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 October, 2008

Why conservatives may want to sit this election out and let Obama win

Posted by James McPherson on October 31, 2008

Obviously most conservatives will keep pulling for John McCain to pull out a win on Tuesday, and McCain likely will continue his unprecedented slog through the mud (tempered with an appearance this weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” where he can have a conversation with a fake Sarah Palin that is as convincing as his rapport with the real Sarah Palin).

Still, barring something dramatic, unexpected and/or illegal, Barack Obama is likely to win the election handily (as I predicted a couple of months ago). Even NBC’s electoral map, one of the most conservative, now predicts 286 electoral votes for Obama, with 89 too close to call. But Obama also leads in most of those “toss up” states, including Nevada, Florida, Ohio and Indiana. CNN’s electoral map now has Obama leading by significant margins in enough states to claim 291 electoral votes, with 84 more up for grabs. Even just the 291 count, which National Public Radio also predicts, is 21 more than needed (the exact total offered by Pennsylvania).

CBS has the only map I found that doesn’t yet push Obama over 270 (giving him a 259-163, but it also leaves more states uncommitted. As I’ve noted previously, the so-called liberal mainstream media want to keep things close, and don’t want to be proven wrong. Incidentally, Fox News doesn’t have an electoral map (perhaps because the network hates to air news that might be detrimental to the McCain campaign), but Bill O’Reilly does, and even he puts Obama’s current lead at 286-163.

Non-media maps have things looking even tougher for the GOP. Real Clear Politics and Congressional Quarterly gives Obama 311 electoral votes as of today. Even more notably, so does Karl Rove, the man once known as “Bush’s Brain” and on whom some conservatives now place much of the blame for the current woeful state of the conservative movement. Politico’s map gives Obama 353 electoral votes, and VoteFromAbroad.org pegs the count as 364-171.

So what’s a distraught Republican to do? For one thing, he or she might recognize that an Obama win might well turn out to be the best possible outcome for conservatives. It is well known that conservatives has been no big fan of McCain’s, and in fact they have only one good reason to support his presidential bid: the chance that he might be able to solidify the hard right perspective of the Supreme Court. But other than that somewhat iffy possibility, there are a number of reasons conservatives probably should favor Barack Obama, instead.

Addressing the court issue first, McCain may not be able to change the court even if he is elected. He would try to make the court even more conservative, but his nominations to fill the expected two or three vacancies would have to get through a Senate approval process. And the older, more liberal members of the court might decide not to retire, hoping to outlast or outlive McCain (and good luck to a President Palin trying to get anything past a Democratic Congress).

On the other hand, even if Obama has the opportunity to replace three justices, in all likelihood he’ll replace three of the more liberal members of the court with three others who think much like them. The overall makeup of the court itself won’t change, unless Obama makes a mistake–as Dwight D. Eisenhower and other presidents have done in the past–and accidentally appoints someone who turns out to be something other than what Democrats expect. Think of the delicious irony for conservatives if Obama should happen to appoint the justice(s) who solidifies or even strengthens the court’s conservative activist stance for a generation to come.

Even national politics are unlikely to change a lot–to to become in the words of a Times of London columnist “a liberal heaven“–or to change nearly enough, for some of us. We live in a country with politics that have become increasingly conservative, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere.

History also shows that presidents, once elected, tend to govern more like the opposite party, probably in an attempt to build larger coalitions and to recognize grand ambitions. That might explain why Richard Nixon went to China, Ronald Reagan went to the Soviet Union, and Bill Clinton approved NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and welfare reform.

A decisive loss may help conservatives refocus their party. How they might do so remains anyone’s guess–Reagan managed to help create a coalition of otherwise distrustful neoconservatives, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, before the neocons won. Conservative Republicans already have a meeting planned for just days after this election to try to rebuild the party, .

Finally, back in 1988, I told friends that Democrats should hope for a win by George H.W. Bush, because in my view the economy was about to hit a rough spot and whoever was in office would get much of the blame. Bush won, the economy plunged, and Bill “It’s the economy, stupid” Clinton won in 1992.

