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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Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

Now I’m part of ‘profanity police’

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2012

At the bottom of my most recent post, I noted a couple of days ago that New York Times media writer Elizabeth Jensen cited that post in an article. Her embedded link brought more than 3,300 readers to this blog yesterday–more than double the previous record (from a few years ago when a link to a post appeared at the bottom of a CNN story. That’s also more readers than I get most months, since I gave up blogging almost daily in April 2009.

Not surprisingly, among the new readers were some folks who found fault–including one who apparently didn’t read my post very closely, let alone anything else I’ve written, since in a comment he referred to my comments as “right wing.” That made some of my conservative friends chuckle. And now the Atlantic Wire blog  and the liberal blog Con Games, among others, are apparently lumping Jensen and me in together with the “profanity police.”

“McPherson may be shocked to discover that movie stars ‘come across as a group of hormonal middle school students’ as the foul-mouthed bunch did in the magazine’s Oscar Roundtable, that may just be because he hasn’t spent enough time on set,” offers Con Games. And that’s certainly true, if by “not enough” one means “none.”

But of course I’m not terribly surprised by the juvenile behavior–just that Newsweek writer David Ansen seemed to be so enthralled by that behavior. Maybe Ansen hasn’t spent enough time on sets if he is so fascinated by such juvenile pap. I’ll repeat my previous quote: “I have no doubt that the stars used that language. I do doubt that it’s representative of how most of them behave most of the time. If so, let’s hope they stick to acting–they’re just not very interesting, if this is a realistic depiction.”

In fact, previous editions of Newsweek’s “Oscar Roundtable” can easily be found online. And while I won’t take the time to check right now, I’d be willing to bet that none of them–despite the fact that they, too, involve “movie stars”–include the amount of profanity found in the most recent version. In fact, the “new” Newsweek is the problem. And perhaps, according to the blogs, it’s a Tina Brown problem. Both blogs contain this profanity-landen quote (I don’t know which is the original source):

“Tina Brown watchers with long memories might recall a similar complaint dogging the editor after she took over The New Yorker in 1992. On the occasion of her one year anniversary at the helm of that magazine, Spy Magazine ran an item headlined ‘Fuck Yes, The New Yorker,’ that compared some of the words that appeared in The New Yorker before and after Brown took over. Among the words used under Robert Gottlieb, the magazine’s previous editor: ‘Intransigent,’ ‘avuncular,’ ‘ballyhooed,’ and ‘panoply.’ Among the words used under Brown: ‘fuck,’ ‘masturbatory soft porn,’ ‘warm piss,’ ‘fart,’ and ‘bitch.'”

I can’t say that I’ve ever been as big a fan of Brown as many other media watchers, and a previous much-ballyhooed Brown effort, Talk, was awful and blessedly short-lived. I do appreciate her occasional book reviews on NPR’s “Morning Edition”–which, perhaps ironically, I listen to on the same radio station that provided my “free” subscription to Newsweek.

Same-day follow-up: The “others” who have commented on this issue, with links to this blog, now include a New York magazine blog, the conservative Accuracy in Media, a blog titled “Caffeinated Politics,” and another seemingly liberal media blog from Bemidji, Minn.

Feb. 16: Mediabistro, an American University blog about public media, and many in the Twitterverse also have commented on the issue. Perhaps my favorite from the latter: One that quotes Sarah Palin to seemingly compare me to GOP contraception goofballs.

Posted in Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

New York Times vs. BBC

Posted by James McPherson on August 17, 2011

“If I want to know the most important story of the day, the BBC will do me right. If I want to follow an event with bated breath I might be better served by the nytimes.”

That’s a quote from Phillip Mendonça-Vieira, based on a fascinating study of both newspapers, as shared today by Poynter’s Steve Myers. The video above is a side-by-side comparison of the two newspapers’ front pages, through time-lapse photography.

The Times approach reflects Americans’ demand for instant updates, of course. Long known as the “Grey Lady” for its conservative layouts and resistance to change, by comparison to the BBC the lady is quite saucy.

Mendonça-Vieira’s earlier, much longer video of just New York Times front pages is below:

Posted in History, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

My first NYT quotes, and a wacky conservative reaction

Posted by James McPherson on June 26, 2011

I made the New York Times for the first time today, and hadn’t even noticed it until this blog got a pingback from a conservative blogger who chose to criticize me–not surprisingly, doing so inaccurately. (I’d been interviewed by the Times once before, but that time had my quotes end up on the cutting room floor., just like the time I was interviewed by C-SPAN.)

The Times piece, written by Jeremy W. Peters, is about conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, to whom Peters cogently refers as “part performance artist, part polemicist.” Neither my comments nor the article were particularly harsh in regard to the guy famous for distortion of stories about Acorn and Shirley Sherrod.

In fact, Breitbart himself commended Peters to Sean Hannity just a week ago, saying the author had defended him from liberal bloggers  during the Netroots Nation blogger conference. And the conservative Media Research Center complimented Peters for another article about Breitbart earlier this month, so the journalist could hardly be considered a Breitbart basher.

In fact, the person most critical of Breitbart in today’s article is… Andrew Breitbart, whom Peters quoted as saying: “I admit it. I’m from LA. I still am shallow. Don’t anyone think otherwise.”

My most critical comment (in the article, at least): “I think his actions show that if he’s not willing to distort, he is at least careless with the facts.” I was more critical of his followers (and by inference, at least, those who are similarly committed to left-wing bloggers): “There are no standards of fact anymore for a lot of people. We’ve gone from selecting sources of opinion that we agree with to selecting facts that we agree with.”

My only other quote in the article: “On the right, [Breitbart] is seen as an investigative journalist along the lines of Woodward and Bernstein.” Scathing, huh? Well, scathing enough to have a right-wing blogger criticize me in a silly and inaccurate post titled “NYT uses Blumenthal crony to attack Breitbart.”

The post was short, but  managed to get several things wrong. I followed up with a polite correction in the comments–which the blogger refused to approve, instead  following up with another short snide comment of his own. So for what it’s worth, I’ll go ahead and correct the record here.

First, blogger Moe Lane stated that I “wrote a book with Sid  Blumenthal.” Though I’m happy that Blumenthal wrote the foreword for my latest book–at the request of the publisher, Northwestern University Press–some time after I wrote the book (and in response to what’s in it), I have never met him, talked to him, or corresponded with him, let alone co-written anything with him. Lane’s reference to me as a “Blumenthal crony,” while in fact fairly complimentary, is in fact ludicrous.

Besides, I didn’t want a liberal to write the foreword in the first place, since the book is a scholarly work about the rise of modern conservativism. I had recommended that NU Press try to get George Will, Pat Buchanan or William F. Buckley to read and write about the book.

Lane also writes that “a perusal of McPherson’s blog indicates that, for somebody supposedly interested in objective journalism, he likes to call people names and babble about conspiracy theories.” As I pointed out to Lane–and frequently here–I’m hardly someone who would qualify as “supposedly interested in objective journalism,” since I don’t believe there is such a thing.

Though I don’t disput that sometimes I “call people names,” the post to which Lane links to prove the point is probably more critical of Barack Obama than of anyone else. And of course regular readers here know that I “babble about conspiracy theories” to make fun of them–as I clearly did with the one Lane linked to but apparenlty didn’t bother to read closely.

On the plus side, both Lane and Peters included the title of my book. And perhaps Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Even more to the point is the line attributed to Irish writer Brendan Behan, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Winter Olympics & Hollywood suggest why politicians lie–or lose

Posted by James McPherson on February 24, 2010

“Remember when the Internet was supposed to kill off television?” asks a front-page story in today’s New York Times, before going on to point out that for at least some kinds of television, the Web actually boosts TV ratings. In an era in which families now no longer watch television together, the Internet lets people “talk” to each other about what they’re watching.

