James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Romney boards Con Ryan Express in desperate bid to get campaign back on track

Posted by James McPherson on August 11, 2012

So, it’s Con Ryan’s Express. For the second consecutive presidential election, Republicans will have a vice presidential candidate who is more dynamic and interesting than the guy at the head of their ticket. No wonder that in his introduction Romney called Paul Ryan “the next president of the United States.”

Unfortunately for Romney this Paul is no saint; the choice offers obvious strengths and weaknesses, along with the Palinesque risk that the presidential race will be more about the GOP’s vice presidential nominee than about anything else.

Like most people, I got it wrong, thinking Romney would likely go with Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty. I did mention Ryan almost as an afterthought, saying “Maybe Paul Ryan if he still thinks he needs to go right.” Apparently Romney is still more concerned with being viewed as a Massachusetts liberal healthcare pimp than as someone who has spent the campaign trying to hack off his left arm with his right.

The New Republic offers a quick look a quick look at what the party now officially stands for–ending Medicare and Medicaid we know them, privatization of Social Security, killing any semblance of government that works, and the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to rich in U.S. history. With Ryan, you can add climate change denial and “personhood” legislation.

Faced with the likelihood of defeat, Romney’s choice–like McCain’s choice of Palin–smacks of desperation. Ryan obviously is a lot smarter than Palin (OK, so Romney’s dancing horse is smarter than Palin), but could turn out to be equally polarizing. After all, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, John McCain and probably the Koch brothers all like the choice. But so do Democrats. One of the most notable things about the selection is that for perhaps the first time Romney has managed to please both liberals and conservatives at the same time, rather than having to flip-flop to do so.

In fact, as many did with Palin, conservatives might rue the choice more than liberals do. Ryan wasn’t Grover Norquist’s pick, for example, so perhaps this is another example that Norquist is losing some of his influence with Republicans. And that might be the best thing to happen in this election season, and the most positive long-term development for the GOP.

One might wonder, if Romney is enthused about his choice, why he would make the announcement early (6 a.m. where I live) on a summer Saturday. That’s a time when politicians typically are more likely to roll out bad news than good; Friday afternoon has long been recognized as best for avoiding media attention, because most of the front-line news media won’t be back until Monday, by when news can be a bit stale. That’s why I wrote last month that Romney “should release a deluge of his tax returns on a summer Friday, perhaps during the Olympics, definitely no later than the Friday before Labor Day.”

I suspect that desperation to change the conversation from his own taxes, the fact that even sources such as Fox News and the conservative-leaning Rasmussen poll had Obama leading, and perhaps a desire to make the announcement as low-key as possible (which is Romney’s style, if not Ryan’s) all combined to lead to the decision to make the announcement when he did.

Yes, a 24-hour news cycle tempers the “dead zone” timing a bit, and yes, the selection will now be the focus of the Sunday morning news shows. But the fact is, almost no one except true political junkies–virtually all of whom probably already know whom they’ll vote for in November–watches those Sunday shows. And Romney, of all people, should know that if Americans are turning on their TVs on this summer weekend it will be to watch the Olympics. On Sunday night and Monday morning more people will be talking the closing ceremonies with Adele and the Spice Girls than about Romney and Ryan. In fact, the few Americans who know anything about Ryan may outnumber those who know he has been chosen by Romney at this point.

Like most Hail-Mary passes in football or last-second half-courts shots in basketball, the effort probably will fail to deliver a victory in November, but will give the media and serious viewers a reason to hold their breath for a bit, just in case. There’s no doubt that the race just became more interesting–within the GOP, as well as over all.

Perhaps we’ll even start having a serious media conversation about what policy might look like in a Ryan/Romney–oh, sorry, Romney/Ryan–administration, if only during the vice-presidential debate. Perhaps. But I doubt it. After all, Ryan has a pretty wife and cute kids. And he’s a Catholic engaged in a “smackdown” with nuns. And now “Saturday Night Live” will have to figure out who to portray Ryan pushing granny off a cliff. I’ll bet Tina Fey could pull if off, with the right haircut.

P.S.: If you’re too young to get the reference to “Von Ryan’s Express,” it’s a film from 1965, before Paul Ryan was born.

P.P.S: Ironically, if the Christian Right gets its way in November, for the first time ever there won’t be a Protestant president, vice president, or member of the Supreme Court.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Religion, Science, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

Want smarter kids? Turn them over to lesbians

Posted by James McPherson on June 9, 2010

Heather has two mommies? No wonder she’s so well-adjusted.

That’s the conclusion of an article in New Science magazine–that “Compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples scored better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression.”

In other words, the children of lesbian parents were smarter and less obnoxious than most other kids.

Actually I’d never heard of New Science until Slate cited this study, and the research seems to have some flaws (maybe women just tend to be better parents than men, for example, making them superheroes in the traditional, often unappreciated,  sense). But the study does cast further doubt on the idea that gays shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. Homosexuals are legally prohibited from adopting in Florida, while joint adoption is illegal in several states.

Posted in Education, Legal issues, Politics, Science, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Other states should nix vexing Texas texts

Posted by James McPherson on May 26, 2010

OK, coming from a state where a substantial percentage of residents think their president is a Muslim socialist  illegal alien and perhaps the anti-Christ, a decision to ignore recommendations from a panel of experts and to insert more God and conservatism into social studies texts is no big surprise. After all, as one blogger notes, “Stupid is as stupid’s taught.”

Which raises a problem for me: I debated whether to write about this, because the Texas textbook decision seems to support so many flawed “dumb southerner” clichés. Having lived in the South, having been raised in Idaho, I know better than to buy into that stereotype. Three of the country’s best and brightest political writers of recent years have been Texans Bill Moyers, Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower (whose name raises the unrelated question, “Can there be a low tower?”).

I suspect and hope that the actual effect of the Texas folly will not be as large as feared. After all, though Texas often helps set the agenda for other states simply because of the number of textbooks it buys, other options such as e-books are becoming increasingly available (not to mention the Internet, though members of the Texas board may be unfamiliar with that particular invention). Besides, the content of most textbooks is far less likely to be read or remembered than any issue of People magazine featuring Jennifer Aniston (who today may be about as politically relevant as the Moral Majority, which makes its way into the Texas board mandate).

I also think other states should step up and tell book publishers that they refuse to follow the lead of Texas. If a few smaller states band together–perhaps even agreeing to accept the orginal recommendations of the Texas committee of experts–Texas could be the only state where children are subjected to the whims of ultraconservative wannabe educators.

One side note, in which I agree with the Texas board: It would be helpful to know more about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” After all, I wrote a book about the topic, and would give Texans a great deal on the book if they want to put a copy in every Texas school library. Still, as I suggested in the book, even more useful than having Texas kids learn about those conservative groups might be having American political journalist learn more about them.

Not surprisingly, as can be seen in the video below, The Onion offers some of the best commentary on the issue. Incidentally, one of the highlights of a trip to New York last year was a visit with Onion staffers, who were as funny and irreverent in person as in their work.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics, Religion, Science, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

’Nullius in verba’ appropriate for both science and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on March 30, 2010

Nullius in verba (roughly translated as “take nobody’s word for it”) has been the motto of the Royal Society since 1663.

It would also make a great motto for journalism, and for anyone who uses the media.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Science | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

How about just a robot to grade papers?

Posted by James McPherson on September 23, 2009

CNN reports that movie-style androids such as those in the movie “Surrogates” may not be far off. And we’ve already seen a teaching robot (and a robotic “supermodel”) in Japan.

Others warn that technology may make my job obsolete, and the amount of education that has gone online in recent years sometimes worries me, a bit. But then I remember how few people actually watch educational television or make use of the wealth of educational opportunities on the web (some of which are linked to your right).

In fact, anyone could get the equivalent of a very good liberal arts education from his or her home, though of course the student would be giving up other valuable parts of the college experience–and the external motivation that some of us require to buckle down and learn, rather than spending the time on video games, YouTube videos or trashy crime novels.

Posted in Education, Science | Tagged: , , , , | 8 Comments »

Best of the blog: 50 favorite posts (plus a few)

Posted by James McPherson on April 22, 2009

With yesterday’s post, I offered my reasons for ceasing regular blogging for the foreseeable future. But with more than 300 posts in the past year, it’s likely that you’ve missed a number of them. I’ll post a “top 50″ list below, and will continue update the links on the right side of this page.

Since my first post, in which I predicted success for Barack Obama (not yet then the Democratic nominee) and problems for John McCain, a number of my posts have focused on topics of relatively short-term interest. Those include my June suggestions for whom Obama and McCain should select as running mates: More than two months before they made their choices, I suggested Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

I predicted that despite their self-pitying self-righteousness and their ability to draw media attention, neither religious conservatives nor pseudo-liberal PUMAs would have much impact on the election. I anticipated that Hillary Clinton would fully support Obama, as she and Bill Clinton did. As a result, on the day that McCain took the lead in the polls for the first time two months before the presidential election, I predicted that Obama would win the election handily.

I’ve noted the passing of singer/storytellers Utah Phillips and Dan Seals, journalists (defining the term broadly) Robin Toner,  Tim Russert and Tony Snow, pinup queen Bettie Page, and various newspapers. Many of my posts were less timely, however, and have ongoing relevance. Fifty of my favorites can be found below. Enjoy.

Burn a flag for the Fourth

Begging to differ

Curiosity and journalism

Pogo’s enemy, revisited

Twittering while Rome burns

Where the dead white girls are

Catholics and conservatives campaign against mythical threats

Family values

Is the worshipper beside you a heathen–or a spy?

Warku-go-’round: A 20-part history of Bush’s War

Bettie Page & Robin Toner: Two women who made media history

Gadgets create more ‘reporters’–and fewer journalists?

Post #200 of a stupid, outdated idea

Death and dancing, faith and journalism

With Jessica Alba too fat, Keira Knightly too flat, Faith Hill too plain & Sarah Palin too real, how should mags portray Michelle Obama?

Civil disobedience might bring national redemption

Save the economy by ending welfare to Republicans

MTV: Moronic TeleVision

Beating the Bushies to investigate war crimes

Journalism and blogging: Printing what’s known vs. what isn’t

Want to become a convicted sex offender? There’s an app for that

If you’re going to write anything stupid in the future, don’t come to my class

As Bush people approach endangered species status, scientists find other rats, vipers and creepie crawlers

Have you ever heard of the “world’s most famous journalist”?

Ignorance and the electorate

Stimulus prompts cartoonish monkey business

Veterans Day: Thank the slaves who let you shop and spew

‘Killer American Idol’: Mass murder no surprise, more likely to come

Speaking for the poor

Uneasy riders: Yen and the lack of motorcycle company maintenance

Barbie’s birthday bash

Sexism & feminism make women winners & losers?

Media organizations: Why you should hire my journalism students

Valuable lessons on ‘whom you know’ and on being in the right place at the right time in NY and DC

WOW! Young people access news differently than grandparents

Can a Christian lesbian Latina superhero save us?

Asteroid nearly wipes out Earth, international space station threatened, San Diego nearly destroyed in nuclear meltdown

Headaches, hot air and hell on earth

Killing youth

‘What’s happenin’ here?’ The news ain’t exactly clear: How to keep up with what’s going on, and why

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part II)

To Obamas, a reminder that familiarity can breed contempt

Homeland Insecurity: Need a passport quickly? Get a fake one

GOP doing Limbaugh Limbo; how low they can go to be ‘rest of the story’

Top stories and missing stories of 2008: Obama, the economy, China and Mother Nature–and by the way, isn’t something going on in Iraq?

Thanks to Cruella economy, Grumpy’s attitude finally justified

Culture warriors were dreaming of a really white Christmas; others get coal in their stockings

Merry Christmas! Twelve YouTube Christmas videos

Christmas killers, foreign & domestic: More proof the world looks better from a distance

2012 predictions for GOP: Jindal, Huckabee, Romney, Palin or relative unknown?

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Music, Personal, Poetry, Politics, Religion, Science, Video, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

As economy goes to pot, which ‘dope’ questions should Obama answer?

Posted by James McPherson on March 26, 2009

Barack Obama is hosting an “online town hall” meeting today, continuing his Roosevelt-esque creative use of technology to try to continue to connect with Americans. Unfortunately the site, despite being named “Open for Questions,”  is “no longer accepting new questions.”

But you can still vote for the questions you hope the president will answer. A quick review of a few of the more than 32,000 questions submitted shows too many questions that could be answered by reading news accounts about Obama’s many recent appearances, but considering how many respondents don’t even read comments above their own on a blog post, that’s not surprising. Besides, not everyone follows the news as closely as some of us.

In addition–and perhaps related to the issue of people not reading before they write (the equivalent of the too-common speaking before listening), apparently a number of the questioners spend much of their time sitting around the house smoking marijuana. Many of those  folks seem to be the target of Hillary Clinton’s comments of today, but their questions go directly to points made in my post of a couple of days ago.

Under the category of “Budget,” the FIRST SEVEN questions all ask about the legalization of marijuana, starting with Ryan Palmer from Dallas who asks: “With over 1 in 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control, and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy? Do we really need that many victimless criminals?”

Brian of Minneopolis writes: “Mr. Obama, Thank you for allowing us to ask our questions of you, unfiltered [nice pun, Brian]. What is your stance on legalizing marijuana federally, taxing it and regulating it much like alcohol and tobacco? I believe that the Drug War has failed, and needs an overhaul.”

