These towns lost a valuable character with the death of Ron Rosenbaum over the weekend. Only 68, Rosenbaum brought an entirely too rare combination of intelligence, respect for facts and, well, theater to our media culture.
A healthy culture needs people who assert themselves on the public stage, at least those who drive intelligent debate by injecting sometimes inconvenient truths into the far more common drone of carefully parsed marketing and flagrant nonsense. Rosenbaum, a practicing attorney and a near constant media presence for almost 30 years, reliably delivered substance instead of inanity: thoughtful, fact-based opinion where others barking into a microphone often relied on whatever was good enough to hold a sponsor.
Rosenbaum passed away after a struggle with multiple myeloma. He was known for his legal work on a number of high-profile cases, some of which assumed a higher profile than might have otherwise because of his close ties to local reporters, most of whom — it seems entirely fair to say — had high regard for his judicious presentation of the case at hand. Some of his credibility with the media was the result of his willingness to concede weaknesses in his case, also a rare quality among attorneys.
Mostly, though, Rosenbaum was a familiar presence in the area because of his radio work with WCCO-AM, KSTP-AM, KFAN-FM, Tom Barnard’s podcast network and lately on TV with co-host and client Dan Barreiro at FOX9.
Rosenbaum’s shtick, as he was happy to call it, was a constantly vacillating balance of lawyerly inquiry, cross examination, judicious invective and unabashed theater. All with just enough self-deprecation — he was capable of conceding what he didn’t know — to reassure you there was a human inside the impressive opinion machine.
Because we shared a handful of friends, and because Rosenbaum made a point of cultivating relations with others in the media, we crossed paths quite often. In social settings he was a restrained version of the character the public heard and saw on the air. Or maybe it is more correct to say that on the air he was a more aggressive version of the smart, shrewd and essentially polite guy you’d chat with at a party, drink in hand and feet up on a coffee table. He actually was — and this may be one of the best compliments I can pay him — a very good listener.
Over more years than I care to think that I’ve spent watching, talking to and listening to gossip about media people around the metro, Rosenbaum occupied a unique point of interest. Generally speaking, reporters, editors and media managers are guarded personalities, especially in today’s game, where so many news organizations have inserted their own PR component in between the press and, well, the press.
The norm today from working journalists, on or off record, are bland responses designed to say very little if anything while appearing to make comment. For some, it’s a consequence of insecurity — the fear of saying anything that might imperil their career. For others, and this includes a few people currently holding top-tier news management gigs in the Twin Cities today, it has more to do with a palpable sense of self-importance, which might also have something to do with insecurity; I’m not sure.
Rosenbaum was none of that. Among media players outside the borders of “Capital ‘J’ journalism,” among personalities playing with and trading in the news of the day, his value was as a big personality with a microphone and hours of air time who still had a journalist’s respect for facts. That alone made him an anomaly on modern talk radio, a medium sadly rooted in the revenue-based judgment that facts — inconvenient realities — have value only in the rare moments when they support the host and format’s commercial narrative.
While occasionally caustic (it’s show biz; audiences love conflict), Rosenbaum was not a cynic. He certainly wasn’t selling an act rooted in the notion that his listeners were rubes incapable and/or unwilling to understand the nuances of an issue. On the contrary, his underlying message was that few matters of significance are as simple as true cynics make them out to be. He seemed to believe that with a combination of attention and patience most people can be brought to reasonable, adult understandings of the controversies of the day, topics others — his cynical peers — routinely inflamed for the way that anger and BS could hold an audience.
Rosenbaum was also an interesting example of the value of a competitive nature in the modern media environment. Lord knows there’s no shortage of competitive fervor in media work. Rosenbaum understood the importance of grasping and holding the public’s attention. Making noise and creating a spectacle to gain attention is a tedious fact of modern media life. Well-paid consultants encourage “personalities” to figuratively drop their pants to pull in a crowd. But that wasn’t Rosenbaum’s game. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing with him, but going “sillier and more simplistic” was never an option. Even in private conversation, he was one of those guys constantly probing for something of substance, something of value.
He enjoyed the spotlight. (I get points for understatement on that one.) Moreover, he plainly admired others who did as well, whether they were in the public eye by their own careful plotting or whether they bungled in by accident or scandal. He liked players, and he liked players to prove they could play.
At his best, Rosenbaum brought his audiences inquiry, cross examination and open debate in real time. Stepping up against him on the air wasn’t supposed to be a soothing, brand-building, PR-sanctioned “appearance.” It was a test — a game and a show — of what you knew and the merit it held.
If you’re among those who bemoan the false-equivalency blandness of mainstream journalism and/or the grievously dumbed-down, cynical nature of “new media,” take a moment to remember and appreciate Ron Rosenbaum for a career-long effort to provide something not just different, but better.