Tag Archives: media

Your Right to Know: Trump raises stakes for press, public

Two days before the new president’s inauguration, the Society of Professional Journalists and dozens of other media and government transparency groups sent a letter asking Donald Trump for a meeting to discuss his administration’s relationship with the press.

Among other things, the groups wanted Trump to affirm his commitment to the First Amendment, assure media access to his presidential activities, and allow expert government employees to talk to the media rather than muzzle them in favor of public relations officials.

Trump has yet to respond.

However, the new administration issued orders to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture not to convey information to the media or public. Officials also imposed a news blackout at the Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, Trump claimed, with no evidence, that up to 5 million illegal voters participated in the election; his White House spokeswoman used the term “alternative facts” to explain false claims that Trump’s inauguration audience was the largest ever; and chief strategist Steve Bannon called the news media an “opposition party” that should “keep its mouth shut” — views that Trump himself later endorsed.

All this happened within Trump’s first two weeks in office.

Where does that leave us, as members of the press and guardians of your right to know what government is doing?

First, we must report on official efforts to withhold information from the public — which is, after all, footing the bill for government. On day one, the new administration scrubbed references to climate change from the EPA website (echoing similar actions by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and Public Service Commission). Expect more of the same.

Second, we must continue to be vigilant in the face of Trump’s tendency, first as a candidate and now as president, to engage in bombast and exaggeration. It is our duty to expose unprovable, and outright false, claims.

Third, we must guard against politicians’ unwillingness to subject their actions to media scrutiny. It is our job to disclose what the administration is doing, even in the face of efforts to bypass the traditional White House press corps.

As law professors RonNell Andersen Jones and Sonja R. West recently wrote in The New York Times, while the First Amendment prohibits government censorship and offers protection against lawsuits, journalists have few constitutional rights to government documents and sources, or from being maligned by people in power. Trump, they noted, appears set on blowing up the “mutually dependent” relationships the White House press corps has had with presidential administrations from both parties.

“This is why we should be alarmed when Mr. Trump, defying tradition, vilifies media institutions, attacks reporters by name and refuses to take questions from those whose coverage he dislikes,” they wrote.

It’s not just about the media. It’s about your right to know. To quote Jones and West, “Like so much of our democracy, the freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be.”

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a group dedicated to open government. Council member Mark Pitsch is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

DIVIDED AMERICA: Partisan media, intellectual ghettos?

Meet Peggy Albrecht and John Dearth. Albrecht is a free-lance writer and comedian from Los Angeles who loves Bernie Sanders. Dearth, a retiree from Carmel, Indiana, grew up a Democrat but flipped with Ronald Reagan. He’s a Trump guy.

They live in the same country, but as far as their news consumption goes, they might as well live on different planets.

Abrecht watches MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow each night. She scans left-leaning websites Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and Down With Tyranny, where recent headlines described Donald Trump as “pathetic” and “temperamentally unfit” to be president. The liberal website Think Progress sends her email alerts.

This story is part of Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.

Dearth is a fan of Fox Business Network anchors Neil Cavuto and Stuart Varney. He checks the Drudge Report, Town Hall and Heritage Foundation websites, where recent stories talked about Trump supporters being “terrorized” by demonstrators. Because of his search history, he’s bombarded with solicitations to donate to conservative causes.

In a simpler time, Albrecht and Dearth might have gathered at a common television hearth to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news.

But the growth in partisan media over the past two decades has enabled Americans to retreat into tribes of like-minded people who get news filtered through particular world views. Fox News Channel and Talking Points Memo thrive, with audiences that rarely intersect. What’s big news in one world is ignored in another. Conspiracy theories sprout, anger abounds and the truth becomes ever more elusive.

In this world of hundreds of channels and uncounted websites, of exquisitely targeted advertising and unbridled social media, it is easy to construct your own intellectual ghetto, however damaging that might be to the ideal of the free exchange of ideas.

