. Although the “investigation” into the incident concluded that Heimsness did nothing wrong, the community knew the “investigation” was unadulterated horse manure and forced the cops to change their policies and forced Heimsness to resign from the force.

 Let me refresh your memory on the Madison case from 2012, which is the one that prompted change.


Pictured above is the late Paul Heenan, known in Madison music circles as Pauly, who’d finished a late-night gig at a club in Madison, got very drunk, and wandered mistakenly into his neighbor’s home on Baldwin Street.

Here are Kevin and his wife Megan O’Malley, Heenan’s neighbors, who were roused from their sleep in the wee hours of the morning when they heard someone rummaging around downstairs and called 9-1-1.

Above is former Madison cop Steven Heimsness. He and his partner were dispatched to the O’Malley’s home. They got there quickly, but by the time they arrived Heenan was out of the O’Malley’s house and stumbling around in their front yard. Heenan staggered toward Officer Heimsness and Kevin O’Malley, who was at that time standing on his front porch, yelled out something like “it’s OK, he’s my neighbor”. What happened next we’ll never really know for sure, because “eyewitness testimony” is notoriously inaccurate, but we do know that Heimsness put three rounds from his service weapon into Paulie Heenan’s chest and killed him on the spot. Heenan was unarmed.


Former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, pictured above, a good man who was a good fit for the job of running the police department here in the bluest city in the bluest county in our purple state, had no idea the shitstorm that was about to hit when the community heard the story of what happened that early November morning on Baldwin Street.

 If you’re not familiar with the story, WMTV-Madison has a nice chronological summary of the Heenan shooting here on its website. It chronicles the case starting with the still-ongoing developments all the way to the very beginning and the first reports two years ago.

 My take on it is this: the people of Madison said, pretty clearly, that if a police officer cannot subdue and control an unarmed drunk without the use of deadly force, then that police officer should not be given a badge nor allowed to carry a weapon.

The system in place for reviewing cases like these stinks. It’s long past time to stop letting police organizations investigate their own incidents when one of their officers takes the life of an unarmed person. In all three of the cases here….in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Madison, WI…a significant portion of the public was grossly unsatisfied with the conclusion of the “investigation”.
As I've said so many times, here in America, we make our own laws. We don't think they came down from some God on a steaming tablet or were revealed to some prophet; we make up our laws, and if we don't like them, or don't think they're working, we CHANGE them.  Just like what's going on in Madison right now in the aftermath of the Paul Heenan shooting.
I don’t hate cops.  I respect the hell out of them.  My grandpa was a cop – a Wisconsin State Patrol officer. I have close friends and other family members and acquaintances who are cops, and I do not have the courage to do what they do every day. I know quite a few of the cops who patrol our township and respect them, thank them with contributions to their causes, and know that they deal with highly dangerous circumstances right here in our township nearly every day of the year.

 I also know that a lot of what two grand juries and one Madison investigative committee heard was boilerplate bullshit that would fall apart under cross examination in a court of law. Officer Darren Wilson said he feared for his life.  That’s the get-out-of-jail-free card. Wilson did all right, though – half a million bucks from NBC to sit down with Matt Lauer for half an hour and untold cash contributions from his “supporters” around the country. He's doing just fine. We'll never know what actually happened.

Officer Daniel Pantoleo said he wasn’t using a choke-hold on Eric Garner; rather, he was using a technique he learned at the police academy to subdue noncompliant people.  We’ll see if that particular bullshit statement stands up over time. You didn't have to be a grand jury member hearing testimony from some "expert" to determine if Officer Pantoleo was using a chokehold; you saw it with your own eyes from the cell phone video at the scene.

 Officer Steven Heimsness told the Madison “investigating committee” that Paul Heenan was going for his gun. Another get-out-of-jail-free code phrase. The people of Mad-town were smart enough to see through the BS and say if a cop can't stop a drunk from "going for his gun" without killing him with a triple-tap to center mass, then we aren't training our cops very well and we ought to look into that.

 It’s long past time for change.  A change for the better- for the city and the state – came out of the Heenan shooting. We’re still in the process of revising and updating and changing policies, procedures, and laws that allow police and related organizations (like the D.A.’s office) investigate such cases.

The national conversation about this is beginning. I have little faith that it will bear fruit; we’re far too divided as a nation to really listen to anyone’s differing point of view and move forward with change.

 But there’s hope.