Wisconsin State Journal, Aug. 26

Warning about lakes was prophetic

The State Journal asked an unsettling question just three weeks ago, as part of reporter Steven Verburg's five-part series on the importance and vulnerabilities of Madison's lakes:

"Would a massive rain flood the Isthmus?" the headline in our Aug. 5 newspaper asked.

We now know the answer.

Seven Madison streets on the Isthmus were closed Friday because of flooding, following heavy rain that began Monday night. And the city was notifying some 1,700 Isthmus residents Friday that their properties were at risk.

As much as 10 inches fell on the city's West Side, drowning a 70-year-old man who was swept away from his stuck car, flooding countless basements and raising lake levels to historic highs.

The one bright spot, as emergency officials and volunteers filled sandbags late last week, was that the Tenney lock and dam — which holds back water in Lake Mendota — was deemed sound and "highly unlikely" to breach.

Thank goodness.

Yet the forecast called for 2 or 3 more inches of rain into early this week, with Lake Monona — already at its high water mark Friday — expected to rise half a foot more by today. More than $100 million in damage across Dane County has occurred, much of it in the villages of Mazomanie, Black Earth and Cross Plains in western Dane County, where more than a foot of rain reportedly fell within 24 hours.

Ken Potter, a retired professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, was featured three weeks ago in the State Journal's five-part series, "The Yahara Lakes/Giants Among Us." The State Journal published Potter's startling map of a flooded Isthmus with dozens of blocks deluged, based on projections of what 14 inches of rain would do to the central city. A downpour of that size in Sauk County northwest of Madison in 2008 caused Lake Delton to breach, washing away homes and emptying the lake.

Potter's calculations and warnings about Isthmus flooding earlier this month have quickly proved prophetic, even though the Isthmus missed this week's heaviest rains.

"It could have been a lot worse," Potter told the State Journal last week. "If you move the storm a little bit to the east — this is exactly the kind of storm I feared."

The Isthmus is especially vulnerable to heavy rain because it is surrounded by lakes, and because its abundance of pavement and rooftops fail to absorb water. Moreover, the city and region continue to grow, which is why Potter is recommending stricter stormwater regulations for new developments. Current urban design standards essentially double the amount of water that ends up in ditches, streams and eventually the lakes, he said.

A changing climate also is producing heavier downpours, which flood our waterways with excessive phosphorus pollution from farms, lawns and construction sites. That, in turn, feeds algae and stinky green scum in the water, harming wildlife and damaging our quality of life.

We can't take our lakes for granted, as "The Yahara Lakes/Giants Among Us" so powerfully showed — and as the past week of flooding has only reinforced. We must protect our lakes because, ultimately, doing so protects us.


The Capital Times, Aug 22

JFK'S defense of press freedom is antidote to Trump's abusive authoritarianism

These are tough times for journalism in America.

Newspapers have been folding, newsrooms have been thinning out, editors and reporters are being laid off at alarming rates. Hedge-fund owners are sacrificing local journalism to pad their profits. Mergers and acquisitions are dumbing down print, broadcast, and online media in pursuit of a one-size-fits-all bottom line. Federal policies are promoting consolidation and profiteering, while failing to adequately fund public and community media.

But newspapers remain committed to the defense of freedom of the press — and to the democracy that is underpinned by speak-truth-to-power journalism. Last week, The Capital Times joined newspapers across the country in a national show of solidarity with the First Amendment.

It was a necessary response to Donald Trump's disdain for the basic premises of the American experiment, which he regularly evidences with crude attacks on journalists and journalism.

At a time when America needs to be urgently concerned with the work of renewing and extending the promise of a free press, Trump is making a bad situation worse. He has empowered a wrecking crew at the Federal Communications Commission, where his appointees are working overtime to scrap neutrality and protections for media competition and diversity.

But Trump is doing even more damage with his steady stream of angry pronouncements regarding specific reporters and media outlets, and his dismissive attitude toward the role that journalism plays in maintaining a free and functional society.

At a time when America needs leadership on behalf of press freedom, Trump is actively steering the discourse in the wrong direction with his claims that "very unpatriotic" journalists are putting "the lives of many" at risk by reporting on government affairs.

It was honest concern about the president's belligerent attitude toward journalists and journalism that led The Capital Times and newspapers across the country to heed the call of The Boston Globe for a show of editorial-page engagement last Thursday.

Newspapers spoke in different voices.

But, as Cap Times readers know, this newspaper shouts whenever powerful figures abuse their positions.

And, surely, Donald Trump is abusing his position.