“Right now the left plays to the left and the right plays to the right,” said Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host who started TheBlaze, a conservative network, in 2010. “That’s why we keep ratcheting up the heat. We’re throwing red meat. We’re in a room that is an echo chamber, and everybody’s cheering.”

Albrecht and Dearth don’t rely exclusively on partisan media. Albrecht starts her day with the Los Angeles Times, and Dearth occasionally flips to MSNBC to hear opposing viewpoints, particularly on “Morning Joe.” They do share mirrored misgivings about the major broadcast networks, newspapers and their related websites — the mainstream media — though Dearth thinks it’s too liberal and Albrecht considers it too conservative.

That’s the kind of thinking that inspired Roger Ailes to launch Fox News Channel in 1996. The former GOP operative mixed news during the day with a prime-time lineup that appealed to conservatives.

By 2002, Fox had raced past CNN to become the top-rated news network, beginning the golden age of partisan media.

There wasn’t anything to compare on the left, at least until summer 2006 when Keith Olbermann began a series of commentaries after being angered by a speech where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld equated Iraq War opponents to pre-World War II appeasers. His show became home for disaffected liberals in the Bush administration’s final years. MSNBC hired Maddow and eventually made the entire network left-leaning, although low ratings forced it back to news during the day.

Fueled by Fox’s primacy and opposition to the war in Iraq, liberals began finding their voice online in the early 2000s.

Writer Josh Marshall began blogging and reporting, developing the Talking Points Memo website. His work forced wider attention to issues like the firing of U.S. attorneys in the Bush administration, Republican voter suppression efforts and the fight against Social Security privatization. TPM has grown to 25 employees with offices in Washington and New York.

Others followed Marshall’s path. Conservatives took advantage of new media, too.

“I don’t think it’s as much a danger to democracy as people think it is,” Olbermann said. “When the business changes to being all conservative media or all liberal media — though I don’t know how that would happen — that’s when it becomes dangerous.”

Yet today’s political media get at least some of the blame for a hardening of attitudes. A generation ago, majorities in each political party described themselves as moderate. Now 62 percent of the Democratic primary electorate identify themselves as liberal, and 76 percent of Republicans say they’re conservative, according to ABC News exit polling.

Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, spoke with some distress this spring at the commencement of Temple University’s School of Media and Communication.

“Today we are not so much communicating as miscommunicating,” he said. “Or failing to communicate. Or choosing to communicate only with those who think as we do. Or communicating in a manner that is wholly detached from reality. Too often we look only for affirmation of our own ideas rather than opening ourselves to the ideas of others.”

That thought was on Beck’s mind when he had lunch a year ago with Arianna Huffington, founder of the left-leaning news site that bears her name. They talked about the need for an outlet where a conservative can talk about ideas to a liberal audience and vice versa.

But for now, nothing’s come of the idea.

Jodie Foster on making a popcorn movie with smarts

Jodie Foster is as surprised as anyone that the fourth film she’s directed, Money Monster, is coming out in the summer among the likes of Avengers and Angry Birds.

“I don’t spend a lot of time going to movies in the summer because there’s not a lot I want to see,” says Foster. “I think people are sick of entertainment that really is just about grabbing their ticket sales. Maybe this is an alternative.”

Money Monster, out May 13, stands as one of this summer’s most striking exceptions. It’s one of few wholly original wide-release films targeting adults, and one of only two major studio movies directed by a woman. (The other is Thea Sharrock’s romance Me Before You.)

The film stars George Clooney as a Jim Cramer-esque finance guru named Lee Gates, who’s taken hostage on live television by a distraught, bankrupted viewer (Jack O’Connell). Gates’ producer (Julia Roberts), in the control booth, remains in his earpiece throughout the ordeal. The thriller unfolds in real time, gradually revealing the deeper roots of media manipulation and economic inequality.

“The movie’s very meaningful to me,” Foster said in a recent interview. “It has a lot of resonance about the modern world and my feelings about it, about failure and how wrapped up we all are in our ideas of value. All that stuff is meaningful to me, and then you wake up and go, ‘Wow, I made a popcorn movie.””

