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 July, 2008

McCain camp’s lie suggests early desperation

Posted by James McPherson on July 31, 2008

The John McCain-Karl Rove folks spent days telling us that Barack Obama changed his mind about visiting a military hospital because he could not take reporters. Right-wing media quickly began reinforcing the charge, despite a lack of any evidence to support it.

Tucker Knows-No Bounds, McCain’s primary spokesman, was spewing the same claim a couple of days ago. When pressed by a few reporters who saw fit to do their jobs and seek evidence, Bounds “provided three examples–none of which had alleged that Obama wanted to take members of the media to the hospital.” (Washington Post) In other words, the McCain camp spent days repeating a lie, then after all that time still could not find ONE shred of evidence to support what they’d been saying. But they didn’t stop there. They created a misleading commercial to reinforce the lie.

I view a lie as a bit different that a flip-flop, though both candidates have been guilty of too many flips. (See several examples of McCain’s flip-flops and misstatements in the videos below.) The latter might come from raised awareness, while the former simply reflects desperation or a craven indifference to both truth and the electoral process.

While Ben Stein and others may support such activities, they actually reveal a bit of desperation on McCain’s part. McCain, who criticized Obama for not visiting other countries while McCain did, then switched and criticized Obama for traveling abroad while McCain was at home, has no coherent message. As a result, he ends up running silly ads like the one that drew so much media attention yesterday for comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton–asking if he was “qualified to lead” while showing glowing images of Obama that show him apparently… er, leading. Doh! Even Rove, when asked about the ad in a Fox interview, called it “odd” and said he didn’t really understand it before quickly skipping to other issues, and sneaking in a sly reference suggesting yet again that the original McCain lie about the Obama troop visit was true. But even Andrea Mitchell–definitely no fan of Obama’s–points out that the lie is, in fact, a lie (see video here).

McCain apparently has gained a bit in the polls, but runs the risk that negative campaigning will alienate the less extreme (and fortunately for him, typically less informed) part of the electorate that traditionally has provided his base. He probably needs those folks, especially since many conservatives still don’t trust him. Rove knows that negative campaigning can reduce the overall turnout, though it seems a bit early for the GOP to consider that their only hope of victory.

Many gaffes are yet to come, and vice presidential candidates have yet to be named. Most voters aren’t yet paying close attention. Republicans can only hope that by convention time their candidate has come up with something better than a repeat of Bob Dole’s campaign against Bill Clinton.

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

Stay home–your vote won’t count anyway

Posted by James McPherson on July 30, 2008

That headline is a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve known for a long time that, for the vast majority of us, our votes don’t matter.

Aside from the fact that each individual vote is such a small percentage of the whole that your vote is far more likely to be subject to accidental disqualification than to be the electoral decider, relatively few of us vote in states where our individual votes are likely to count. I spent most of my life voting in very red states, so there was no reason not to vote for an independent candidate  (my way of registering a small protest, since the Republican candidate was assured all of my state’s electoral votes, and I figured staying home indicated nothing but apathy). That’s part of the reason that protest voters such as PUMAs usually don’t matter much.

We also saw massive ballot problems in 2000 in Florida, and in 2004 in Ohio. As it turns out, most of us had no idea how bad it is.  As Heidi Stevenson points out in a truthout article this week:

Voting rights are under systematic attack in the United States. Techniques include:

  • Outright disenfranchisement.
  • Vote switching in election machines.
  • Refusal to allow the public to see how votes are counted.
  • Use of the people’s courts by political parties and corporations to subvert the law.
  • Use of lawsuit threats by large corporations against cash-strapped local governments to prevent them from examining voting machines.

As we used to say when presenting a good hand during a dorm card game: “Read it and weep.” But then send a copy to your local mainstream media outlets and your legislators, demanding action.

