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.

  • Archives

  • June 2008
    S M T W T F S
    1234567
    891011121314
    15161718192021
    22232425262728
    2930  
  • Categories

  • Subscribe

Archive for June, 2008

The science of cross burning for Christ

Posted by James McPherson on June 28, 2008

An Ohio “science teacher” has been fired for promoting his Christian faith by, among other things, telling students that the theory of evolution is wrong because the Bible does not support it (something I suspect the science teachers at the Christian university where I teach would dispute), and by using an electronic device to burn crosses into the arms of students. The teacher claimed that the mark was an “X”: I’ve included a photo below so you can judge for yourself.

In my favorite quote from the original story, a friend (who brings to mind the phrase, “With friends like these…”) apparently told the Columbus Dispatch: “With the exception of the cross-burning episode. … I believe John Freshwater is teaching the values of the parents in the Mount Vernon school district.” Might that be termed the Ku Klux Klan defense?

After the firing, the Dispatch noted that Freshwater “had declared himself a free-speech martyr.” Funny, I thought the Christian martyr was the man who died on the cross, not the guy who physically abused kids that he was supposed to be teaching about how God’s world really works.

Now I’m taking off to camp, fish and commune with nature–three of the best reasons to live in the Pacific Northwest in the summer. Assuming I can find and afford gas to get back home, I’ll pick up the blogging again in a few days. If you’re new to the site, perhaps you’d like to catch up with what I’ve written previously. Regardless, there are some great resources linked at your right for news, opinion and education about media and politics.  And if I’m not back before then, Happy Fourth!

Posted in Education, Journalism, Legal issues, Personal, Politics, Religion, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Kumbaya Dems

Posted by James McPherson on June 27, 2008

As I predicted last month, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are quickly mending fences, and their camps seem to be coming together. In typically snide fasion, Fox News titled the joint appearance of the former rivals “Kiss and Make Up” on its opening page today (right under the headline “Rodents Weaken, Bust Mississippi River Levee,” and who knows rodents better than Fox?), and at the bottom of its story offered a link to “a video flashback of the tiffs Obama and Clinton have had over the past several months.” But if Fox is testy, the Democrats must be doing something right.

Obama is helping Clinton retire the massive debt that he helped her accumulate. Obviously his choice to help her pay her bills–and to encourage his supporters to help her, as well–is justified for multiple reasons. Not only will the fundraising help build party unity and perhaps improve his standing among embittered Clinton supporters, frankly, Obama owes her a great deal.

He owes her because her relatively lengthy and spirited campaign built the party base and made Obama a better candidate. No surprise here, since I predicted that would be the case, just as I noted that most Clinton supporters would end up voting for Obama–which, despite a wishful story from Fox News and predictions from a few pundits, polls suggest they will. Even Bill is climbing on board and will work for Obama, despite earlier problems between them, as other Clinton faithful do the same.

All in all, the right steps have been taken toward unity. And if they can hold it together, using one another’s strengths, Democrats will have good reason to be singing the second verse of Kumbaya (“Someone’s laughing, Lord, Kumbaya…”) in November, while Republicans may be singing the third (“Someone’s crying, Lord, Kumbaya…”). For now, Dems are practicing the fourth verse: (“Someone’s praying, Lord, Kumbaya…”). Too bad the once-classic song has itself pretty much become parody, like much of American politics.

 

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

Supreme Court OKs home executions

Posted by James McPherson on June 26, 2008

OK, that’s not quite true. The court did say that child rapists can’t be executed by the state, but that the victim can have ready access to the firearms necessary to kill the perpetrator him/herself.

The justices may want to avoid Cordova, Alaska, though–I suspect that almost everyone there already owns a gun.

Posted in Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Interpreting the relevance of the Religious Right

Posted by James McPherson on June 25, 2008

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson this week accused Barack Obama of willfully distorting the Bible and of having a “fruitcake interpretation” of the U.S. Constitution. It became the day’s lead political story for several media organizations. My question–a question I ask myself regularly when I see media coverage choices–why?