The same is true today, though of course the economy is already in the toilet. But it’s not going to be fixed in four years, and unless Obama and a Democratic Congress take dramatic steps that I think they’ll be afraid to take, they’ll get the blame for not fixing things quickly enough–setting the stage for yet another Republican revolution in 2012.

Other predictions for the GOP in 2012: Mitt Romney will be the likely GOP nominee, and the Religious Right will continue to decline in influence.

Posted in History, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Poll result: 23 percent of Texans are morons

Posted by James McPherson on October 30, 2008

That number is based on one question from one survey. Fox New offers the evidence, based on a poll by the Texas Politics Project and the the government department at the University of Texas in Austin. About a fourth of all registered Lone Star State voters apparently think Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Considering the fact that 89 percent of those polled think the country is worse off economically than a year ago, but more than half still say they’ll vote for John McCain–who has yet to offer any economic plan other than “I won’t raise taxes” and “Look over there, to see the mud I found to roll in today”–the number of clueless Texas voters actually may be much higher than the poll suggests. And you wondered how George W. Bush became a governor?

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

Obama ready for prime time: half-hour infomercial airs tonight

Posted by James McPherson on October 29, 2008

Next day update: Reader Luis Lopez pointed out in the comments that you can already find the infomercial on YouTube. Thanks, Luis. For convenience, I’ll post the video here. Yesterday’s post continues immediately after the video.

Tonight Barack Obama will be on almost every television network that matters, talking to Americans for 30 minutes less than a week before the election. I suspect the message will be mostly positive and optimistic, with just enough policy ideas to demonstrate that he has some. I’d like to see him announce some cabinet appointments, but that would be viewed as too risky for someone with the lead he holds.

The New York Times announced this morning that, based on a one-minute preview “heavy with strings, flags, presidential imagery, and some Americana filmed by Davis Guggenheim,” the address will be “a closing argument to the everyman.” (So much for John McCain’s ongoing “Joe the Plumber Tour.”)

Unless Obama decides to use the opportunity to announce that he and Joe Biden plan to leave their wives and marry one another, or that he and Osama bin Laden once smoked dope together while plotting the overthrow of the U.S., I can’t imagine that in this particular race–shaping up to be a possible landslide–the half hour will make much difference.

The commercial may reassure some prospective Obama voters (and may look to others as if he’s trying to run up the score), though because of rain the mostly white male audience tuning into Fox for the World Series won’t be there as a lead-in. And by the way, despite the myth that John McCain has repeated on the stump, Obama’s ad was never going to delay any World Series game.

I think the address is a good idea. Recognizing how little meaningful information can be shared via political ads, modern pseudo-debates, or interviews with newspeople who tend too often to be either cowed or too interested in furthering their own careers, I’ve been a proponent of political infomercials for some time. I even wrote letters recommending them to the Democratic National Committee and other groups before the 2004 election, and suggested them again via this blog in early June of this year.

Other presidential candidates have tried similar commercials in the past. Those candidates include losers Adlai Stevenson and Ross Perot (who did well for a third-party candidate), and the successful John F. Kennedy (also the last successful young presidential nominee, and the last to hold his Democratic Convention speech outdoors). If tonight’s program goes well, and offers information that voters can use, I suspect we’ll see more such infomercials in the future.

Regardless of the effect, Obama’s message will provide media scholars and political pundits with analytical fodder for years to come.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Fox, MSNBC offer semi-honest media bias; Barbara West, not so much

Posted by James McPherson on October 28, 2008

John McCain and Sarah Palin are spending much of their time bashing the mainstream media for bias, an argument that I frankly have little use for. Obviously I don’t disagree that media professionals are biased, and have written at length about that bias in my latest book (and to a lesser degree in the first one).

I do disagree that most of the media’s bias is liberal. After all, probably no modern politician has benefited more than McCain from friendly media treatment throughout his career, and I believe McCain chose Palin  largely because she was not well known but had a certain charm that might appeal to media folks willing to give her a pass on her relative lack of knowledge or experience. (I recommended back in June that he choose Palin, predicting that the resulting media coverage would be “superficial and glowing.”)