Foster, 53, has previously directed Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays and The Beaver, but this is her first studio film (for Sony Pictures). She grants that there were “a lot of opinions to navigate” but hopes her film — a kind of combination of Network and Dog Day Afternoon — has something of Sidney Lumet’s spirit in it.

A two-time Oscar winner and 2013 lifetime honoree at the Golden Globes (where she made that famously passionate and vague speech), Foster has followed the increased attention to gender equality in Hollywood with a mix of cynicism and pride. She believes a complicated issue has been reduced to buzz words, but also that change is long overdue.

“There have always been, although not in the greatest numbers, independent female filmmakers. There’s always been international filmmakers that were women,” she says. “It really was America that was has been the last in the mainstream arena.”

One thing Foster questions is if women should even want some of the blockbuster directing jobs that nearly always go to men, instead of pursuing different types of films. “It took us this long to get here and I think women are very sensitive to not throwing away their dreams when they finally get a taste of their dreams,” she says.

Director Jodi Foster says the character of Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) wasn't as fleshed out before she started work on the project.
Director Jodie Foster says the character of Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) wasn’t as fleshed out before she started work on the project.

Money Monster was shaped in important ways by its director. Roberts’ character, Foster says, “originally was just a woman who said ‘Go to one,’ ‘Go to two.'” It’s an example of the many qualities Foster — uncommonly direct, fiercely honest, uncompromising — brings to the table.

Speaking about her determination as a director, she’s typically frank.

“It’s shocking how little I’ve been able to figure out how to get movies off the ground and to find opportunities for personal films,” Foster says. “I do really want to focus on this. But you actually have to carve out the time. The acting, it will suck everything else out. You can’t squeeze in a director’s career. You have to go out on a ledge and say, ‘OK, this is what I’m doing now.””

Your right to know: State should support student expression

Two years ago, the Fond du Lac School District unveiled new guidelines requiring administrative review and approval before the publication of any student media. The reaction by students was swift, democratic and effective.

Within days, they had publicized the change online, presented their case at a school board meeting, appeared on local media and gathered several thousand signatures on a petition calling for student publications to be returned to the students. Over the next several months, they highlighted the district’s use of these guidelines to block the publication of particular photos and information.

These efforts succeeded. The district agreed to convene a group of student journalists and educators to craft a new policy. By the next school year, the restrictive guidelines were gone.

The passion for the free flow of information and constitutional rights displayed by these students stands as a prime example of the power of a journalism education based on student responsibility and ownership. But efforts to stifle student speech remain.

Recently, a principal in Chicago censored a story about the school’s new starting time, at one point threatening to kill the publication entirely. Student journalists in Missouri were told they must submit a story about their superintendent’s resignation to the principal for editing. A student journalist in West Bend, Wisconsin, reports being barred from writing about certain topics.

And in many schools, the looming possibility of administrative overreach leads students to censor themselves, back down when challenged, or abandon student publications entirely.

This should not be happening. While schools must maintain an effective learning atmosphere, they do not have the right to suppress information they simply do not like. Court cases have made clear that students maintain their First Amendment rights of free speech at school.

Unfortunately, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) established that schools could review and possibly restrain speech if related to legitimate educational purposes. Many school districts have over-applied this highly subjective standard.

Once a principal is allowed to pre-approve student journalism, it is inevitable that he or she will find things to change to make the expression more “positive” or more aligned with what the principal wants to say. This does not teach journalism or citizenship. It teaches that authority figures — government officials, in the case of public schools — decide what ideas can be discussed.

Since Hazelwood, eight states have passed laws clearly establishing that student publications belong to students, who are themselves responsible for deciding what to publish. North Dakota passed one such law unanimously last year, and more than 20 other states are looking to join them.

These bills, termed New Voices laws, do nothing to limit a school’s ability to prohibit illegal or harmful speech. But they do let students perfect the power of their own voices and explore the benefits of the free flow of information in a democracy.