Of course I can’t imagine why a supposed audience of 220 million daily worldwide radio listeners pay any attention to Dobson (apparently prompting Christianity Today to call him “the most influential evangelical leader in America”), but they do.  Many, it seems, hope he can tell them how to raise their kids. Dobson has a Ph.D. in child development and became famous primarily because of his books and “pro-family” organization. Like most television evangelists, he is at least as good at promoting himself as promoting the Lord. Dobson’s first bestseller was Dare to Discipline, and he became popular largely because he was more pro-discipline than most other family experts of the 1970s. He favors corporal punishment, but only when administered by parents who don’t want to do it but know they must for the greater good. Consider him the neocon of child development.

Dobson has no apparent education or experience in policy making, but because he is perceived to have political influence–mostly because of his political action committee, the Family Research Council–politicians and the media also care what he says. Obama quickly responded, as did his national director of religious affairs (I wonder if Ronald Reagan felt compelled to have one of those), saying Obama was “committed to reaching out to people of faith and standing up for American families.”

Because families is the code word that shows you care, of course. All the best religious conservatives know it. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Conservative Christian organizations also devote much of their energy to attacking the “liberal media,” though for those organizations “liberal” usually refers not to a political view but to the acceptance or promotion of activities deemed antibiblical and morally repugnant such as homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography, drug use, abortion, or violence. Those groups focus mainly on entertainment but sometimes include the news media (which, as discussed, have focused increasingly on entertainment themselves). Much of the focus for Christian groups centers on “protecting the traditional family,” despite the fact that, as one religion professor points out, “this ‘remembered family’ is a fairly recent development, one that came about with the industrialization and concomitant urbanization of America. . . . Previously, women and men had been much more co-workers in the unified task of maintaining a home.” Examples of the profamily emphasis include James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s American Family Coalition, and Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, which calls itself “America’s largest pro-family action site.” Dobson also founded a think tank/lobbying organization called the Family Research Council, which has editorialized in favor of eliminating government funding of PBS, in part because viewers were “fed up with the liberal bias.” Morality in Media, a religious media watchdog that boasts the slogan “Promoting a Decent Society Through Law,” has accused 60 Minutes and the New York Times of promoting pornography. More recently, with the help of a one-million-dollar Templeton Foundation grant, the Media Research Council spawned the Culture and Media Institute to “focus on the media’s relentless assault on faith, traditional values and personal responsibility.”

 
 
 
 

 

Dobson also has expressed dissatisfaction with John McCain, saying he would not vote for him, despite McCain’s efforts to reach out to the religious conservatives that he once unfortunately called (along with religious extremists on the left) “agents of intolerance.” In that 2004 speech, though, he did compliment Dobson, who “has devoted his life to rebuilding America’s families.” (He also managed to use the word “friends” nine times; he seems to use that word more than anyone who isn’t a salesman or a Quaker.)

Apparently both Obama and McCain have expressed a willingness if not a desire to meet with Dobson, but the good doctor will only do so on his own terms, as noted in recent reports. “McCain also has not met with Dobson. A McCain campaign staffer offered Dobson a meeting with McCain recently in Denver … Dobson declined because he prefers that candidates visit the Focus on the Family campus to learn more about the organization.”

This might be the perfect time for both candidates to ignore the Religious Right and stop giving it undue influence. After all, religious conservatives are themselves split by this election. As I noted in the same book mentioned above:

In 2007 prominent social conservatives split their endorsements for a 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Pat Robertson endorsed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who previously had supported gay rights and abortion rights. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation, endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who also had once supported abortion rights and whose Mormon religion was considered a cult by some conservative Christians. Bob Jones III also endorsed Romney. After dropping his own short-lived presidential bid, conservative Kansas Senator Sam Brownback endorsed fellow senator John McCain. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed former Senator and “Law and Order” television actor Fred Thompson.

 

 

 

Another indication that this may be a good time to start ignoring the extremists on either side of religious arguments is a just-released survey of more than 35,000 Americans. It shows that most Americans are both religious and fairly moderate in their religious views. “Most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith,” the Pew Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported. “A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.”