Unfortunately for McCain and Palin, the campaign at first chose to mostly hide her from the media, and the appearances they did permit (see the Katie Couric debacle) only served to highlight the candidate’s shortcomings while stunting her political and rhetorical gifts. That led to the goofy situation in which the campaign ended up trying to portray a random question from a college student as a “gotcha question” from the press. If Palin can’t handle a student’s question while she’s grabbing a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, let’s hope she’s never put in a position where Vladimir Putin can ask her a question at a state dinner.

Worse, because of Palin’s previous interviewing misadventures, now when she uses her pitbull-with-lipstick charm on the stump, she looks like a partisan hack. More people now view her unfavorably than favorably. No wonder even McCain’s buddy Joe Lieberman now says, “Thank God she’s not going to have to be president from day one.”

As for the guy at the head of the ticket press, McCain has proven not to be the macho character that the media helped create. He is neither a straight talker nor a stable influence.  Keep in mind, this is the same campaign that every day criticizes the media for “investigating Joe the Plumber,” but is incapable of uttering three sentences without blurting out the words “Joe the Plumber.” A McCain-Palin administration might be the first to eliminate the Department of Education while implementing a cabinet level position heading a new Department of Folksy Nicknames.

A lot of people complain about the obvious bias of Fox News toward conservatives or the obvious liberal bias MSNBC. I frankly don’t have a big problem with that. I think it’s good that we get a range of perspectives, which is why I force myself to watch both networks, listen to talk radio, and read (and link to) blogs of both liberals and conservatives–though admittedly the more thoughtful perspectives of National Review from the right and the Nation from the left are far more useful. Unfortunately far too many people on both sides rely only on messages from their own side.

I am more concerned about news people who try to hide their obvious biases. Far too many national news figures have previously worked for politicians (and though this is a guess, probably as many Republicans as Democrats). I’ve noted my problem with Andrea Mitchell–the wife of overrated economic apologist Alan Greenspan–working as an NBC reporter (despite the fact that she is less obviously partisan than some of her colleagues at the network). A more blatant, and much funnier, example came with Florida reporter Barbara West interviewing Joe Biden by using outlandish Republican talking-point questions that sounded as if they could have been provided to her by her husband, a former Republican media consultant.

Barbara the Talking Head did manage to get what she probably most wanted out of the interview: her own “Joe the Plumber” bit of attention, capped by appearances with Bill O’Reilly (who with no apparent sense of “pinhead” irony questioned her use of “buzzwords”) and on what may be the goofiest “news program” on television, Fox and Friends. The attention may have been too much for her employer, WFTV, which now blocks YouTube from carrying the interview after it received 1.2 million hits over the weekend.

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

Neo-Nazis and other nuts: more reminders that race still matters

Posted by James McPherson on October 27, 2008

Just in case anyone can question whether race still is an issue in this country, and whether race might play a part in the election, we have had a number of cases in the past few weeks that help illustrate how impressive Barack Obama’s appeal truly is.

Even though some of the cases involve apparent John McCain supporters, no one should suggest that the McCain camp is involved in the incidents in any way, and I’m not doing that here. I am pointing out that Obama has to overcome issues that no white candidate would face.

Just today the feds apparently blocked an apparent plot by two white supremacists (probably more fantasy on their part than real threat), to kill Obama and more than 100 other African Americans. Earlier this week, of course, we had the apparently mentally ill McCain campaign worker who scratched a backward “B” into a cheek and then reported that she had been assaulted by a large black Obama supporter who noticed her McCain bumper sticker. We’ve also had at least two cases, in Oregon and Ohio, of Obama figures being lynched in effigy.

People who will cheer for a black person who can dunk a basketball or sing the National Anthem still won’t vote for an African American for president. In short, race matters. Perhaps if Obama is elected president, it will come to matter less.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Pipe dream: Palin’s ethics may mirror Cheney’s

Posted by James McPherson on October 25, 2008

As inept as the McCain/Palin campaign has been, and with the squabbles apparently going on within the campaign itself, at this point it may seem that any bad news regarding Sarah Palin is piling on. Still, a report today suggests that a desire for increased vice presidential power may not be the only characteristic Palin shares with Dick Chaney (who must be involved in lengthy political negotiations or a secret romantic tryst with North Korea’s Kim Jung Il, since both seem to have vanished from the face of the earth).