Students in Wisconsin deserve a New Voices law of their own. The effort to do so here, known as Supporting New Voices of Wisconsin, has been getting media attention and editorial support.

In the next legislative session, we hope state lawmakers will help ensure that the rights of student journalists are clear and that schools are using student publications for student learning, rather than to promote the agenda of government officials.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Matthew Smith, a teacher at Fond du Lac High School, is a coordinator for New Voices of Wisconsin.

Stop it with the feminist food fights

A few weeks back, major polling organizations revealed a huge divide among women voting for the Democratic presidential candidates. The polling showed a big generational divide, with large majorities of women under age 30 supporting Bernie Sanders and older women supporting Hillary Clinton.

That’s certainly news and a big concern for the Clinton campaign. What drove the news coverage for weeks, however, were comments by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and longtime feminist Gloria Steinem that were interpreted as patronizing and criticizing young women for not supporting Clinton.

Both women apologized for their comments but not before dozens of media outlets ran stories about “aging feminists” rebuking young women and imposing their views on others, as well as about the “bankruptcy” of 21st-century feminism.

The media love a feminist food fight. Feminist accomplishments, not so much.

It reminded me of the 1980s, when the backlash to the Second Wave of feminism took hold. Major books at the time railed about “The Feminist Mistake” and “The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America.”

In 1987, I wrote my masters thesis on the history of a feminist organization in Milwaukee, the Women’s Coalition. I wrote it to dispel the claims that feminism was somehow a failure and that feminists themselves were responsible for the problems of women, a common complaint of conservatives.

What I found in Milwaukee was hard work and incredible self-sacrifice on the part of feminist activists. They pioneered the battered women’s movement, changed rape and marriage laws, established women’s studies programs, created myriad social services, reformed law enforcement practices and much more.

They achieved these things while also arguing over priorities and personal politics. At different times, there were purges of lesbians, socialists, straight women, men and transgender people. There were passionate fights over inclusion and exclusion, political involvement or cultural separatism, militant tactics or patient consultation.

The feminist movement has always encompassed a multiplicity of individuals and organizations from the grassroots to the national level. Goals vary. Tactics differ. Ideologies shift and often conflict. Leaders are effective or flawed. Mistakes are made. The women’s movement is not monolithic. It is diverse and dynamic.

Feminists do not march in step, nor do they all wear their feminism on their sleeves. They come in all ages, races, classes and sexualities. They range from genderqueer youth organizing on social media to women working across cultures to advance women’s rights in countries where women are treated like dogs.

They are the women who revolutionized women’s health care and the women today working to defend Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive freedom. They are the women leading the fight for the $15 minimum wage and women working to make their churches less sexist.

They are the women who worked hard for years to build partnerships and raise funds for the new Family Peace Center. It’s a multimillion dollar facility that centralizes all domestic violence services in Milwaukee. It’s an amazing advance from the 1970s, when feminist volunteers risked their lives rescuing women and hiding them in a network of safe houses.

I don’t know if these women will vote for Hillary Clinton, but I believe their work transcends any one political moment. It will continue and it will endure.

So ignore the bad press. Feminism lives!

 

 

Great Gotchas: Happy April Fools’ Day

Since the late 1990s, Hoaxes.org has monitored April Fools’ Day and collected the best hoaxes for its archives.

Hoaxes.org’s top five April Fools’ Day pranks:

1. The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. On April 1, 1957, the BBC’s Panorama reported that due to a mild winter and the virtual elimination of the spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were seeing a big spaghetti crop. The report included video of people pulling spaghetti noodles from trees. The BBC heard from viewers who wanted to know how they could grow their own spaghetti trees.

2. Sidd Finch. The April 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated contained a story about a rookie pitcher named Sidd Finch who planned to play for the Mets. He could throw a baseball at 168 mph and had pinpoint accuracy. But, SI said, Finch had never played baseball. He learned to pitch in a Tibetan monastery. What clue did SI give to readers that the story was fake? The first letter of each word in the subhead spelled “Happy April Fools Day — Ah Fib.”