Of course, James Dobson would probably say most of those folks were willfully distorting the Bible with fruitcake interpretations.

(Followup notes: The Huffington Post’s Frank Schaeffer suggests that “Dr. Dobson has just handed Obama victory,” while this site offers a side-by-side comparison of what Obama actually said versus what Dobson claims he said.)

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

The Newseum and the First Amendment

Posted by James McPherson on June 23, 2008

The greatly expanded Newseum, which calls itself the “world’s most interactive museum” has finally re-opened. The museum about journalism has moved from an out-of-the way location in Arlington, Va., to Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Symbolically, that’s a good place for journalists to be, or at least it was when Congress actually performed its oversight function of the White House and the press served as a watchdog over both.

You’ve seen the $450 million project if you watch “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on ABC on Sunday mornings. It is drawing mix reviews, drawing some complaints about its pricing ($20 a head) and its failure to be current enough. In an American Prospect article titled “This Old Medium,” Anabel Lee (listed as an intern, so I’m guessing she’s young) complains that the Newseum devotes too little attention to the Internet. Frankly I have little problem with that perceived neglect of a not-very-historical medium (and I write that as someone whose latest chapter in a journalism history text actually is about the Internet age). No, I’m more concerned about Lee’s other main point, when she writes:

But it fails to tell us how we got from point A to point B, from the country’s first partisan newspapers to the World Wide Web. It fails to show how journalism has evolved. And by fetishizing newspaper relics and touching on major developments like new media in only a cursory manner, the Newseum unwittingly declares the death of the newspaper. It is at best a poorly executed history museum and at worst a news mausoleum that will, at the very least, provide a beautiful resting place for that final newspaper 35 years from now.

She’s right, of course, but perhaps such a shortcoming is appropriate since journalists themselves also fail far too often “to tell us how we got from point A to point B.” Historical context usually goes lacking, a situation seemingly bound to worsen as journalism schools more and more emphasize the “tools and toys” of journalism over its history. When I was seeking academic jobs, positions that included the teaching of media history–while never as common as I’d have liked–could be found throughout the country. Now virtually every journalism opening seeks someone who can teach media technology and/or public relations (an areas that in itself would have been kept away from most journalism programs, but those programs have long since become “mass communication” departments

Even the old Newseum was a great place to take journalism students, and I’ll take a group to the new version in January. I did geta kick out of it in 1999 when one of my my students noticed that an exhibit repeated a common myth that I had previously discussed in class, and I found the facility helped students better understand the business they hoped to enter. I also bought one of my favorite neckties there.

I am a bit troubled that almost every exhibit is sponsored by a major media corporation, including News Corp, NBC, Comcast, Bloomberg, Cox, Time Warner and the New York Times. With 250,000 square feet and 6,000 journalism artifacts inside, one of the highlights of the new version is actually etched onto the outside: a 74-foot-high engraving of the First Amendment.

Too bad the media themselves don’t spend more time discussing the reasons for a free press. Back when I did my master’s thesis, I found that throughout key points in recent decades, the press has virtually ignored the First Amendment except as a feeble expression of self-defense.

Like many journalism historians, I fear the demise of newspapers. But as an American, I fear even more the demise of the First Amendment. At least we’ll be able to read it in granite, as we walk by on our way to the Drudge exhibit.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lying politicians

Posted by James McPherson on June 22, 2008

You may think that headline is the opposite of an oxymoron–so obvious as to be not worth stating. If so, you’re right; more on that in a moment.

David Brooks and others are beside themselves over Barack Obama’s change of heart–or lie–about accepting public financing. Of course, though I happen to think Brooks is a decent guy (and Slate magazine has called him “America’s one genuinely likable conservative”), he probably should be the last person to complain about inconsistency, based on his own record.

The point remains, however, that Obama flipflopped. He said he would accept public financing, then–when it was clear that he would raise a ton of money and be able to vastly outspend John McCain–Obama raise the spectre of conservative 527’s (think Swift Boats) expected to help McCain and declared that he would not accept it, after all. Personally, though I wish Obama hadn’t made the original pledge, I think a president who can change his mind when faced with new information is a good thing.