In another apparent case of Palin acting like Cheney with lipstick, the Associated Press reports today that “Palin’s signature accomplishment–a contract to build a 1,715 mile pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska to the Lower 48–emerged from a flawed bidding process that narrowed the field to a company with ties to her administration.”

As a result of the deal, the state of Alaska may have to pay TransCanada $500 million for a pipeline that is never built. According to public records, Palin also spoke at least twice to Cheney on “energy issues” several months before the pipeline deal was approved.

On the plus side, Palin seems immediately ready to step in and help out Halliburton if she is somehow elected to help perpetuate the Iraq War and its free-flowing no-bid contracts to Cheney’s former employer.

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

Sarah Palin’s political fashion statement: A donkey scarf for Eeyore?

Posted by James McPherson on October 23, 2008

Overspending on clothing isn’t Sarah Palin’s only fashion problem this week. Probably by accident or because of some sneaky Democrat posing as a fan in a rope line, the Republican VP nominee recently ended up wearing a scarf that promoted voting for Democrats. You can see a photo that has been posted throughout the blogosphere (which I first suspected was Photoshopped), here:

If it wasn’t an accident, maybe Palin had merely read a recent blog post in which I compared John McCain to Eeyore, and this was her way of saying, “Vote for McCain.”

Same day follow-up thought: At least the scarf didn’t look too much like a keffiyah, so Michelle Malkin won’t have to join the parade of conservatives abandoning the McCain/Palin ship.

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

ACORN makes GOP & media nuts while others try to steal the election

Posted by James McPherson on October 22, 2008

A recommendation: Before you consider for one more second the potential problems associated with ACORN, read the latest issue or the online version of Mother Jones magazine, which offers “10 Ways to Steal an Election.” Some of the methods are illegal, some are just sleazy, all have been used by conservatives, and all are more insidious and more likely to affect the final vote count than anything ACORN is doing now.

The magazine also carries a story about the Republicans’ cynical last-ditch effort to win the election (or to raise doubts about the veracity of Barack Obama’s victory). Unfortunately, too many of the supposedly liberal mainstream media, not just Fox News, are devoting disproportionate amounts of time and energy to the GOP line about ACORN stealing the election (though they don’t seem to be yet buying the conservative talking point that perhaps ACORN is doing so with the help of Barack Obama).

Perhaps ACORN is worth looking into, though I have yet to see anyone explain how registration fraud equals voter fraud (or point out that inflated registration numbers may do more harm to Democrats, who might have unrealistic expectations about voter turnout, than to Republicans, who should know that Mickey Mouse won’t show up to cast a ballot). A bigger problem, though, is the relative lack of meaningful stories about the real election fraud threats. For those we have to turn to such media as last night’s episode of the Colbert Report (see the video of “The Word“) and Mother Jones.

Speaking of which, you also can see an interactive map of states in which election “shenanigans” are known to have occurred. I doubt that the mainstream media, interested in keeping the election close (and in not creating an anti-media backlash vote), will be moved to carry their own versions of the map. After all, unlike Real Clear Politics and CNN, over at MSNBC and CBS, they’re still running maps that show neither candidate having enough likely electoral votes to claim victory.

I dislike the fact that the media base so much election coverage on polls. But I dislike even more that they they misrepresent their own polling information, which now suggests, barring some nearly miraculous event, that Obama will win big and Sarah Palin will be sent packing back to Alaska (but apparently won’t be packing the $130,000 worth of new clothing bought for her by the GOP since she became the VP nominee).

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

Klein sweep: No room for lying ‘Joe the Columnist’ on campaign plane

Posted by James McPherson on October 21, 2008

Time magazine’s Joe Klein has apparently been banned from the John McCain’s campaign plane, a ban that apparently bugs the liberal bloggers at the Huffington Post, Politico and Think Progress more than it does Klein himself.

The McCain camp’s reasoning seems obvious: Klein has regularly criticized the campaign, for example noting that the candidate had a “fabulously loony weekend, flipping out charges like a mud tornado” while criticizing Obama for supporting ideas that McCain himself has supported. Still, others argue that in some cases, if any bias exists, it’s because Klein has been too kind to McCain.

