Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mercury Rising

I’ll admit that the chance of Mercury Marine leaving Fond du Lac scares me as much as it does others. I’m hoping it’s a worst case scenario. The fact that the company employs over 1,850 workers and at one time more than 3,200 is staggering. Its impact on other businesses and the economy of not only the area, but state also can’t be diminished.

I grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and saw some major employers there go by the wayside due to the economy of the times. In college during the summer I worked at a limestone mine, which at the time employed more than 300 people. Given the U.P’s size it was a major employer in the area. After graduating from college I landed a job at a radio station in my hometown. I heard that the mine and its union had a contract bargaining session coming up and it may be difficult.

I asked a prominent banker in the community how it would be impacted if for some reason the mine were to shut down. He laughed at the thought and not too politely. That was staggering for a young reporter still learning the ropes. Needless to say the contract negotiations dragged on. Meantime I took a job at another radio station up the road. Within two years time the company shut down because it couldn’t reach terms with its workers.

The good news is the mine was sold to another owner, but when it reopened it only employed 60 workers and none of them were with a union. I’m not saying unions are a bad thing, but workers at the mine mistakenly thought the mine wouldn’t close and their jobs were safe. That mine is once again facing ownership and closing questions.

The local paper mill also employs about 300 workers. It’s been open for more than 100 years. However they saw the writing on the wall years ago and started making recycled papers. The mill actually prospered after the switch. I have to wonder how the paper industry is going these days with more reports generated on the Internet and newspapers closing from declining readership.

At one time I envied my brothers and sisters because my love of radio always meant making less money than they did. However my two brothers John and Matt work for that mine I mentioned and have been furloughed twice already during the mine’s busy season. My sister Kathy works as a corrections officer in the state of Michigan. Last year the state cut its corrections employees from 40 to 32 hours a week. They also got some furloughs. Now the prison she worked at has closed and she was transferred. Her drive to work went from 30 minutes to 70. Things are tough all over.

I’ll do my best to remain optimistic about Mercury’s chances, but I also fret over any business closing. It is always personal and it always does effect more than the people who lose their jobs. As someone recently said to me, “It doesn’t do any good to get retrained for work if there aren’t any jobs out there.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Uncle Walter

To be honest with you Walter Cronkite had more of an impact on my parent’s viewing habits then influencing my life as a newsperson. He left the anchor chair on CBS-TV in March of 1981, nearly a lifetime ago for some. But it’s the impact he had on TV journalism that was the focus of tributes this past weekend.

Think about the things he reported on during a six-year span from 1963 to the end of that decade. First there was President Kennedy’s assassination, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Tet Offensive in Vietnam (which signaled a turning point in the War), the rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. These were formative years for television news.

By 1972, more than 70 percent of Americans polled voted him the most trusted man in the country. If Walter Cronkite came out in your favor, it was an endorsement. When President Johnson heard Cronkite say the Vietnam War wasn’t winnable, he was heard to say that they’d just lost Middle America.

Today’s TV news is too often more about celebrity than substance. It’s almost expected that a reporter will make a personal observation in reporting on a national story. In Cronkite’s heyday that was the exception to the rule. The news was the story, not the reporter. You can in part blame that on the advent of 24/7 news channels and the promotion of news personalities. Even in my role, with the exception of this blog, I report the news and rarely give an opinion about a story.

When CNN debuted in 1980 it marked the emergence of immediate news. It was the beginning of the end of the network nightly news. Although you still have three primary nightly network news casts, their audience has eroded and the role of anchor isn’t what it used to be. However credit Walter Cronkite and his colleagues that when the nation has a tragedy or a crisis we still turn to the network news channels out of sheer trust. Weren’t you glued to coverage during 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina?

For me Walter Cronkite is like an uncle. I never knew my Grandpa Nelson. He passed away before I was born. Pictures I’ve seen of him however look like old time pictures of Walter Cronkite. I’m told that like the famous newsman he always had an interesting spin on things. And that’s just the way it is.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Normally I don’t speak ill of the dead, so in summing up Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service I’ll try to focus on the living. I tried not to get hooked into watching the event, but while waiting in a dentist’s office for a 6-month hygiene appointment ended up watching some of it with other patients.

Some reporters who spoke ill of him while he was alive were busy praising him in his death. I was waiting for the ceremony to begin, but the traffic backed up in L.A. due to the Jackson procession took longer than most imagined it would. In a bankrupt state extra costs for law enforcement for a service that rivaled a state funeral for a president or king. Okay so he was the King of Pop.

The actual teeth-cleaning saved me the agony of sitting through most of the service. Later at home I caught some of the speakers including Brooke Shields who a reporter later noted hadn’t seen Michael Jackson in years. I made it through until Jermaine Jackson started singing “Smile” a song actor Charlie Chaplin wrote. Shields pointed out that it was Michael’s favorite song. A song written by another tortured genius who in his time faced his own sexual allegations.

While he was living I got the impression Michael Jackson craved the attention. It seems only fitting that in death he got more than he ever enjoyed at any single moment of his moon-walking days on Earth. In the wake of that service the real circus will begin. Still I’m interested to know what kind of TV ratings the service produced. It has to rival just about anything ever seen.

The gal who worked on my teeth asked me how long I though it would be before the attention surrounding Michael Jackson’s death would subside. I wasn’t sure how to answer that, but speculated that we just couldn’t get enough about Princess Diana. I also wondered how Elvis Presley would have fared if the kind of media and technology we have today would have been around when he died in 1977. My dental technician said Jackson’s service still would have been bigger. She’s right Elvis Presley didn’t have MTV.

I still maintain that someday there will be a cable television channel out there that will only carry items about celebrity deaths. Their biographies, films and music videos, their best TV work, gossip on how their estate will be settled, even the funeral services themselves. What would you call a channel like that? An obvious choice would be “Thriller!”