Posted in History, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Knowing” what isn’t true: Networks bash Obama more than McCain

Posted by James McPherson on July 29, 2008

We all know the mainstream media, especially the big three networks, love Barack Obama. John McCain’s campaign has complained about it at length, and I’ve recently written about it myself, here and here. A recent blog report of differing amounts of coverage devoted to the two fueled claims of bias.

The only problem? What we know apparently isn’t so, according to the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs. Some anti-Obama bias has been clear, and no reasonable person expects anything resembling objectivity from the likes of Fox New, MSNBC, talk radio or bloggers. It also is true that Obama has received far more coverage–understandably so, because he is new, different, has been targeted by more negative bloggers, and has been doing far more interesting (that is, newsworthy) things than his Republican opponent. But contrary to the old public relations axiom that “any publicity is good publicity,” in fact Obama has drawn far more negative commentary (in both amount and percentage of coverage) than long-time media love object McCain.

The Los Angeles Times reports: “During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.”

The coverage is an apparent shift from primary coverage, when Obama received mostly positive coverage and Hillary Clinton was the target of the most media bashing.

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

PUMAs stalk political relevance–and irony

Posted by James McPherson on July 25, 2008

The PUMA is an interesting species. Some critics might view PUMAs in the way many wrongly characterized Hillary Clinton, as bitter harpies. Others might see them as the type of women that misogynists typically prefer: silly, irrelevant, perhaps even cute.

Either characterization is mistaken (PUMA, by the way, generally stands for “Party Unity My Ass,” though one group has claimed “People United Means Action.”). PUMAs obviously are wrong and misguided, in my view, but passionate. And now they’re getting what many of them want most, some media attention.

PUMAs are angry people, mostly women, many of whom now say they’ll support John McCain over Barack Obama. There’s no denying that there are quite a few of them (though how many are GOP fronts can’t be determined) or that many are bitter. A quick scan of some of their blogs comes across such charming comments as, “Whenever I see one of those stupid “O”s on the back of someone else’s care [sic] I just want to RAM THEM!!!” and “Isn’t ‘barack’ that noise people make when they puke?” and “Do obama supporters still get headaches after they had their lobomy? [sic]” and “Even if Hillary should publicly–in person–denounce all 527s who are trying to get her nominated and elected, we can’t give throw [sic] in the towel. Clearly, the Chicago political mafia is strong-arming her to disown us.”

One blog post is titled, “If we’re PUMAs, then Obamaphiles are CHEATahs.” Cute, huh? Of course the difference is that PUMAs proundly claim the title before going on to disparage those who would prefer a different candidate. (This might be an appropriate time to remind readers that I was not an Obama supporter in the primaries, though I can’t imagine not voting for him over McCain in the general election.)

The CHEATah post comes from a blog that in its “About Us” section states: “We will start with the Democratic party and then work to bring together the rest of the country. We will come together at our common goals and go forward together, strengthened and mighty.” Its “credo,” in part: “We will all need to come together before the fall. Let’s craft a message that even wingers will envy. … Some of us have lost our minds lately. We are putting conditions and litmus tests on our candidates. We are getting lost in the trees while failing to see the forest.”

All of that may sound good, but the blog actually devotes much of its attention to PUMA promotion and Obama bashing, and also has a heading titled “PUMA Power” that states: “There will be a lot of calls for ‘Unity!’. But let us acknowledge what this really is. ‘Unity’ is a weapon that the party is going to use against us.” Perhaps it’s time to update one or two of the above categories.

Despite their real or manufactured fury PUMAs probably will have no meaningful effect on the Democratic Convention as far as preventing Obama from claiming the nomination, especially since Clinton likely will speak on his behalf at the convention. Still, in a tight general election (the kind we typically have) they might conceivably make a difference. Sadly and ironically, it would be a difference that goes against most of their own primary interests (at least those who aren’t secretly McCain supporters to begin with–like perhaps Fox’s favorite PUMA spokeswoman and 2000 McCain donor Darragh Murphy).