Regardless, in this case perhaps the blame in the campaign plane isn’t mainly on McCain, so to speak. Frankly, if I were a candidate I wouldn’t let Klein on my plane (or, given a choice, in my bus, my car, my office, my gym, or even on the same elevator), either–but not because he’s hypercritical (as opposed to hypocritical). Usually he’s not, and even if he were, there’s something be be said for the old adage about keeping your enemies close.

I also wouldn’t ban Klein because he has been criticized for not being friendly enough toward Israel (too big a concern for many modern politicians, in my view), or because of the quality of his writing, which often is more interesting and wittier than that of many of his cohorts–even if, in overly broad but telling words of John Cook in Radar magazine, “Klein’s body of work amounts to little more than a festival of projection and poorly disguised vanity.” (And who am I, or almost any blogger, to criticize that?)

No, none of those reasons would keep Klein (with whom I often agree, by the way) as far away from me as possible. I’d keep him at a distance because I know him to be is a sneak and a liar, if not insane (though maybe no crazier than journalism as a whole). I’m guessing that literary forensics expert and Vassar College professor Don Foster feels same way, and not because of how Klein and Time butchered their coverage of FISA wiretapping rules last year. That coverage favored conservatives, incidentally, one more reason McCain might want “Joe the Columnist” on his plane.

Sixteen years ago, Klein covered Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Four years later, during Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, a fictionalized version of that campaign became a bestseller during Clinton’s  at least in part because its author–listed only as “Anonymous”–provided an obvious inside look at Clinton’s life and politics. Parts of Primary Colors (which then became a popular film) the book were fictionalized, but no one knew exactly which parts, and “Guess the Author” became a favorite Washington game.

New York magazine hired Foster to crack the case, and CBS (which also employed Klein at the time) then interviewed Foster about his conclusion that Klein wrote the book (a conclusion previously reached by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet in the Baltimore Sun). Klein adamently denied authorship until a handwriting analysis proved that he had lied even to his bosses at CBS and Newsweek.

Klein was forced to resign from CBS, but Newsweek merely made him apologize to readers whose trust he had betrayed. Even afterward, Klein showed no meaningful remorse and had no trouble finding subsequent media gigs–no surprise, since even after Oliver North lied under oath to Congress and the American people he became a network program host, even if it was on Fox News.

So there you have it, why I as a candidate would keep Klein off of my plane–along with the likes of fellow dissemblers George Will (read my book for a further discussion of Will’s lies), Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Of course I also have this fantasy that if I were a candidate I’d actually talk to real reporters.

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

My formulaic bid for a Nobel Prize in economics

Posted by James McPherson on October 19, 2008

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has won this year’s Nobel Prize in economics (along with about $1.4 million, which he no doubt was happy to have awarded in Swedish kronor rather than in dollars). When someone asked me why he won, I theorized that it was because he was the only economist left who hadn’t already won it and who hadn’t killed himself in the past couple of weeks.

The Nobel committee says Krugman won because of “his analyses of international trade and economic geography.” And though he has admittedly written 20 books and hundreds of articles, as far as I can see, basically Krugman’s win comes down to a formula he developed to explain international trade. He tried to explain that formula to Fareed Zakaria today on Zakaria’s CNN program, a program that my wife and I watch from time to time despite the fact that the host and almost all of his guests are intimidatingly intelligent.

Somehow I don’t foresee my books or blog earning me the Nobel Prize for literature (after all, we’ve heard about the anti-American bias in that category), nor are even my most bipartisan political efforts here likely to win me the Nobel Peace Prize. My time as a journalist probably demonstrates that I lack the scientific knowledge for the prizes in chemistry, physics or medicine.

Still, for 10 million kronor–without even having to pony up a buck for a lottery ticket–I’ll make a bid for a Nobel of my own by offering a simple formula that I think well explains the current economic situation:

$ + GOP = FU

To the Nobel committee: I’ll gladly take a check, as long as it’s not from an American bank. And to the New York Times: Yes, I’ll write a column for you, if I can do it from the Pacific Northwest.

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