As several columnists and bloggers have noted, campaign financing is not the sort of issue that most voters are likely notice or care much about (especially this early in the campaign season). Brooks even suggests that the reversal indicates that Obama is “the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades” who boasts a necessary tough side that critics sometimes overlook: “Global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.”

McCain also has been crying foul, but of course he has flip-flopped on taxes and energy policy–two issues that voters do care about–and therefore has little room to complain. Besides, even if Obama “lied” (knowing that he would change positions if conditions changed), that merely puts him in good company. Almost all politicians lie (like most of the rest of us, for that matter). And presidents certainly do, as illustrated in Eric Alterman’s book When Presidents Lie, which my sister gave me for Christmas.

Alterman’s last chapter is titled “George Bush and the Post-Truth Presidency.” In fact, either Obama or McCain would have difficulty catching up with the lies of the current president, who seems bound to one day end up on this ignoble list.

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

The Democrats’ best VP choice–and when Obama should name him

Posted by James McPherson on June 20, 2008

Having offered my suggestions for John McCain a couple of days ago, I’ll now do the same for Barack Obama. It seems appropriate especially because of recent articles listing possibilities that include John Edwards, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, John Murtha and Ted Strickland. The Huffington Post and others have handicapped other top prospects, including western governors Janet Napolitano, Brian Schweitzer and Bill Richardson.

I doubt that Edwards or Gore are serious possibilities. Edwards has already failed in an attempt to be VP, and generated no more enthusiasm in this year’s presidential bid. Gore has been there, done that, and is more influential outside of office than he would be as Obama’s second banana.

Hillary Clinton is the obvious favorite of many who seek the so-called “Dream Ticket,” and it’s good that (as announced this morning) she is going to campaign with Obama, but she brings too much baggage for the “change candidate” that Obama claims to be. Besides, I think she’d be a better choice as secretary of state or perhaps attorney general, moving to the Supreme Court as soon as there is an opening (probably about two days after Obama takes the oath of office, if he’s elected). Of course conservatives couldn’t be told that she’d end up on the court before the election, or that would become their major talking point for the coming months.

Napolitano and her Kansas counterpart Kathleen Sebelius offer other strong female leadership possibilities, and both have succeeded in dealing with Republican majorities. Unfortunately neither helps counter Obama’s biggest perceived weakness–a lack of knowledge or experience in foreign policy.

Nunn and Murtha are better options in this regard because of their military experience, but Nunn has been out of the game for so long that few people outside of Georgia likely remember who he is, and Murtha is viewed by too many as a crank and/or a flake. If Obama were to go that route, a better choice would be Virginia Senator Jim Webb or retired General Wesley Clark, who is well known because of his own presidential bid four years ago. He also might help swing disgruntled Clinton supporters because he was a leading figure in her campaign.

The popular and conservative Southerner Webb would be a good choice (though it might cost the Dems a hard-won Senate seat in the long run) and Richardson may have the widest range of applicable experience of anyone available. Unfortunately, Richardson is unable to do one thing that my top choice can do: attack the Bush administration (and its continuation under McCain) in a credible, logical manner while not turning off listeners.

My preferred candidate, Joe Biden, happens to be stronger on both foreign policy and bipartisanship than McCain, and would reduce the exotic feel of the Obama campaign (something a woman or Richardson would be less able to do). Biden loves cameras, and performs well in front of them. Occasionally verbose, he has become increasingly adept at breaking policy into sound bites. More importantly, for a vice presidential nominee (and perhaps especially with Obama’s efforts to maintain niceness), Biden has no qualms about going on the attack when necessary.

If Obama chose Biden as VP, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Republican Chuck Hegel as Secretary of Defense, the administration would likely be both functional and well repected. Of course the Senate would suffer greatly.