3. Instant Color TV. On April 1, 1962, Sweden’s only TV channel, which broadcast in black-and-white, aired a news report announcing that new technology made it possible for people to easily convert their sets to display color reception. Viewers were instructed to tape nylon stockings over their televisions and then sit a certain distance from the box, possibly with their heads at a tilt. Hoaxes.org said Swedes today still talk about houses being ransacked in search of hosiery.

4. The Taco Liberty Bell. On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell purchased full-page ads in six major newspapers and announced it was the new owner of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The bell, the company said, would be renamed the “Taco Liberty Bell.” White House press secretary Mike McCurry joined in the prank when he was asked about the sale. He said the Lincoln Memorial also was sold and was renamed the “Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”

5. San Serriffe. On April 1, 1977, The Guardian newspaper published a seven-page special section about San Serriffe, a small republic in the Indian Ocean that consists of several islands shaped like semi-colons. The capital was identified as Bodoni and the republic was governed by a Gen. Pica. Readers wanted to know all about the vacation destination.

Law against political falsehoods sets high bar for prosecution

Dan Robinson is not claiming that a false statement made about him in a mailing to voters last fall cost him the election. But still, he thinks it was possibly a crime.

“This is why people lose faith in politicians and our system of government,” he says.

Robinson, a Democrat, handily lost his bid for an open state Assembly seat to fellow De Pere resident John Macco, a Republican. During the campaign the Jobs First Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that backs Republican candidates, mailed out four “issue ad” fliers attacking Robinson.

All of these mailings contained statements Robinson considers obnoxious and unfair, like suggesting he favors sexual predators over kids. But the one flier he is most incensed about made a claim that is demonstrably false: “While Dan Robinson was hiking up your tax bill, he was giving himself and other politicians a raise.”

In fact, Robinson’s January 2013 vote as a member of the De Pere Common Council to raise salaries by 2 percent did not and could not benefit himself. Two weeks earlier he had filed a notification of non-candidacy for re-election. The modest pay hike goes into effect May 2015.

“You can’t outright lie to throw an election,” says Robinson, a longtime administrator at St. Norbert College. “If you do, there needs to be a penalty.” There is: State statute 12.05 provides for up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for those who “knowingly make or publish” a false representation about a candidate to sway an election.

This law is occasionally enforced, as in a 2008 case against Republican Assembly candidate Dan Knodl for listing people who had not endorsed him as supporters. Knodl, who remains in office, said this was a mistake owing to carelessness. He pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of non-criminal disorderly conduct and paid a $250 fine.

In other cases, people making false political claims have faced criminal defamation charges. In a 2001 case, two people received short jail sentences for anonymous mailings that accused a village president, among other things, of involvement in lynchings. But a 2012 article in the Wisconsin Lawyer by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee journalism professor David Pritchard argued that these and other claims were so outlandish they likely deserved protection as parody.

To run afoul of the law, it seems, a statement made during a political campaign must be both apparently credible and knowingly untrue.

Robinson thinks the Jobs First Coalition mailing may meet this standard. He has asked Brown County District Attorney David Lasee to look into possible criminal charges. Lasee says he has not decided whether to pursue the case.

Bob Reddin, executive director of the Jobs First Coalition, says he first learned of the concern regarding Robinson’s vote when contacted for comment on this column. He agrees his group’s representation was inaccurate and should not have been made but avails himself of the parachute in the law, calling it an “inadvertent error.”

Robinson says Reddin’s explanation “doesn’t prove anything one way or the other” and still wants an investigation. “The person in charge of the group should have known whether or not I voted myself a raise,” he says. “If they’re going to engage in political discourse, they need to do their homework. The public deserves that.”

Candidate Macco proved it was possible to rip Robinson’s acts without misstating facts in a mailing that said his rival “voted to give pay raises to politicians” — not himself but politicians, that loathsome bunch. Macco did not respond to an invitation to comment on the Jobs First Coalition mailing.

