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 and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for April, 2008

John McCain and me

Posted by James McPherson on April 29, 2008

I worked for several years as a reporter covering politics–mostly local, though one of my early political interviews as a 23-year-old editor of the Gilbert News (later the Gilbert Independent) in Arizona was of John McCain. He was running for national office for the first time, and I actually remember little about the interview other than the fact that it came on the spur of the moment and I wasn’t particularly well prepared. The interview and his subsequent victory did prompt me to follow his career a little more closely in the years that followed. I doubt he remembers it at all.

At times McCain has impressed me, such as when he strenuously opposed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that Bill Clinton signed into law. Lately he has been less impressive with his efforts to kiss up to the conservatives that he thinks he needs to win the presidency. I think it’s a political error, frankly. McCain’s greatest appeal has always been to the middle, and he is now doing much to sacrifice that appeal–how much will become clear after the Democrats choose a nominee and the general election battle begins in earnest.

On the other hand, perhaps McCain realizes that his appeal for moderates has largely been undeserved, since he has almost always acted more conservative than he sounded. Maybe he suspects that coverage of a general election campaign might paint a more accurate picture of the real McCain, costing him moderates, anyway. If so, he has more faith in mainstream media political coverage than I do.

Posted in Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Curiosity and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on April 28, 2008

Journalists and professors (even professors of subjects other than journalism) have much in common, a theme that I expect to come back to from time to time. One of the most important commonalities may be how much they often differ from the very people (readers, audiences, students) that they try to serve–a dichotomy, by the way, that contributes to the idea and sometimes the reality that journalists and professors are elitists.

One of the biggest and most frustrating differences between “us” and “them” might be curiosity. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t do what we do, or at least we wouldn’t do it well. And perhaps that’s why we’re not doing it as well as we could–more on that below, thanks to a Poynter column by Amy Gahran. But a lot of people simply aren’t very curious. Just a few weeks from graduating, a lot of seniors don’t know what it is they want to do next in life, and I’m convinced that a lack of innate curiosity provides much of the explanation for it.

Ken Metzler, in his book Creative Interviewing, lists “a lack of enthusiasm and natural curiosity about people and the world at large” as one of the primary problems journalism students have in conducting meaningful interviews. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Metzler suggests that such people, should they become journalists, “may be forever condemned to interviewing politicians and other garrulous zealots who are as insensitive to the niceties of human communicatin as the journalist themselves–a fate not undeserved.”

Derrick Jensen, in a book titled Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, blames public education for wringing the imagination out of people. I like the book, and Jenson (who now is on to other topics, most notably the end of civilization) describes common student apathy well, but I’m not sure he’s totally right about this one. I agree that overburdened public schools, set up to create a useful work force, often fall far short of inspiring creativity for most students. But most parents also fall short in the same area, and probably care less than Johnny’s teachers about his ability to think creatively.

Besides, most of the creative people I know were educated primarily through public institutions, while those who can afford fancy private prep schools and Ivy League colleges are the ones most likely to go on to become the lawyers, kings of capitalism and political leaders who do most of the damage to society. I’ve helped educate a lot of students who were home-schooled or who attended small private schools, and some of them have been among my best, most creative students. But others are too used to being given “right answers,” and struggle mightily with any exercise requiring creativity or that has ambiguity built in.

Gahran suggests that journalists may be having the same problem. She is highly critical of traditional journalists’ reticence to consider new media forms–the same forms, incidentally, that provide most of the information for our students (Remember them? The ones we complain don’t read newspapers.) She argues that new media offer journalism to continue doing good work while increasing its impact.

“Plus, new approaches to journalism can simply be more fun. As a group, journalists don’t seem to be having nearly enough fun,” Gahran writes. “And the process of learning anything new at all can also be a lot of fun. In fact, that basic craving for continual learning is what drew many of us to journalism in the first place. Remember that?”

She goes on to note: “Journalists (more so than most other professions) are supposed to be fundamentally curious and profoundly interested in what’s happening around them.” (emphasis hers) The same could be said about educators.

Posted in Education, Journalism | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Bill Moyers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Posted by James McPherson on April 26, 2008

Bill Moyers devoted almost a full hour to an interview with Barack Obama’s pastor last night. The interview served as a good reminder of three things:

  1. Bill Moyers has consistently managed to put himself in the best job in TV journalism, and to do it extremely well.
  2. The media (especially television) generally do a dismal job of providing context for events. Wright is a complicated and highly intelligent man, but he and his message have been widely misunderstood and falsely portrayed–often intentionally.
  3. Negative attacks drive far too much political coverage. That’s why so many people know something (however misinterpreted) about Wright and his relationship to Obama, while relatively little attention has been paid to John McCain’s relationship to fundamentalist anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic pastor John Hagee. For more on that connection, see Zachary Roth’s article at Columbia Journalism Review. I suspect it will become more of an issue after the Dems finally choose a nominee and start focusing on McCain.