Whomever Obama chooses, he should name his running mate by mid-July. That would give the team plenty of time to make the rounds of talk shows and to hone their message throughout the dog days of summer, peaking just in time for the Democratic National Convention Aug. 25-28

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

McCain’s best VP choice–and when he should name her

Posted by James McPherson on June 18, 2008

There is naturally a lot of discussion over whom each of the candidates should choose as a running mate. The Los Angeles Times and others have named Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Mark Sanford, Richard Burr, Paul Ryan, Tim Pawlenty and Charlie Crist as possibilities–though since rumors that Crist is gay keep bubbling up and the last thing the party of Mark Foley and Larry Craig needs is another gay sex scandal, I doubt he’ll be any more than a campaigner for McCain. 

A popular choice among pundits–but probably no one else outside of Israel–is former Democratic vice presidential nominee and current McCain lapdog Joe Lieberman. (Yes, he acts more like an eager-to-please Labrador retriever than a lap-sized pocket pooch, but I can attest even a 100-pound Lab like mine considers itself to be a lapdog). Republican bloggers have broadened the list of potential running mates, including such possibilities as Condi Rice, J.C. Watts, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giulianni, Haley Barbour, Tom Coburn, Duncan Hunter, Marsha Blackburn or Sarah Palin.

Despite the advice he’ll get from the Huckabee Alliance and others, McCain should choose Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn or Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Both are young, attractive and female. That might make Cindy McCain, the one most familiar with his history, and some social conservatives a bit nervous, but in a post-Bill Clinton world I doubt that Democrats would raise improper questions. The youth and gender of either Blackburn or Palin would help McCain among young voters, disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, and dirty old men. Of those two choices, I prefer Palin–a University of Idaho journalism graduate, former beauty pageant “Miss Congeniality,” mother of five, lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and very popular governor.

As for when McCain should name Palin as the nominee (though I hate to help the GOP): I suggest Sunday, Aug. 24. That’s the day before the start of the Democratic National Convention, which runs Aug. 25-28. That would greatly reduce the positive attention paid to the Dems, especially since the networks have largely abandoned most coverage of the highly scripted conventions, anyway. It would also leave Democrats scrambling to consider responding during the speeches of the Democratic VP choice that Wednesday night or of Obama that Thursday night. Frankly, I’d recommend that they not address it at all, since there are too many ways they could do so badly–another reason McCain should introduce her then.

Since the Republican National Convention isn’t until Sept. 1-4, that would give people a week to learn more about Palin and for the news media to come up with all they could–which with such short notice would almost certainly be superficial and glowing. And that’s still more than two months before the general election, which would generate buzz at exactly the time most Americans will finally start paying attention to the electoral process. 

AUGUST 1 UPDATE: Lots of other folks are discussing Palin as McCain’s choice.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 27 Comments »

“A dog’s life” or “Life’s a bitch”

Posted by James McPherson on June 17, 2008

CBS and other sources offer a headline stating, “Leona Helmsley’s Dog Loses $10 Million.” My first thought was to wonder if the dog (named “Trouble”) had a gambling problem. My second thought was, “This is more important than, oh, say, a thousand or so other stories?”

Yet I did read the story, finding that a judge had cut Trouble’s trust fund from $12 million to a mere $2 milion. The story also included an itemized list of the dog’s expenses, such as $60,000 a year for its guardian. That’s about $57,000 more than it would cost me to leave my dog at our regular kennel for a year. Trouble also “needs” $12,000 per month for food, a figure considerably above what is set by the U.S. Census as the poverty level for all of one person’s needs (food, shelter, etc.).

The pampered pooch’s guardian also listed $18,000 annually for medical care. At that rate, Trouble could get a total hip replacement–of both hips–twice a year and half several thousand dollars left over. Compare that to the average health plan for a family of four Americans, for which the employer contributes $12,100 and the employee chips in $3,300, for a total of $15,400–or $2,600 less than Trouble supposedly needs every year.

On the other hand, John McCain and the rest of the Senate have great health care plans. If you’re not a Congressman or a rich person’s dog, then whose fault is that?

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

The book is out

Posted by James McPherson on June 16, 2008

The first copy of my new book, with forward by Sydney Blumenthal, arrived in the mail today. Because of the nature of publishing, it seems like a long time ago that I finished it, but it looks like Northwestern University Press did a nice job with it. The editors there were great to work with.

July 8 update: You can see a news release about the book here.

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