Interestingly, Reddin is himself an elected official, a member of the Brookfield Common Council. In January 2008, he was among a council minority who voted for a failed attempt to raise alderpersons’ pay — which would have benefited himself. Reddin now calls this vote “short-sighted,” saying his position on the issue has evolved.

Good answer.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight. The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.


Humane Society: Hens scalded alive at Minnesota slaughter plant

An undercover investigation at a “spent” egg-laying hen slaughter plant in Butterfield, Minnesota, revealed inhumane treatment of animals and potentially illegal cruelty, according to The Humane Society of the United States.

The animal welfare group conducted the investigation at Butterfield Foods and then released video and other results of the investigation and reported possible illegal activity to authorities, followed by release to the news media on Jan. 5.

A news release said the investigation was the first undercover operation at a “spent-hen” slaughter plant in the country.

Spent hens are egg-laying birds no longer considered commercially profitable. The hens are used for cheap meat after a lifelong confinement producing eggs in “battery cages.” The meat is often so low-grade and unsafe that many battery cage facilities cannot even sell it for human consumption. Hens and other poultry are not covered by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, even though chickens and turkeys represent nine out of 10 animals slaughtered for food in the United States.   

The HSUS, in its investigation, documented:

• Many birds each day were scalded alive, forced upside down into tanks of scorching hot water in which they drown. In just one 30-minute period, the HSUS investigator witnessed approximately 45 such animals. This possible violation of Minnesota’s anti-cruelty code has been reported to local authorities.

• Hens arrived in trucks packed so tightly they could barely move. Birds had broken bones, others were dead on arrival, and some were so covered in feces they looked black. If a truck could not be emptied by the end of a processing day, the remaining hens continued to suffer on the trucks until the next day.

• Hens were removed from crates and shackled upside down while alive and fully conscious. Removal began with workers jabbing metal hooks into the densely packed transport cages to rip hens out of the cages by their legs.

• Birds were ineffectively stunned and inhumanely killed. After being shackled, the line of upside-down birds moved through an electrified trough of water designed to stun them—though that outcome was not necessarily reached. Many hens tried to right themselves, while others were hung too high; these birds missed the water entirely and arrived to the next station—the neck cutter—fully aware.

• Sick and injured birds thrown against the wall or tossed in the trash.

“Egg-laying hens suffer tremendously, locked in cramped cages their whole lives only to then be inhumanely slaughtered when their productivity wanes,” said Paul Shapiro, HSUS vice president of farm animal protection, in a news release. “Consumers can help reduce the suffering of animals in factory farms by eating less chicken, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help poultry by requiring slaughter plants to switch to higher-welfare systems such as controlled atmosphere killing.”

The HSUS has information to support the claim that some major egg producers in Minnesota do not even meet the voluntary space allotment standard established by the United Egg Producers, the national trade association of the egg industry. That voluntary standard, widely considered to be inhumane because it immobilizes birds, may cover about 75 percent of laying hens in cage confinement. Some major producers in Minnesota keep hens in 48- or 54-inch space allotments, which amounts to extraordinary deprivation and suffering for the birds. 

“Laying hens in Minnesota are suffering from birth to death, and every step of the process is filled with misery for so many millions of these birds,” added Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS.

On the Web…

A video from The Humane Society of the United States: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eM-JsyyfSmE 

2014: Word of the year is ‘culture’

A nation, a workplace, an ethnicity, a passion, an outsized personality. The people who comprise these things, who fawn or rail against them, are behind Merriam-Webster’s 2014 word of the year: culture.

The word joins Oxford Dictionaries’ “vape,” a darling of the e-cigarette movement, and “exposure,” declared the year’s winner at Dictionary.com during a time of tragedy and fear due to Ebola.

Merriam-Webster based its pick and nine runners-up on significant increases in lookups this year over last on Merriam-Webster.com, along with interesting, often culture-driven — if you will — spikes of concentrated interest.