PUMAs might make a difference in the same way that Ralph Nader did against Al Gore in 2000, Ross Perot did against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Ronald Reagan did against Gerald Ford in 1976–drawing just enough attention and votes to help put the candidate their supporters disliked most in the White House. The difference in each of those cases was that the candidate’s supporters actually had a candidate who obviously still sought the position, while Clinton likely will–as she has repeatedly on previous occasions–exhort her supporters to do what they can to avoid a continuation of the Bush policies. A McCain presidency would have a good chance of turning those 5-4 Supreme Court votes against progressives into 7-2 votes against them.

Thus far, consistency, except in avoid-Obama-at-all-costs rhetoric, has not been a key part of PUMA power. Even Fox News, which would undoubtedly love to see PUMAs help swing the election for McCain and which has aired more about the group than any other network, can’t help but point out the contradictions. For example, see the YouTube videos below. The last one starts out much the same as the first, but adds some interesting context (though it doesn’t explore the disconnect between, “I don’t think it’s just to prove a point; I think it’s a very important point we’re making.”).

It’s difficult to tell how much influence the PUMAs will have, especially since many of those now complaining will swallow hard, hold their noses and vote for Obama in the general election, perhaps without telling their fellow PUMAs. The influence of blogs on elections also is unknown, though I don’t believe the vast majority of blogs are very representative of much of anything since most tend to have a limited following of serious but somewhat cowardly anonymous supporters who talk mostly to each other–a sort of ooh-look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever form of text messaging with less emotional commitment and no added wireless fees.

PUMAs do have cause to be unhappy, though not nearly as much cause as many of them claim. The Democratic primary system was a mess, but it was a mess that Clinton helped create. Interestingly, some of her supposed staunchest supporters now hope to make a bigger one.

Note: The organization name is corrected above–thanks to the respondents who noted that I had it wrong.

Follow-up: Somewhat ironically for a group that complains about being heard, PUMA sites seem to be among those most likely to delete the responses of those who disagree with them.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

Managing the message

Posted by James McPherson on July 24, 2008

Barack Obama is drawing some criticism for “posing” and “message management” on his ongoing world tour, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell quoted as saying “We’ve not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before.” Obama obviously is using the media well, but Mitchell’s statement is absurd.

As the wife of Alan Greenspan, who bears a substantial part of the responsibility for the the current economic mess in the U.S., Mitchell can hardly be considered impartial, and an anti-Obama bias on her part seems apparent to many (yet another part of the so-called “liberal media”?). More importantly, however, her recollection demonstrates the lack of political and historical context for which television journalism has become famous.

One need only look back four years to the most recent Bush campaign. As I noted in my recent book:

Bush, who defined himself as a “war president” and who held fewer news conferences than any other president of the television age, also largely managed to bypass negative publicity during his campaign. Those who refused to voice support for the president were blocked from Bush campaign appearances, and sometimes arrested if they managed to get in, despite the fact that the rallies typically were held in public settings. As a result, when each network news program produced a short nightly news segment on each candidate’s activities, viewers saw the president—who almost never spoke directly to the news media—addressing crowds of cheering followers. Few stories in the mainstream media pointed out or questioned the remoteness of the president.

Or Mitchell could have looked to the campaign and presidency of Ronald Reagan–the guy who first hired her husband as Federal Reserve chairman–who was famous for developing the modern television campaign. About Reagan, I’ve previously written:

Reagan’s key staffers, especially aide Michael Deaver, were masters at presenting presidential politics through the media, with their techniques adopted by every successful candidate and president since. Reagan and his people tried to adhere to a “theme of the day,” and the press mostly went along. Reagan demonstrated mastery of what became known as the “pseudo-event” and the “photo op”—staged events that attracted news photographers, who were directed where to stand as if they were playing a part in a film.

Others have written much more about Reagan’s press management. Of course Bill Clinton did the same thing, though not as well as Reagan or perhaps even Bush. Even John F. Kennedy was criticized for similar attempts–and probably should have been criticized for more. But if Mitchell doesn’t remember any of that, perhaps it’s time for her to join her husband in retirement.

