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 May, 2008

Today’s students

Posted by James McPherson on May 31, 2008

Last night’s “Newshour” had an interesting segment on China and the Internet, discussing areas in which the nation has become more free–and areas in which it hasn’t. Most troubling to me was how little young people seemed to care about their lack of freedom, but then if you’ve never had something, you can’t really know what you’re missing.

The piece also pointed out that Internet users in China are much younger on average than those here in the U.S., reminding me that yet again that the young have different priorities and experiences than those of us who are older. Related to that, as I promised previously, here is another favorite video from Kansas State University’s mediatedcultures.net.

A Vision of Students Today (Michael Wesch)

Posted in Education, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 9 Comments »

With a full chest, who needs a full stomach?

Posted by James McPherson on May 30, 2008

In criticizing a New York Times story that reports a World Bank increase in spending from $4 billion to $6 billion for food programs, economist Dean Baker points out that for most Americans such numbers are meaningless. While the increase is 50 percent, that figure comes out to less than $8 per person for the people of the U.S., Europe in Japan.

That might still seem high, without Baker’s other bit of context: “Another helpful comparison is that the new spending figure is equal to less than 2 weeks spending on the Iraq War. Since almost none of the NYT’s readers have any idea how much $6 billion is, there is no point in writing in a number like this without any context. It is simply a pointless ritual.”

Much like the war itself.

But at least George Bush, performing at another annual ritual, is still finding ways to look manly, though the Air Force Academy congratulatory move seemed to wear him out a bit. See one photo below, or the disturbing seven-photo series here, of what Wonkette describes as the president “‘chest-bumping’ a graduate, who has probably already died in Iraq.”



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

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

Posted by James McPherson on May 28, 2008

A column by Sabin Willett (an attorney for a firm that has represented Guantanamo prisoners) in today’s Miami Herald, reprinted by CommonDreams.org, illustrates why so many Americans are clueless about this nation’s standing in the rest of the world. “The world’s most famous journalist isn’t Peter Arnett or Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or Dan Rather,” Willett writes. “His name is Sami al-Hajj. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. That should worry you.”

Willett points out that al-Hajj, a TV cameraman from Sudan, was recently released without comment after years in Guantanamo–years in which “al-Jazeera followed his odyssey day by day” while “most Americans never saw his photograph in mainstream American newspapers or heard about him on television.” I’ve attached YouTube clips (more than 23 minutes, or about the length of a full nightly news broadcast in this country) of al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” coverage of the al-Hajj case and world Press Freedom Day below. A quick search of the New York Times archives for al-Hajj’s name reveals a total of 12 results, only two of those news story focusing on al-Hajj–a four-paragraph story in September 2002 with the lead, “A reporter for the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera is being held at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, suspected of having links with the terror network of Al Qaeda, according to a statement issued by the station,” and then one reporting his release earlier this month.

The press did pay a bit more attention a couple of weeks ago to the government’s decision to drop charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, the supposed “20th hijacker,” after al-Qahtani’s information apparently was deemed worthless in part because he was tortured (supporting John McCain’s early criticism of torture, before he voted to allow more of it). To the surprise of no one who closely follows the media, the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped on a Friday so that American press coverage would be limited.

Willett is justifiably critical of the U.S. news media in the case of the Sudanese cameraman, noting that while they could not have known whether al-Hajj was a journalist or a terrorist, they “should have been shouting from the rooftops about al-Hajj–demanding evidence, a trial, the truth. But our press was silent.” Willett also suggests that the press silence may be a harbinger of ineptitude to come:

Today the war drums are rumbling again, this time for Iran. Will our press stand its post, or pick up the pom-poms of 2002 and 2003?

The omens aren’t good. The most famous journalist in the world was imprisoned by Americans, without charge, for almost seven years–was beaten, isolated, humiliated, force-fed, relentlessly interrogated and then quietly released. And you never heard about him.

Al-Hajj claims he was tortured while in American custody, that he was interrogated more than 130 times, and that his keepers wanted him to go to work for the U.S. “They wanted me to betray the principles of my job and turn me into a spy,” he said. “It was made clear to me later that the main goal behind my detention was to detain the journalist who reveals the truth.”

We have no way of knowing whether al-Hajj is telling the truth, of course. But part of the reason we don’t know is because the American press never bothered to investigate.  And if they won’t investigate the case of a fellow journalist, what are the odds they’ll examine any of the other almost 800 other people sent to Guantanamo?