In the No. 2 spot is “nostalgia,” during a year of big 50th anniversaries pegged to 1964: the start of the free speech movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the birth of the Ford Mustang and the British Invasion heralded by the landing of the Beatles on U.S. soil for the first time.

Nostalgia was followed by insidious, legacy, feminism and a rare multiword phrase that can be looked up in total, in a foreign language at that: the French “je ne sais quoi.”

The Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary giant filters out perennial favorites when picking word of the year, but does that formula leave them chasing language fads?

“We’re simply using the word culture more frequently,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. “It may be a fad. It may not. It may simply be evolution.”

Sokolowski noted that the reasons words are looked up aren’t just about not knowing what they mean. Sometimes, he said, we seek inspiration or a way to check in on ourselves. Of an estimated 100 million lookups on the website each year and a similar number on the company’s app, culture enjoyed a 15 percent year-over-year increase.

Percentage-wise, it doesn’t sound like much, but the raw number in that stratosphere is large, Sokolowski said. He wouldn’t disclose actual numbers, though, citing the proprietary nature of that data for a company still privately held.

Sokolowski is a lexicographer, not a mind reader, so his observations about why any single word takes off in terms of lookups is well-informed but theoretical.

“The word culture’s got a cultural story. We have noticed for years that culture has a cyclical spike every year at around Labor Day. That is to say back to school time during the month of September, so we’ve been watching this word spike at that time for years,” he said by telephone from Springfield. “In recent years we’ve seen similar spikes at the end of semesters during finals.”

But traffic throughout the year indicates that culture is a “chameleon,” Sokolowski said. “When you put it next to another word it means something very different. For example, ‘consumer culture’ or ‘rape culture,’ which we’ve been reading about lately.”

There’s the “culture of transparency” in government and business, and “celebrity culture,” and the “culture of winning” in sports, he noted. “It’s a word that can be very specific, like ‘test prep culture,’ or it can be very, very broad, like ‘coffee culture.””

One standout reference that caught Sokolowski’s eye in The New Yorker’s December issue is from a new book, “How Google Works,” which includes a description of a software fix by a few engineers that made ads more relevant on the search engine:

“It wasn’t Google’s culture that turned those five engineers into problem-solving ninjas who changed the course of the company over the weekend,” wrote the authors, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former head of product development Jonathan Rosenberg.

“Rather it was the culture that attracted the ninjas to the company in the first place.”

Before the word culture exploded, Sokolowski said, “we used to talk about ‘society’ a lot. Certain groups are taking ‘society’ out of their names now. It seems to be receding. Part of that seems to be because it’s elitist. We’re using the word culture more frequently in that place.”

Not all lookup spikes are quite that complex. The reason “je ne sais quoi” landed at No. 6, for instance, is “dead simple,” he said.

The fast-food drive-in chain Sonic, known for TV spots featuring two goofy dudes eating in a car, had them munching on boneless chicken wings in September.

“I’ve finally found myself a wingman,” goofy guy No. 1 says of the wings he hopes will make him a chick magnet.

“Oh right,” sneers goofy guy No. 2, “gonna give you that certain je ne sais quoi.”

Responds No. 1: “Jenna said what?”

They mine the word play a couple more times, but you get the picture.

“Since September when this ad came out this word has been close to the Top 10 or in the Top 10 of our lookups almost every single day,” Sokolowski said.

Fast-food aside, he called this year’s list a relatively sober one.

Insidious, for example, received a bump early in the year when a new trailer was released for “Insidious: Chapter 3,” a prequel in the horror film franchise “Insidious,” out in June. The word surfaced in a big way again, on Oct. 8, when a Texas hospital released a statement on the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first confirmed Ebola patient in the United States.

The statement spoke of his courageous battle and the hospital’s profound sadness when he “succumbed to an insidious disease, Ebola.”

Rounding out the Top 10 are innovation, surreptitious, autonomy and morbidity.

“This is a fairly sober list. It was a fairly sober year,” he concluded.