Friday update: Glenn Greenwald reminds us that it’s not just Bush folks who arrest people at rallies; McCain’s people do the same.

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

“Love me like Barack, part 2”

Posted by James McPherson on July 22, 2008

A brief follow-up to yesterday’s post: Today McCain’s Web site (which he may or may not be able to access himself), has a section titled “The Media is in Love with Barack: Pick the Best Song for their Devotion.”

Aside from the poor grammar (“media” is plural, people, but if you’re going to make it a singular at least be consistent!), the idea and the videos are cute. I’ve posted both below. As of now, the first one is leading 86 percent to 14 percent, though that may be a vote of 43-7. Unfortunately for McCain, some of his leading supporters are as computer illiterate as he is, and the mainstream media likely won’t pay much attention to this, either–especially with Obama continuing his world tour (see today’s CBS “exlusive” here).

The two CNN headlines on the page now regarding McCain are titled “Ticker: McCain parody pushes pills, walker” (about a Vanity Fair spoof of the recent New Yorker cover) and “VP buzz swirls around McCain” (which I noted yesterday that I thought was a manufactured issue). Even Fox News is ignoring the ploy on its Web site, though it’s too early to tell if the talking heads will mention it.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

What McCain might say to news media: “Who do you think you’re foolin’? Love me like Barack”

Posted by James McPherson on July 21, 2008

I said a couple of days ago that the primary benefit of Barack Obama’s ongoing tour of the Middle East and Europe would be the media attention he would get. Even I have been surprised at the extent of that coverage, however, and how much easier it has been for Obama to get positive coverage than long-time media darling John McCain.

McCain, used to winning adoration from the media with semi-coherent “straight talk,” has to be shocked. Even Lou “illegal-aliens-are-out-to-kill-us-all” Dobbs paused from his nightly xenophobia for a few moments to complain about how uneven the coverage of the two candidates has become, and has a poll on his Web site asking, “Do you believe the national media is biased in favor of Sen. Barack Obama?” Of 7,879 respondents when I checked, 74 percent said yes. Obviously the poll has problems, both in the language of the question (Why not ask, “Do you believe the national media is biased in favor of Sen. Barack Obama?”), and in the fact that the only people who will see the poll likely are already mostly Dobbs fans (though it’s tough for me to believe that he has almost 8,000 fans), but Obama clearly is getting most of the attention.

All three network anchors are on the Barack-and-roll world tour, and all three networks are boasting about having “exclusive interviews” with the candidate. One wonders at the value of exclusivity when all three will likely ask the same kinds of questions–and the same questions they could ask Obama at home–but the Obama campaign is so far mostly hitting the right media notes.

Meanwhile, all McCain and his surrogates can do is to try to avoid attention-getting gaffes while taking potshots from afar and hoping something sticks. “If Barack Obama’s policy in Iraq had been implemented, he couldn’t be in Iraq today,” Joe Lieberman says. That may be true, of course. It’s definitely true that if Obama’s opposition to the war had been heeded, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis wouldn’t have died there during the past five years.

McCain’s people have gone so far as to float the possibility that he will name his running mate this week. That would be a mistake, in my view, but it wouldn’t be the first poorly timed McCain event during this campaign. Still, I think such an announcement is unlikely.

One warning for the networks: Part of the reason the Democratic primary race may have lasted as long as it did was because many people who otherwise would not have been Hillary Clinton fans grew disgusted with how poorly the news media treated her while fawning over Obama. In coming weeks, McCain may benefit from the same kind of backlash.

Posted in Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Things aren’t getting worse–you’re just nuts

Posted by James McPherson on July 20, 2008

Perhaps the next president will appoint a national psychologist.

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

Barack-y road

Posted by James McPherson on July 19, 2008

Barack Obama visited Afghanistan today as part of a trip to the Middle East and Europe. His advisors and supporters hope the trip will boost his foreign policy credentials, while making him appear presidential.