Neither McCain or Obama should be judged significantly for what their friends or critics say, but unfortunately journalists find it far easier to report on potentially harmful associations than to cover the issues. “Illegal war costing hundreds of times more than predicted? Faltering economy? Record deficit? Lack of Congressional oversight? Judicial restructuring? Politicizing of the Supreme Court? How complicated and boring. Say, who is Britney endorsing? Any chance that she has hired an illegal alien?”

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

Mottos for Journalism

Posted by James McPherson on April 25, 2008

Roy Peter Clarke at the Poynter Institute on Monday called for entries for a six-word motto for contemporary journalism. He got the idea from a similar contest for a new American motto, proposed by Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, and a friend of Dubner’s (The winner of that one, by the way: “Our worst critics prefer to stay.”)

Going for quantity over quality, I fired off 14 entries. This morning Clarke announced the top 10 and runners-up from among the hundreds submitted (suggesting he touched a nerve among journalists and journalism educators), and I found my name on the list five times. Some suggestions were better than any of mine, however (including Clarke’s own “Feed the watchdog, euthenize the lapdog”–which he was persuaded by popular demand to include among the finalists–and “Last one out, turn off the lights,” “Need more Knight, less Ridder” and “See no evil, write no story”). My other favorites include Ryan Kelly’s “Dirty commie latte-sipping liberal scum,” Ken Fuson’s “Doing more with less since 1690” and “We’re sorry about all the trees,”  and Lois Collins’ “We won’t bore you with context.” I’ll list them all here:

Top Ten Picks:

  • Doing more with less since 1690. Ken Fuson, Des Moines Register
  • We’ll always have Paris … or Britney — Jim McPherson, Whitworth University
  • It’s how I change the world. — Nick Escobar, The Elgin (Ill.) CourierNews
  • Get it right, write it tight. — Margaret McDonald, McDonald Wordsmith Communications
  • They’ll miss us when we’re gone. — Scott Powers, Patrick McGeehan, Matthew Jones, John Davenport
  • Feed the lapdog, euthanize the watchdog — Roy Peter Clark
  • Who, what, when, where, why, Web — Greg Phillips, The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
  • Facts, schmacts … how is my hair? — Kathy Sweeney, anchor/investigative reporter, Heartland News
  • Dirty commie latte-sipping liberal scum — Ryan Kelly, Christopher Newport University
  • Please stop griping, now start typing. — Jeff Unger, University of Illinois

Honorable Mentions:

  • We’re sorry about all the trees — Ken Fuson
  • We checked: Our mother still loves us — Ken Fuson
  • Stop the presses! Oh, you did. — Jim McPherson
  • Information you can trust until tomorrow — Jim McPherson
  • No news is not good news — J. David Knepper and Leah Etling
  • Black and white, but not green enough — Robert Timmons
  • How many inches is the truth? — Casey Bartels
  • Got stry – will txt u asap — Lynn McMahon
  • Seek the truth, not the money — Angele’ Anderfuren
  • Not tonight, dear. I’m on deadline — Christopher Ortiz
  • We don’t make this shit up — Deb Sutton
  • Writers’ block is on Fleet Street — Anand Raj
  • Dead wood floats. So can we — Ray Martinez
  • A journalist’s work is never done — Randy Rogers
  • If we go, who will know? — Steve Riley
  • History’s first version, updated every minute — Rebecca Jones
  • Five Double You and One Age (Quinque Bi Tu Et Unum Aetas) — Sebastian Moraga
  • We break stuff. Like the news — Ryan Kelly
  • Critical thinking? We outsourced to India — Dennis Alchemist
  • It beats working for a living — Jim Naughton
  • Speak truth to power, or else — Peter Gates
  • Journalistic bias? There’s no stinking bias! — Tim Owens
  • Journalism lives where the truth lies — Daneja Kirkland
  • But this IS my day job! — Mike Gruss
  • We won’t bore you with context — Lois M. Collins
  • News now: We’ll fix it later — Lois M. Collins
  • Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy! No, seriously. Accuracy! — Tim Schulte
  • Every silver lining has a cloud — David Vossbrink
  • Must be readable on the crapper! — Michael Sweeney
  • Eye on the ball; ear on the ground — Peter Dannenberg
  • Mainstream media: We’re your grandfather’s blog — Jim McPherson
  • Filling the space between the ads — Jim McPherson
  • Write the truth between the lines — Lynn McMahon
  • Ding dong, the print is dead — Russel Nichols
  • There’s a period key. Use it. — Dan Close
  • Journalism: Sizing down, so bottom’s up! — Matthew Cate
  • Pyramids to blogosphere, and everywhere in between — Bill West

Incidentally, my other suggestions were:

  • “Buns of steel exercise plan: Interactivity.”
  • “Front page scoop, inside page correction.”
  • “Untruth, injustice and the American fray.”
  • “Tracking down YouTube’s best for you”
  • “Spanning the country for campaign gaffes.”
  • “Don’t hate us because we’re dutiful.”
  • “Poll says we should shut up.”
  • “Sobriety is for news, not journalists.”
  • “Telling you what to think about.” (for the agenda setting scholars)

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged: | 2 Comments »


Posted by James McPherson on April 24, 2008

Today’s blog time has been primarily allocated to producing the list of links at right. I’ll add to them from time to time, and welcome suggestions. I’ve tried to give a reasonable range of political and media sources, while staying away from the more extreme nutjobs that provide more heat than light. Therefore you will find Air America and Fox News, but you won’t find the individual Web sites for the blowhards who frequent those networks. Frankly I generally recommend the sites produced by print organizations over produced by broadcasters, though there are occasional exceptions. More importantly, read and watch news from a range of perspectives–politically, socially and geographically–rather than relying on one source, especially if that source tends to reinforce your own biases.

Posted in Media literacy | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

What Bush thinks of you

Posted by James McPherson on April 23, 2008

His “one-fingered victory salute.” On the other hand, getting something half right might be viewed as progress.

Posted in Politics, Video | Leave a Comment »

Presidential politics and WWE

Posted by James McPherson on April 23, 2008

As if bad bowling and tossing back whiskey shots weren’t enough to convince us that the presidential candidates get blue-collar America, now all three candidates have joined in promoting professional wrestling. Come to think of it, the trash-talking phoniness of the WWE does have a fair amount in common with the state of modern American politics.

Posted in Politics, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The appeal of change from outsiders

Posted by James McPherson on April 23, 2008

It’s interesting that in every election we see candidates trying to convince us that they’re Washington “outsiders,” not caught up in the politics of Washington. They all promise change. And we keep buying it.

Of course George W. Bush arrived as a Washington outsider who promised change. And change we got–a war on two fronts, a collapsing economy, increasing corporate influence over government policy, less reliance on science and more on emotion (good for choosing a spouse, perhaps; not so good for running a government), more government secrecy, decreased credibility and influence in the rest of the world. 

Before Bush, we elected another “outsider” in Bill Clinton. Clinton managed to simultaneously inspire the hatred of conservatives while becoming the most successful conservative president in decades. Before Clinton was one term of another Bush, chosen largely because he was Ronald Reagan’s vice president. But Reagan and his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, also came in as Washington outsiders.

I have a thought. Maybe if we want to see things improve, we should start trying to elect people who actually know something about how politics work. In fact, all three of the remaining candidates know more about federal government policy than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton did when they took office. Too bad that we’d vote against them if they admitted it.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Why Obama’s success is no surprise, and why McCain may be in trouble

Posted by James McPherson on April 22, 2008

Here’s something I wrote more than a year ago (though you’ll have to take my word for that), for my forthcoming book (pp. 213-214). Of course I’d look a lot smarter if the book had come out sooner.

In trying to understand whether political change is indeed underway, hopeful liberals, pessimistic conservatives, and would-be political pundits might look for other parallels with the beginning of the conservative resurgence. For example, they might compare the 2004 Democratic Convention speech of Senator Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” address of forty years earlier. Both speeches attracted positive national attention, and both men found themselves in demand as speakers inside and outside their parties. Though Reagan had a sharper wit, a folksier manner, and a more practiced delivery, both he and Obama spoke on behalf of their values in direct, positive, and personal ways that connected with listeners. In 2006 Obama was one of the most popular campaigners for Democratic candidates around the country. He also wrote a popular book that might be compared to conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Obama’s The Audacity of Hope offered an image for the nation’s political future, calling for, in one reviewer’s words, “a mode of liberalism that sounds both highly pragmatic and deeply moral.” Like a Reagan campaign speech, the book also was long on optimism and short on policy details. [Review from the Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com]

In this television age Obama has one distinct advantage and one disadvantage compared to Ronald Reagan. The advantage is that after the publication of his book, every national network devoted considerable coverage to the issue of whether Obama might run for president. Predictably, most of the coverage focused on whether in spite of his race and youth he was “electable,” without discussing his political ideas (or even whether he had any). After months of free speculative publicity, Obama finally declared his candidacy for president. One disadvantage he faced was that even though he was relatively inexperienced as a politician, he had been in politics for most of his adult life. A sad fact of contemporary American politics is that many voters trust actors more than they do politicians, as perhaps demonstrated by the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the same governor’s seat once held by Ronald Reagan. Two U.S. senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton, were viewed as very early frontrunners for the 2008 presidential nominations of their parties, but the simple fact that they had voting records in a political body that sometime requires compromise meant that opponents even in their own parties could attack them as wafflers and flip-floppers. It is no accident that almost every president since 1976 has been a governor, not a legislator (the single exception, George H. W. Bush, had been Reagan’s vice president). As for candidates coming from Congress, one critic of the conservative movement made an observation decades ago that might now apply to Americans in general, and to their news media: “Compromise means cooperation . . . and a loss of integrity. By this logic, those who succeed in the political world and attain real influence are corrupt and can no longer be trusted to advance the true cause. Only the loners who refuse to play the game of the System are to be trusted.” [Quote from Alan Crawford, Thunder on the Right: The “New Right” and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 113]


Posted in Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , | 10 Comments »