We do not believe that the right response to this president's authoritarian tendencies is feel-good pontificating that merely begs the president to be nice to journalists.

What is required is something far more specific, and far more intellectually and politically honest, than a simple assertion that journalists are not the enemy of the people. There has to be a renewal of the historic understanding of journalism as a check and balance on all power: Republican and Democratic, private and public, political and corporate. This reassertion must be rooted in an essential recognition that no president who takes seriously an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution would say what Trump is saying. But it must go deeper than that.

When John F. Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association just two months after he was sworn in as the 35th president in January 1961, he explained: "I have selected as the title of my remarks tonight 'The President and the Press.' Some may suggest that this would be more naturally worded 'The President Versus the Press.' But those are not my sentiments tonight."

Kennedy went on to tell the assembled publishers, "(My) purpose here tonight is not to deliver the usual assault on the so-called one-party press. On the contrary, in recent months I have rarely heard any complaints about political bias in the press except from a few Republicans. Nor is it my purpose tonight to discuss or defend the televising of presidential press conferences. I think it is highly beneficial to have some 20,000,000 Americans regularly sit in on these conferences to observe, if I may say so, the incisive, the intelligent and the courteous qualities displayed by your Washington correspondents."

Kennedy was poking fun at the White House correspondents of his day, who were generally incisive and intelligent, but not always as courteous as presidents prefer.

Yet the point of Kennedy's speech was a serious one. He had come, as a new president, to talk about the relationship between his administration and the media. He acknowledged "the dilemma faced by a free and open society in a cold and secret war," and he spoke honestly of his hope for a measure of restraint in the coverage of particularly sensitive global disputes. But he also said: "The question is for you alone to answer. No public official should answer it for you. No governmental plan should impose its restraints against your will."

Yes, Kennedy suggested, the administration's views might clash with those of its inquisitors. But, he added, "I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers — I welcome it. This administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: 'An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.' We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them."

That's the opposite of Trump's approach.

But the opposite of Trump is what American needs now.

In these most challenging of times, honorable leaders of all parties and all ideologies must recognize, as did JFK: "Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply 'give the public what it wants' — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion."


The Journal Times of Racine, Aug. 20

No campaign ads at schools during the school day

The primaries are behind us and the stage is set for the general election in November.

That means, of course, that we will soon be overwhelmed by all sorts of political ads touting the virtues of one candidate and another on TV airways, in print and online.

We would hope those ads avoid the misstep like the one before the primaries that featured Gov. Scott Walker touring a "Fab Lab" at Three Lakes School District, a small school district with 500 students in Oneida County. Fab Labs teach engineering and materials processing, and allow students to apply physics and math to real-world problems. Three Lakes got funding for its lab in the state budget.

The ad, which ran statewide, included a school board member, two teachers and a student and was filmed at the school on a day when the lab was being used to teach other districts.

When it aired, it predictably caused a ruckus in the district with people who were upset their school was being used in a partisan political ad. At a packed school board special session shortly thereafter, the board formally adopted a policy to prohibit school officials or school board members from engaging in any political activity during school hours.

One former teacher at the meeting, Lynn Zibell, told reporters: "I knew in a classroom I could never give my political views to my students. If I did, I'd be hung out to dry, so to speak. And so, to have our school district be used in an ad — I was mortified by it."

Friends of Scott Walker, the group which paid for the ad and arranged the filming, had obtained written permission from the school superintendent, George Karling, to do the filming for broadcast purposes.

Karling, who has donated to Republicans in the past, said he got permission from the board for the filming, but didn't realize it was going to be used for a Walker campaign ad. The school board member featured in the ad said he meant it as a thank you to the governor and "wasn't really sure" if it was a campaign ad.

"I made a bad error in judgment," he later said.

Walker said the purpose of the ad was to spotlight how much effort he has put into the school district.

According to one news report: "The governor said he does not believe the school was participating in partisan politics but simply telling their story of how much he has helped them. In their case they aren't endorsing, they are just telling a story. None of them said vote for or against, they were just telling a story about what we have done."

We don't buy that, Governor. The simple fact is you were using students and school board members as political props for an ad shot during school hours on school grounds.

That has long been out of bounds for our schools, and rightfully so. In years past, we have editorially cautioned against the attempted use of school facilities or resources here in Racine during school hours to support the Democratic Party or social justice issues. This is no different.

Schools can, and should, encourage students to debate political and social issues in the classroom, but they — and any school district properties — should not be used as props and sets for campaign ads during school hours.