The main benefit, as far as I can see, is that the trip will attract media attention throughout, continuing to make it difficult for McCain to draw significant airtime except through occasional gaffes. Obama’s trip might even tone down some of John McCain’s rhetoric about how Obama isn’t qualified to be a foreign leader because he hasn’t visited Iraq recently enough, or been to Afghanistan at all.

As Gail Collins points out, however, the trip is a rather silly political exercise, even if no more silly than some of George W. Bush’s recent travels and less bizarre than a heavily guarded and flak-jacketed John McCain strolling through a Baghdad marketplace and declaring that conditions in Iraq were improving (they have some since, but they weren’t then).

“Given the constraints under which he has to operate, the chance that he’ll see something enlightening seem to be lower than the chance of being shown something misleading,” Collins notes. “Really, anybody he needs to talk to would be happy to pick up a phone.”

In fact a phone call–or a couple of days watching taped editions of “Frontline World“–likely would be as useful as this trip in terms of gathering meaningful information. There’s a reason that universities encourage students to study abroad for a semester or year.

So what about GOP complaints that Obama hasn’t traveled enough? In fact Obama’s people might point out that his Middle East experience is somewhat broader than than that of … you guessed it … George W. Bush, “whose overseas experience was pretty much limited to trying to date Chinese women (unsuccessfully) during a visit to Beijing in 1975.” (New York Times)

Maybe they want to avoid such comparisons, since Bush’s foreign policy as president has turned out to be much worse than his attempts to attract Asian women. There doesn’t seem to be anyplace in the world that either Obama or McCain won’t likely do a much better job than Bush, whom much of the world now considers to be a war criminal. But neither of the candidates has particularly impressive foreign policy credentials, either. The key probably will be who they choose to help guide their foreign policy decisions (Joe Biden vs. Joe Lieberman?).

Having said that, the Iraqi leadership already agrees with at least part of Obama’s Iraq position over that of McCain or the president–as the White House itself accidentally told the media yesterday. No wonder no-timetable-ever-and-I-mean-it-even-if-Iraq wants-it-‘cuz-we-don’t-cut-and-run-or-look-weak-except-when-Clinton-was-president Bush said (also yesterday) that he had agreed to a “general time horizon” for troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Note that the announcement came on a Friday in an attempt to attract less attention. Expect McCain to agree soon, probably about the same time Obama is drawing rock-star crowds in Europe.

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

Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Mos Def, Zalmay Khalilzad & Keith Ellison: Which doesn’t belong?

Posted by James McPherson on July 16, 2008

The answer to the above question, of course, is Barack Obama–who, despite the fact that apparently a quarter of the American population is still dumb enough to believe that Obama was raised a Muslim, is the only non-Muslim on the list.

The question is relevant because of what Obama pointed out with Larry King last night. The New Yorker cover that has drawn so much attention is a cartoon, not particularly noteworthy for what it says about Obama, but because it is “an insult against Muslim Americans.” Obama admitted that he has not been as diligent as he should have been about pointing out that there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim in America.

George Bush and Dick Cheney apparently agrees, though they’d probably never say so publicly because fear-based politics remain their only tenuous thread to American support. But Bush appointed Khalilzad as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (one of few effective Bush appointments regarding Iraq), and Cheney once awarded Khalilzad a medal for outstanding public service.

Mos Def is widely popular and a musician and actor, though he likely won’t be receiving any awards from the Bush administration. You can see a sample of why below in a song that includes the lines, “I don’t rap for dead presidents. I’d rather see the president dead.” (Warning: Some people will find the language offensive.)

Muhammad Ali is one of the most-respected sports figures in the world, and was chosen to light the Olympic torch for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Two years ago Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress. They are just a few among the many famous Muslims in and outside of the United States, including doctors, politicians and others, who have made significant contributions to American lives.

Many of them, like Obama, even pledge allegiance to the American flag.

Posted in History, Politics, Religion, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »