James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Academics, journalism, politics and getting away

Posted by James McPherson on August 11, 2008

As of 3 a.m. today, I’m back from Chicago, where I attended the national convention for the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication.  I also spent a week away from the Internet, checking my e-mail only once during that time (meaning most of my day until now has been devoted to catching up). I read a newspaper only once during the week (taking a day-old New York Times on the train) and caught only brief hotel lobby snatches of television news. Occasional breaks from the media and technology are among the most precious gifts we can give ourselves, part of why I don’t carry a cell phone.

For a political junkie, I picked a good week to be disconnected. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain picked a VP nominee and I’m back in time to hear George Bush bluster about Russia engaging in criminally insane American-style foreign policy.

Most of the news coverage seems to have been devoted to the Olympics, about which I care very little. I haven’t yet seen a single event on television, and have no idea of the medal count. I have great respect for the athletes–more so for those who compete from nations with limited resources–but am turned off by the hype, the money, the cheating, and the reliance on technology that surround the Olympics. It’s enough for me to deal with all of those things in the political races.

Like most such events, the AEJMC convention was a mix of good and bad:

  • Getting to hear from and talk to some of the smartest, funniest and nicest people in my field, including chats with old friends, enthusiastic young grad students, and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who was given AEJMC’s First Amendment Award.
  • Hearing from people who were seriously underprepared or who think they’re much smarter than they are, and spending too much time chatting with people who were looking over my shoulder to see if someone more important (in terms of their personal career enhancement) came into view.
  • Being reminded that few of the hundreds of presentations at this convention–or almost any academic convention–matter to more than a half-dozen people, or will influence anything beyond possibly the presenters’ tenure or promotion possibilities. Even bloggers’ audiences are bigger and may care more about what they read, though I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.
  • Seeing copies of my latest book being sold, and being asked to sign it.
  • An afternoon visit to Navy Pier and its stained glass museum, and a sightseeing tour of the waterfront.
  • An amazing view from our 38th-floor hotel room window, and incredibly high prices for everything else associated with the hotel.
  • Nice people on buses and on the street but crabby people in the hotel, in restaurants and driving cabs (exactly the opposite of what I expected).
  • Amtrak, which we took to and from Chicago from Spokane. Admittedly no one should spend 73 hours on trains in a one-week period. Still, I’m a supporter of the idea of Amtrak, and have always thought we should subsidize train travel more heavily (as we already do with air and especially car travel, though those subsidies are better hidden). But Amtrak doesn’t do much for its own case. The first train was filthy and hours late, and far too many Amtrak employees come across as embittered small-town cops or bad junior high teachers. Amtrak could learn a lot from Southwest Airlines.
  • The reminder that even though I generally prefer the West over the East and small towns over large cities, Chicago keeps getting better in my eyes while the seeming hellhole of Shelby, Mont., gets worse. Admittedly both reactions are based on limited experience (in Shelby I never got farther than 50 feet from the train, nor had any desire to do so considering the locals I encountered there), the same kind of experience that leads me to think kindly of such wide-ranging locales as Seattle; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Tucson, Ariz.; Raleigh, N.C.; St. Petersburg, Fla., Madison, Wisc.; Brookings, Ore.; and Moscow, Idaho; while having generally negative impressions of Los Angeles; Phoenix; Cincinnati; Richmond, Va.; Wilson, N.C.; Wickenburg, Ariz.; Ogden, Utah; Forks, Wash.; and Twin Falls, Idaho. Like most Americans, I have mixed feelings or am indifferent about many other places, including the hugely popular “san” cities of San Francisco, San Diego and San Antonio. My views about any of these places shouldn’t matter to anyone else, though unfortunately my reasoning is based on the same kind of experience that will prompt most people who are clueless enough not to have already made up their minds about how to vote in the November presidential election.
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3 Responses to “Academics, journalism, politics and getting away”

  1. David Gunn said

    Here’s a crazy reason why Southwest is a lousy comparison – their employees have a stake because of profit sharing. At Amtrak, it’s all at a loss, and the union leadership ensures no innovation ever makes it onto the trains. It’s a shame your train was dirty, but as for the rest, free Amtrak from its archaic fleet and free its management to bring new ideas onto the trains, and a whole new experience will emerge.

  2. Good to have you back. While the athletic events at the Olympics may be unimportant compared to the VP nominee, I think there is a bigger picture that’s worth your attention. Surely there’s something to be said concerning China’s state-run media, restrictions on public journalism and the way it’s all gonna mix as China becomes increasingly important in the Western world.

  3. James McPherson said

    Thanks, both of you. I agree with some of what you said, David, though I’m not sure that unions have had a meaningful influence on much of anything outside of education or the entertainment industry since the Reagan administration. Besides, one of Amtrak’s promotional themes in the on-train reading materials was how they’ve changed.

    Interestingly, you can read more than two years of the employee newsletter online at http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=Amtrak/am2Copy/Title_Image_Copy_Page&c=am2Copy&cid=1093554067060&ssid=603. One main story of the last issue: “Service Relaunch Aims to Improve Customer Service.” The column to employees from President and CEO Alex Kummant concludes accurately: “Our success begins and ends with you. Help me make the case for the investments we need by showing the world that Amtrak’s workforce is the best.” Unfortunately, based on my experience, the message isn’t getting through.

    Grady, you make an excellent point. The Olympics can serve to bring needed attention to a part of the world that doesn’t get enough of it. I wish NBC would use its access to cover more of the types of things you mentioned and less about China’s scenery, consumerism and fashion (unless the fashion aspect were to point out that almost all of us are wearing shoes made in Chna, etc.). One mainstream news organization that is doing some of that is PBS. You can see a page at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/asia/china/2008/.

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