Ryan McLaughlin (Rindge, N.H.) states, “I am not a marijuana user, but I do believe that making marijuana legal could provide  some relief as to it could be heavily taxed and regulated. Legalization of drugs will also be a detriment to the drug cartels in Latin America.”

Matt S. (Huntsville, Ala.), Mark B. (Sterling, Va.), JHawk (Santa Barbara, Calif.) and T. Kapanka (San Fransciso) round out the top seven, all asking similar marijuana-related questions.

Under the category of “Financial Stability,” the first four questions all are drug-related. Anthony of Warrington, Penn., asks, “Would you support the bill currently going through the California legislation [stet] to legalize and tax marijuana, boosting the economy and reducing drug cartel-related violence?”

Sarah of Atlanta, Ga., asks: “Have the administration given any thought to legalizing marijuana, as a cash crop to fuel the economy? Why not make it available, regulate, and tax something that about 10 million Americans use regularly and is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.”

Peter McNamara of Minneapolis (a friend of Brian’s?) writes: “Growing up I have noticed many around me always talk about legalization of marijuana, and I always thought, why not put a tax stamp on it. If marijuana was legalized it could really change a lot of things. America had the same problem with Alcohol.”

And Andy Drake of New Brunswick, N.J., asks, “Could legalization of marijuana and laying a tax on it, given restriction allow the government make [stet] back some of the glaring debt considering it’s [stet] inelasticity and the history of economics of prohibition?”

Under the category of “Green Jobs and Energy,” the first question (from Green Machine of Manchester, Va.) asks: “Will you consider decriminalizing the recreational/medical use of marijuana (hemp) so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it [good luck with that], and create millions of new jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?” Apparently Green Machine is a farmer.

The second question in the same category comes from Ashley of Brooklyn, N.Y.: “Has your administration given any serious thought to how legalizing marijuana could help solve the economic crisis? We could tax this green product and create an influx of cash while reducing violence created by the war of [stet] drugs & illegal trafficking.”

In the first question under the category of “Jobs,” Matt B. of West Bend, Ind., asks, “What are your plans for the failing ‘War on Drugs’ that’s sucking money from taxpapers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals.” The third question comes from Phill of Georgetown, Mass.

Phill’s question (yes, his name has two “l’s,” though that may be an accident stemming from, well, you know…): “President Obama, do you plan on letting Science end the failed “War” on Marijuana for personal and medical use thus taking the strain off our prisons and police forces so we no longer have to arrest over 800,000 non-violent drug offenders?”

In addition, the second question under “Health Care Reform” is another marijuana question. Only the categories of “Home Ownership,” “Auto Industry,” “Veterans,” “Small Business,” and “Education” failed to see a marijuana question make the top seven (though it easily could have been an issue for at least the last three of those).

It seems obvious that if Obama is to take the town hall issue seriously–and despite Obama’s predilection for caring too much what other people think, I suspect it’s as much a ploy to look responsive more than it is to be responsive–he’ll have to go from talking smack to talking weed.

Same day update: Obama addressed–and dismissed–legalization of marijuana during today’s forum. More than 104,000 questions apparently were submitted.

Posted in Media literacy, Politics, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Texas and Idaho consider devolution into confederacy of ignorance

Posted by James McPherson on March 25, 2009

Perhaps because some Texans can’t stand being upstaged in their ignorance by the likes of Kansas, Idaho and various states of the Deep South–and perhaps as a reflection of dismay over the fact that the end of the Bush administration has taken away the state’s national platform for promoting scientific ignorance–the Texas Board of Education apparently will vote this week on new science standards that may promote religious views over scientific theories.

Of course, I’m not surprised when Texas looks  stupid, and I appreciate much of what the state has given us. (My Top 10 list for today: Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers, Barbara Jordan, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carol Burnett, Steve Martin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.) But Texas matters more than most of other states in the discussion about science textbooks because it’s so big that decisions made in the Lone Star State can influence textbooks in other states.

As it is, U.S. kids trail much of the world in math and science, finishing behind Finland, Canada, Japan and a dozen other countries. On the plus side, we beat Mexico so we finished second in North America.

In the meantime, a state legislator in Idaho has convinced fellow Republicans to go along with a resolution declaring the United States to be “a confederacy.” The resolution “declares Idaho’s sovereignty from the federal government and ask the federal government to ‘cease and desist’ from violating that sovereignty.”

Since the biggest “violation” would seem to be to make Idaho (where support for its own residents is an embarrassment) into a welfare case (like most Republican states, Idaho takes in more federal tax dollars than it pays, about 20 percent more in this case), the action is a ludicrous and unnecessary, but typical, effort to suck up to the base.

Keep in mind, this is the state that elected Bill Sali and Larry “Wide Stance” Craig to Congress, and where, despite the state’s conservatism, for many Idahoans Sali was considered the bigger embarrassment of those two. Yet the only way to defeat Sali was to have a conservative former Republican–who probably will lose to some other Republican in 2010–run against him.

The state house of representatives approved the confederacy resolution–which has absolutely no power to do anything other than to make Idahoans look like idiots–by a 51-17 vote. The article didn’t mention how many of the legislators were actually capable of counting to 51.

Same-day update: Though Idaho’s legislature is dumber than most, I didn’t mean to imply that the state of my birth is the only one (though almost all are  red states that get more than they give in federal funds) now talking about sovereignty. As I’ve said before, I’m willing to let them go, if they’re willing to stop taking my money. But now I’m curious: Just in case things ever went so far as the creation of a new confederacy, I wonder what percentage of Idaho legislators can name any of the states in the original Confederacy–or realize that Idaho doesn’t share a border with any of them.

Posted in History, Politics, Religion, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Can a Christian lesbian Latina superhero save us?

Posted by James McPherson on March 18, 2009

An interesting report today discusses the value of comic book superheroes for the American psyche in dealing with tough times such as economic depression and war. “In our own times, the public is turning to costumed heroes again in record numbers,” CNN reports. “Movies based on comic books are box office leaders; comic books themselves remain a strong and growing industry.”

Well, maybe. But you may have noticed that just a week after a big opening, “Watchmen” dropped by a somewhat remarkable 67 percent, falling faster than Superman if he’d smacked into a plane full of Kryptonite.

“Watchmen” was bumped from the top spot in the ranking by a Disney remake of “Race to Witch Mountain.” Considering that film, and the fact that the comic book characters who have been popular in recent movies are old favorites, it seems to me that moviegoers are seeking comfortable nostalgia more than reassurance from superheroes.

I have to admit that I haven’t read a comic book since I was a kid. I don’t read graphic novels, and know next to nothing about Manga. But if we really need superheroes, perhaps its time to update them. Maybe they should be multi-racial, not just multi-colored. Maybe more women (though Congress and the superhero community seem to have the same shortcomings in that regard). Maybe crime-fighting Christians. Or lesbians. Or, considering the state of the economy, accountants. Or all of the above.

Since inordinate numbers of old superheroes seem to have derived their powers from nuclear accidents or scientific experiments gone awry, perhaps the return to science by the federal government–and the effort to reduce reliance on oil–also provides new hero-creation possibilities. Somehow I don’t see a superhero being created from wind or solar technology, however, or even “clean coal.” But maybe I just lack comic imagination.

On the other hand, maybe the misadventures of the Bush administration should have taught us that traditional superheroes can’t always save us, that might can’t always make right, and that it’s time for us to put away the comic books and grow up.

Friday update: Come to find out, a Christian lesbian Latina superhero already exists in comics: Renee Montoya, aka “The Question.”

Posted in History, Media literacy, Science, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Might map of knowledge prove useful for journalists, politicians?

Posted by James McPherson on March 16, 2009

Research scientists have developed a visual “map of knowledge” (shown below) that apparently shows how researchers consider the findings of others as they do their own work. I’m not actually sure that it has much practical value, but then the same could be said of much of scientific research that provided unforeseen benefits. In this case, in the words of the researchers:

Maps constructed from clickstream data can serve numerous functions. Like citation maps they provide a means to visually assess the relationships between various domains and journals. However, clickstream maps of science can offer an immediate perspective on what is taking place in science and can thus aid the detection of emerging trends, inform funding agencies, and aid researchers in exploring the interdisciplinary relationships between various scientific disciplines. Clickstream maps can furthermore be used as the basis for exploration and recommendation services that rank journals according to the various parameters of network topology, so that researchers can identify influential journals in any particular domain of interest.

Those may seem like a dull sentences to those of us who tend to be a bit science-phobic. But politicians and  journalists–who tend to be as wary of science and math as astronauts are of space junk–might want to investigate the issue further, especially now that we have a presidential administration that seems determined to use science in making decisions.

Science is expensive, and sometimes controversial. And though my brother is the scientist in the family while I lean toward the humanities (we do agree that social science is neither social nor science) it seems to me that anything we can use to help determine where limited funds might be of the most use might be potentially useful.

map-of-science

Posted in Education, Journalism, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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