Also this morning, in a typically excellent commentary for NPR, Frank Deford marveled about the fact that NBC’s Olympic coverage one night last week beat even “American Idol” (a show I must admit that I can’t stand, and have never watched in its entirety, despite its huge following).

NBC won the night despite the fact that its “coverage” of Lindsey Vonn’s gold medal downhill run appeared hours after she had won and presumably after almost anyone who cared knew she had won. (Incidentally, I also find it interesting that the Olympics are a big TV hit, despite the fact that most Americans wouldn’t watch a non-Olympic ski race on a dare.) In fact, many people probably watched because they knew she had won. Or because they knew she had won.

“Perhaps this suggests that at this time when there is so little good news in America, when we do not enjoy the everyday success we used to rather expect, when we are so at loggerheads as a people, that there is something comforting about us coming together to watch a beautiful young woman, struggling with injury, secure in our knowledge that she will raise Old Glory on high,” said Deford. More important, I think (though perhaps too obvious), was his preceding statement: “Evidently, we would now rather revel in an assured triumph than suffer through a live competition with a problematic outcome.”

Well, yeah. Americans hate bad news. That’s why most American films–focus-group tested into homogenity–come with tidy, happy endings, usually (as I heard the great Roger Ebert note years ago) with a crowd of onscreen people cheering the heroes so that we might know to cheer along with them.

Now some DVDs come with alternate endings, and I asked students today to share examples they had seen. Apparently the main characters ended up dead in “The Butterfly Effect” and struck by lightning (though, unfortunately, not fatally) in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Many films now offer alternate endings, typically darker than the originals.

Unfortunately the “happy ending” syndrome extends to American public policy. We all know the economy, the environment and health care have serious problems. But we certainly won’t stand for some politician telling us bad news that really means anything–as in, we need to sacrifice something to fix the problem–and in fact would vote him out of office if he did. So they all promise wonderful things that we won’t let them deliver, and then blame the lack of resolution on the folks on the other side of the aisle.

After all, every American has also been conditioned to know that for every hero there must be a villian, whether that villian is a scheming movie girlfriend, a Russian ice skater, a Democrat or a Republican.

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

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

Posted by James McPherson on April 13, 2009

The panel discussion I contributed to on Saturday was well-attended, and people obviously care about news and where it comes from. I know of at least three other bloggers who have already discussed the panel–one who works in mainstream journalism, one who soon will, and the other an interested area resident.

Unlike in most of the city where I live and work (where people tend to argue that the news media have a liberal bias) the audience and most of the panel leaned left in their political views–probably a result of having the panel in a downtown independent bookstore as part of a literary festival. The soon-to-be journalist, one of my students, did the most complete reporting about the discussion, so rather than repeat what she wrote I’ll refer you to her site.

One thing I will mention is that much of the discussion (based on questions from an audience generally mistrustful of media) centered on who is a journalist, and why we should trust “trained journalists” over “citizen journalists.” I think the point I made at the time may be worth expanding: For me, one of the key points is that professional journalists know where to look and whom to talk to for information (they don’t always have the time or ambition to do so thoroughly, but that’s another point).

In addition, trained journalists have (or should have) a better understanding of an overall issue and how it fits into a bigger picture, they have a better understanding of ethical and legal guidelines, and their organizations can better afford to pursue an issue over time or create databases to compare relevant statistics (or to sue the city government, for illegally keeping the reporter out of a public meeting).

Because of the amount of online information now available, it can be easier than it once was for individuals or small organizations to use the kinds of documents that make up most of our most important news. Even so, and despite this story from yesterday’s New York Times, few private citizens can pursue and publish a story in the same way that  news organizations can. For one thing, anyone who makes the time to learn a lot about one issue is likely to be viewed as a biased crank by many of the rest of us. For another, even popular local bloggers just don’t get the size of audience that mainstream media do.