Al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” on Sami al-Hajj (2 parts)


Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Folk music, storytelling and the Bush administration’s “935 lies”

Posted by James McPherson on May 27, 2008

Utah Phillips is gone and another of my favorite songwriter/storytellers, Rosalie Sorrels, is a mostly retired 74-year-old great-grandmother. Of course there are other folk singers and storytellers, some much better known than those two. Pete Seeger just turned 89, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down much. A combination of government malfeasance, coffeehouses and assorted free thinkers and semi-hippies of all ages probably will assure the survival of the genre. But it’s doubtful that any will characterize the West or the labor movement–How many today knows what a Wobbly is?–in the same way as Utah or Rosalie

We need their ilk. Slaves, civil Rights leaders and others have long known that when you’re singing it’s more difficult to be fearful. And politics is one of those things–maybe the main thing–made for the saying, “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” So in memory of Utah Phillips, in a music video you won’t see on MTV (come to think of it, that now includes pretty much any video), here is a link to comic Harry Shearer’s “935 Lies,” based on the Center for Public Integrity’s Iraq War Card project.

That project documented 935 false statements about Iraq from George Bush  and seven other top administration officials in the two years following September 11, 2001. “Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses,” note the authors of the project.

Shearer is best known for his work on The Simpsons, This is Spinal Tap, Saturday Night Live, For Your Consideration and A Mighty Wind.

Posted in Media literacy, Music, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Cindy McCain’s taxes, Part 2

Posted by James McPherson on May 26, 2008

Apparently never doesn’t really mean never. Cindy McCain released two summary pages of her 2006 returns, showing $6.1 million in income. Of course she probably guaranteed that relatively little attention would be paid to those returns by releasing them on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, on the same day that her husband released 1,500 pages of his medical records (including what the New York Times called “the broadest look ever given the public at the psychological profile of a presidential candidate.” Particularly telling were the quotes in the Los Angeles Times story from a Republican strategist:

“Christmas Eve would have been ideal, but that would have been a problem given the election calendar.”

“If you have a lot of good news, you want to spread it out over a period of time so that each piece gets the information it deserves,” said the communications director for McCain’s 2000 presidential run, who claims to be neutral this year. “If you’ve got a lot of controversy–you want to roll it out all at once. There’s only so many column inches in the newspaper, there’s only so many minutes on an evening newscast–they can’t spend 22 minutes talking about the McCain campaign, so you might as well empty the gutters.” 

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

Utah Phillips and other dead patriots

Posted by James McPherson on May 25, 2008

This is the weekend that we honor those who died while serving their country. I also appreciated Bob Schieffer’s “Face the Nation” words from this morning: “Let us remember as well the wounded, those who came home from the battle not as God made them, but as war has left them.” Schieffer’s comments came after he offered a short eulogy for Jimmy Carter’s former chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, who died last week.

Of course this weekend is and should be primarily about dead soldiers, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice while trying to defend the nation’s values. Their service is not made less honorable–though it is more tragic–because their deaths were often unnecessary, precipitated by criminally stupid national leaders who themselves sacrificed almost nothing. But the Memorial Day weekend also has become a time for many families to remember other loved ones who have died, and I would like to take the opportunity to note a couple of other men who died in the past couple of days.

One of my favorite patriots, Utah Phillips, died Friday night. He was a former homeless hobo and Korean War veteran who became famous as a folk singer and storyteller (coincidentally, I quoted him in a post just last week). After serving for three years in the military he became a pacifist and a major supporter of workers’ rights. I have a brief recording of Phillips reciting World War I anti-war poetry, which I use in my media history class. One of the poems, titled “I Love My Flag,” goes:

I love my flag, I do, I do.
Which floats upon the breeze,
I also love my arms and legs,
And neck, and nose and knees.
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist,
They would be of no use to me;
I guess I won’t enlist.

I love my country, yes, I do
I hope her folks do well.
Without our arms, and legs and things,
I think we’d look like hell.
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed,
I’ve read in books it spoils their looks,
I guess I won’t enlist.

While still in college in the 1970s, I became a member of a loose-knit “Utah Phillips Fan Club” made up mostly of a group of my father’s friends, which “convened” on occasion to drink Olympia beer, tell stories (some from Phillips, most generated by members of the club) and listen to music. Though I’m sure many others have done the same, I’m the only person I know who saw him perform in three different states: in Idaho while I was in college in the late ’70s, at a private home when I lived in Arizona in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and later when I was in grad school at Washington State University. My wife was with me on the latter two occasions, and Utah memorably told her daughter–who had proclaimed him her new “hero”–not to have any still-living heroes, because they’d inevitably end up disappointing her.

“Good Though” (Moose Turd Pie) was Utah’s most famous story, but my favorite morality tale of his involved a little bird that postponed its flight south for the winter, nearly froze to death, was warmed by cow manure and then, after singing happily, was eaten by a cat. The moral: “The one who craps on you isn’t necessarily your enemy, the one who digs you out of a pile of crap isn’t necessarily your friend, and if you’re up to neck in crap it’s best to keep your mouth shut.” 

Another noteworthy passing, from yesterday, is that of Dick Martin. He was most famous for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which debuted in 1968, which Richard Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan called the worst year in American history. What many people forget today, when it has become commonplace for political figures to appear with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is that in September of that year Nixon appeared on “Laugh-In.” Less than two months before being elected president, the famously uptight Nixon intoned one of the show’s catchphrases as a question, “Sock it to me?” Perhaps a 25-year-old Bob Woodward and a 24-year-old Carl Bernstein were watching.

Below: Utah Phillips, in one of his later appearances, shares some of his politics.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Music, Personal, Poetry, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Clinton, Obama and changing politics

Posted by James McPherson on May 24, 2008

Some now believe that Obama’s inabililty to put away Hillary Clinton–indeed, she blew him out in West Virginia and Kentucky–proves she has a better chance to win in November against John McCain because she attracts voters who just won’t vote for Obama. Some of those voters are women, upset with how the media and the Obama campaign have treated Hillary. Some are racist idiots. Some are essentially conservatives in Democratic donkey clothing who recognize that her politics align more closely to theirs.

As I’ve noted previously, most of the voters who consider themselves to be progressives or liberals likely will vote for the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, come November. Some immature short-sighted idiots won’t (except in the unlikely instance that Clinton becomes Obama’s VP candidate). Still, despite the fact that Clinton has virtually no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, I don’t think she should drop out. She should not try, as some suggest she is doing, to sabotage Obama’s November prospects, but as I’ve said before, I think an extended race helps Democrats more than it hurts. 

Though we cannot know how many of Clinton’s voters will stay home or vote for McCain, the fact remains that we also still cannot know how many Obama supporters will turn out in November. Critics rightfully point out that every election is supposed to be the one in which young people make a difference, but they never do. Some of those critics suggest that Obama’s support is artificially inflated by infatuated youngsters who will vanish in November. I happen to think those critics are wrong for three reasons:

  1. Those voters have already turned out for primaries and caucuses, which always draw far smaller crowds than do general elections.
  2. They’ve been voting with their money. Obama has generated amazing amounts of cash from people who have never before donated to campaigns, and because they’ve invested financially, they’re likely to want to see their investment pay off.
  3. Change. This is Obama’s buzzword, but I mean it in a different sense–not that we need change, but that change has already come. Every pundit recognizes that the Internet and YouTube have had influence, but I think most Americans over 40 still underestimate how dramatic the change has been.

One example comes from Kansas State University’s mediatedcultures.net a class project that has demonstrated in fascinating (and public) ways how young people view the world. Many of the videos have much to teach the rest of us, too. I’ll share another favorite, about modern education, some other day.

Spreading of Ideas on YouTube (Curtis Schwieterman)

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Journalists & historians: dueling irrelevancies?

Posted by James McPherson on May 23, 2008

As a journalist I regularly was frustrated with the lack of historical context in most political writing, including my own. Despite the arrival of more cable news stations and the Internet, for most media users the situation has not improved. Partly that’s because most people focus on too few media sources in generally, and especially on television, for news. In addition, time constraints or ignorance often make journalists neglect context, and journalists spend far too much time and energy chasing three C’s: controversy, crashes and celebrities. That’s old news. Yet I think it worth noting that journalism–supposedly “the first draft of history”–and history itself have become increasingly similar in their lack of usefulness to the public.

Journalists and historians have much in common, some of which I discussed in a bibliographic essay that concludes my first book (a book so expensive that it will likely never be owned by anyone other than libraries and people related to me). I sometimes tell people I became a historian after leaving the newsroom because historical research was a lot like journalism, except that most of your sources are dead so they don’t complain about being misquoted.

Actually few of the complaints about my journalism involved misquotes, and in most of those cases I remained convinced that I had quoted the person accurately. People sometimes say things they shouldn’t, or that prompt readers to react in ways a source didn’t expect. Far more common in my case than inaccurate or misleading quotes were cases of confusing grammar, typos, misspelled names or misplaced decimals. Despite good editors–and the biggest problem with blogs, including this one, may be the lack of editors–mistakes are far too common in both journalism and history. A page that looks perfect on a computer screen and a proof sheet can seem to inexplicably develop errors as it is being printed. Even the aforementioned very pricy book has at least one error in it, so if you happen to be one of the few hundred people or libraries who own a copy, let me know and I’ll tell you the mistake.

Another thing journalism and history have in common is that both have undergone massive changes in recent years. Though critics may disagree, both have improved significantly in many respects. Technology, changing politics, shifting audiences and the inclusion of a much wider range of people (both as subjects and as researchers) have brought dramatic shifts. My students now take it for granted that journalism and history alike include women and people of color. Some of my undergraduate professors apparently did not take that for granted, though by then (the 1970s) the shift was well underway.

Increasing complexity–or more accurately, the increasing recognition that the world is complex–caused new problems, especially as storytellers felt more obligated to interpret the meaning of events for readers or listeners. “Faced with complex issues when researching and telling their stories, both historians and journalists sometimes fall back on customary articifical structures such as story ‘frames’ or academic theories,” I noted previously.

At the same time, both journalists and historians often tend to focus on small, narrow, and ultimately relatively unimportant stories. Too many historians research minor events or personalities that virtually no one cares about. They then share their findings in conference presentations that few people (and no non-academics) hear and through journal articles that few read. The historians adds a line to his or her vita, then engages in another round of what my wife calls mental masturbation, secure in the knowledge that s/he is going historically where no one has gone before. Far too often, however, there’s a good reason no one else has bothered to go. Yet few of the most skilled historians actually produce work designed for a mass audience (most of the rare exceptions pop up fairly regularly on PBS), the people who have the most to gain–a knowledge of and appreciation for how we got to where we are, and an enhanced knowledge of how self-government might work.

Those people also don’t learn much about the most important events from history’s first-drafters, the news media. Journalists cannot share what they don’t know. As I noted in in my more recent book, throughout most of the second half of the 20th century the mainstream media were largely unaware of a huge political shift taking place in America, the shift toward conservatism, in part because they focus on fairly obvious day-to-day events. Chances are, they’re missing something equally important today. Unfortunately, we likely won’t know what until after the next election or later. Maybe someday a historian will tell us what it was.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Bush, McCain reject Reagan foreign policy

Posted by James McPherson on May 22, 2008

I was never a fan of Ronald Reagan, and I think conservatives give him too much credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union (a largely economic collapse much like the impending one that some predict for this country). And of course even before the Iraq War began I thought it was a stupid idea, for a number of reasons common to progressive thinkers.

But Reason Magazine’s Steve Chapman reminds us that there were also conservative reasons (beyond the usual avoidance of foreign entanglements) to oppose the war, chief among them the fact that: “Amid all the war hysteria, it was easy to forget containment worked against Stalin and Mao–both unbalanced dictators with nuclear weapons. They were far more formidable tyrants with dreams of world domination. Yet we managed to preserve our security without pre-emptive war.” And we spent much less to do so than we’re spending on the current Bush-McCain war.

Of course conservatives also used to say they believed in smaller government, women’s rights and more public safety, and even Reagan gave up on those. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s inept foreign policy has helped stir a rumble in the distance, a rumble that sounds much like a Soviet bear waking from hibernation. But “Hu” knows? Maybe “Putin” aside containment strategies will somehow persuade Saudis to stop sponsoring terrorism and sell us cheaper oil.

And no, I don’t see how that might happen, either, but surely Bush and McCain have a plan for how all of this will work out. Maybe they found Nixon’s secret plan for ending the Vietnam War, the one he inexplicably seemed to lose right after another presidential election. They say talking with dictators is a bad idea, though to read the conservative National Review, they must be basing that on Bush’s current experience with Iran. Or maybe it’s based on Bush’s previous experience with Putin, whom he met with early in his own presidency before famously declaring he had looked Vlad in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” That relationship has gone swimmingly, as suggested in the video below.

Putin and Bush

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

American Family Association shows you what not to watch

Posted by James McPherson on May 21, 2008

In its ongoing campaign to “protect” the family, the AFA is protesting a gay kiss in the soap opera “As the World Turns.” That’s not news, of course; the AFA is consistent in protesting what it calls the “Homosexual Agenda.”

What is different in this case is that the AFA wants you to see it for yourself. So far I don’t see any ads for California’s gay wedding industry linked to the site, and there’s no way to tell how popular the video clip has become, but it will be interesting to see if the organization decides to employ the same methods in its fight against such things as pornography, popular films and “Oprah’s new church.” If so, AFA Web traffic is likely to go way up.

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