As a result, blogs tend to be biased and/or largely made up of news from elsewhere. This blog is no exception. I’m no journalist, though I once was one. Of course I also argue that the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann also are not journalists, even if they happen to share some news now and then. For me, one key distinction is one I made Saturday: Journalists typically do a lot of research that never formally shows up in a newspaper or on the air, and frequently let drop (or put on hold) stories that go nowhere.

Put simply: Journalists know a lot more than they report, while too many bloggers report more than they know.

That difference has less to do with bloggers making things up (though some do) than with the fact that those bloggers (including me) rely heavily on second-hand information from elsewhere–sometimes mainstream media, sometimes other bloggers–that they have no means of checking themselves. Mainstream news organizations have the money and manpower to better check the reliability of their sources.

Put another way: You probably don’t fully trust your boss or your brother-in-law, so why would you trust a random “citizen journalist”? I’m not saying to fully trust mainstream journalism, either–but I’d say that the vast majority of the time you’ll be better off relying on information that appears in your local newspaper than on some interested bystander. Better yet, use both–while you still can.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Death and dancing, faith and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on April 6, 2009

I am glad to see the policy on pictures of American’s returning war dead overturned. I believe that covering those dead is both a sign of respect for those who died, and one of many areas in which the media have fallen short. Still, I also have to admit that journalism isn’t all about grim news, even if far less of it should be about celebrity journalism (or, God help us, celebrity journalists). Sometimes, journalism ought to be about life.

Even the most hard-bitten, caffeine-addicted journalist who got into the business to chase down dirty politicians and corporate misdeeds while aiding the democratic process–the major point of the First Amendment, and something that if practiced might actually improve Americans’ opinions about the new media–would do well to remember that to reach people in a meaningful way, you have to appeal to their better nature.

That’s why I started out my reporting class today asking students, “What is–or should be–the relationship between faith and journalism?” I happen to teach at a Christian university, where “faith” is generally taken to mean religious faith, but I would argue that the question is relevant regardless of the institution or faith(s) of those involved.

In response I got the expected (and important) answers about faith providing an ethical framework for one’s work. After a follow-up question–“Why do many conservative Christians hate the news media?”–and then a bit of probing to get beyond the usual (and wrong, in my view) answer about liberal media bias, they came to a couple of key points:

First, the news is typically “bad.” Even if it’s not about problems, it often focuses on negative aspects of humanity. Second, because of the nature of “news,” religion and other aspects of day-to-day life tend to be ignored or poorly covered. As I’ve noted elsewhere, journalists typically are neither anti-Christian nor anti-religious (like other Americans, many happen to be people of faith), it’s just that they don’t pay much attention to it except in cases involving culture wars or Muslim or Christian religious extremists who force their way into the news.

After showing the class an excellent positive example regarding religion from one “liberal media” icon, the New York Times, I let them hear an example from another common target, National Public Radio. NPR has a long-running series, called “This I Believe,”  based on a 1950s radio program by the same name. I have a book of the earlier essays, “written for, and with a forward by Edward R. Murrow,” on my shelf.

Not surprisingly, the book and the online collection are full of references to faith. Interestingly, for this week, the third-most-popular essay is by 7-year-old Tarak McLain, the second line of which reads, “I believe God is in everything,” while just above it is an essay by Penn Gillette that starts out, “I believe there is no God.” The well-deserved top spot, however, goes to world traveler and self-proclaimed “terrible dancer” Matt Harding.

Harding has his own Web site, titled “Where the Hell is Matt?” Among the “frequently asked questions” on the site is, “Are you religious?” It’s a dumb question, in my view, because Harding has managed to do something that journalists and Christians alike should be striving to do, and which they too often forget: reaching out to people, and sharing stories.

My friends who teach interpersonal and intercultural communication regularly point out that the most important communication skill is that of listening. I’d argue that the same may be true of journalism. If you don’t listen, you can’t understand. If you don’t understand, you can’t share.

As I told today’s class, I’d argue that Harding (who, incidentally, happens to call himself a humanist) has done far more to touch people and make the world a better place than most Christians or journalists (or Christian journalists) ever will. If you doubt it, watch the video below, and see what happens to your own emotions. If you don’t feel better about human condition–and if your faith, whatever that faith may be hasn’t been reaffirmed–you must be dead, yourself.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Music, Religion, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Saving the world in Afghanistan, killing the media at home

Posted by James McPherson on March 27, 2009

Barack Obama apparently can’t decide if he’s George W. Bush or one of several former leaders of the former Soviet Union, declaring that we must win in Afghanistan to “save the world.”

Despite worries about those other dangerous folks on our southern border, apparently Afghanistan seems small enough to win (chances are Obama won’t be the first leader to be wrong about that) and far enough away that we can be inspired to worry enough to fund operations there and think Democrats are strong on defense–but not be too scared to pour money into other things.

Americans know they should worry about Obama-the-Conservative’s plan when Fox News and David Brooks both are quick to approve. In the meantime, of course, there’s less reason to believe even fewer Americans will be informed about that issue or any other, as news media continue to die.

Interestingly, CNN highlighted financial costs in the headline and lead of a story about job cuts at the New York Times and Washington Post yesterday–at the same time it was featuring a clueless “iReport” feature titled “Let newspapers go”–holding the fact that the Times cut 100 jobs and would slash the salaries of other workers until the second paragraph. The third paragraph mentions that buyouts will be offered at the Post, which “could not rule out laying off staff.”

Contrast that with a story the same day about Google, for which both the headline and the lead highlight almost 200 lost jobs–leaving the company with 20,000 employees–or about five times as many people as we’ll add to our “world saving” force in Afghanistan.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Uneasy riders: Yen and the lack of motorcycle company maintenance

Posted by James McPherson on March 22, 2009

Another sign of the faltering U.S. economy: The New York Times today offers a story about the serious problems affecting Harley Davidson, producer of the nation’s iconic motorcycle.

Among the problems are that the age of the average rider has climbed to 49–a year shy of the requirement for AARP membership–and the average income of those riders is $87,000. In the meantime, as with cars, Japanese companies have been more efficient, producing better, cheaper and more varied products. And as with cars, those competitive problems began in the 1970s.

I spent my last summer before college working for a small-town newspaper and pitching for a softball team sponsored by a bar; the team and the bar’s clientele were made of largely of Harley riders. We were the only team in the league virtually guaranteed to have a police presence at all of our games, but in fact most of the guys were working blue-collar jobs and, though perhaps engaging in a bit too much drinking and recreational drug use, were essentially harmless.

Assuming those guys are still around, unless their lives have changed dramatically, most of them wouldn’t be able to afford to own and maintain their preferred band of motorcycle today. If they had bikes at all, they’d probably be riding what my teammates of 30 years ago denigrated as “rice burners.”

So the venerable Harley, once a sign of the kind of rebellion that Americans pretend to appreciate but generally try to crush, has largely become just another rich person’s toy. And unlike a yacht or private plane, you can’t sleep on your motorcycle or easily use it to pack your bonus off to another country.

The Associated Press and the latest issue of consumer-porn magazine Town & Country are among those at home and abroad that recently have reminded us that this isn’t the best time for the rich to be flaunting their wealth–even if humorist Joe Queenan (writing for Fortunesays they should.

“The one unquestioned moral responsibility of the wealthy is to act as role models for the less fortunate,” Queenan writes, satirically (I hope) bemoaning what he calls “the crisis afflicting self-effacing rich people, a class best described as the wallflower wealthy.”

In reality, perhaps at least a few of those wallflowers, typically old enough to remember the film “Easy Rider,” recognize that some poor guy driving an old pickup to pick up his unemployment check may still own a shotgun powerful enough to blast you off your bike.

Posted in History, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Scapegoating AIG: Big money, small change, big distraction

Posted by James McPherson on March 17, 2009

Democratic leaders are  up in arms over bonuses for AIG employees, demanding that the company not spend the money for those bonuses and/or that the money be heavily taxed. (Gee, Dems asking for higher taxes; could you give Rush Limbaugh and company a tastier cliche? Not that Rush and the GOP are any more thrilled with the bonuses, of course, even if probably virtually everyone who got one is a Republican).

Today’s complaints come a day after Barack Obama called the bonuses an “outrage” and promised to try to block them, and three days after the company promised to “scale back” the bonuses, which apparently total a whoppng $165 million. The media have jumped on the bandwagon in a big way; the top two stories on the New York Times web page as I write this are about the anger over AIG. Naturally Fox News framed the story differently, with the headline, “Lawmakers turn fire on Obama adminstration over AIG bonuses.” (Gee, four GOP Congressman critical of a Democratic president? That’s even less surprising than the Democratic tax angle.) The headline later changed to better reflect the actual story, which was mostly critical of Timothy Geithner.

It’s tough to buy AIG’s argument that payouts are needed to keep “talented executives”–after all, if they’re so talented, how come we just had to bail out their company to the tune of $170 billion? Besides, in this economy, where else could those people go? I’ve never been a big fan of big business, anyway, and why shouldn’t we all be mad at AIG?

Still, the bonuses apparentlywere paid under terms of employee contracts, which seems to go along with Republican ideas about contracts and Democratic ideas about labor. But shouldn’t there be exceptions for employees whose employer is getting government money? Especially when the bonuses are so high (at least 73 of them for more than $1 million)? And especially since those bonuses make up so much of the bailout, a whopping total of … hmm … less than one-tenth of one percent. Oh.

Keep in mind, many of those complaining about AIG are the same people who were saying (and I agreed) last week that earmarks are not an overly significant budget problem bacause they made up less than 2 percent of the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. Likewise, employee bonuses are a tiny part of the problem with the economy.

In the meantime, at least three far bigger problems still are being largely ignored as the government and the media screech about AIG, Bernie Madoff and a few other “big bidness” villains:

  1. We have no idea where most of the bailout money to various companies is going, because those in government failed to provide oversight of those funds.
  2. The media have been essentially worthless in uncovering or warning us about impending financial problems–as, sadly, comedian Jon Stewart has been forced to point out.
  3. Those in government created the policies (and lack of regulation) that led to the meltdown, and have too often skittered between hopeless and clueless since the financial meltdown began.

Focusing on those problems, of course, would bring attention to how big the financial crisis really is, and to those most responsible for both causing and solving the crisis. It’s a lot easier to scapegoat the kind of people who, not long ago, we were all being encouraged to become.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

‘Dead’ beats: Vampire-like bill collectors collect from concientious kin

Posted by James McPherson on March 4, 2009

Worried about the economy because of the falling stock market?  Afraid you won’t get anything from the stimulus bill? (If so, maybe should should move to a red state.) Concerned that you might lose your job and not be able to pay your bills? Just wait ’til you get your dead grandmother’s cell phone bill.

As the New York Times reports today, by taking advantage of technology and the fact that most people don’t know they are not responsible for the bills left behind by deceased relatives, credit agencies are going wherever they might be able to get someone–perhaps by using deceit or by playing on survivors’ guilt–to pay off unpaid balances. The Times notes: “Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs deceased collections, says that if family members ask, ‘we definitely tell them’ they have no legal obligation to pay. ‘But is it disclosed upfront–“Mr. Smith, you definitely don’t owe the money”? It’s not that blunt.'”

Not surprisingly, collecting from poor widows is stressful for the people who happen to be scummy or desperate enough to take the job. It’s even more stressful for the grieving poor, of course, and there will be more folks on both ends of those calls in months to come.

On the plus side, if someone has to sell the big screen TV to pay off someone else’s debts, at least their own children may be less likely to grow up stupid from watching reality television (and in case you’re lucky enough not to know what I’m talking about, and for whatever perverse reason happen to care, the clip below will fill you in):

Posted in Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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