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 December, 2008

Out with the bad … and in with the worse?

Posted by James McPherson on December 31, 2008

Despite the election of Barack Obama, and largely due to economic issues, obviously 2008 has been a rough year in the worlds of politics and media (including movies, though I’m more concerned about the news media–thinking that my journalistic friends may need a New Deal-style program to be able to keep reporting the news).

Cable news networks may be doing OK, but more comprehensive (and therefore more useful) media are suffering. Just spend a half hour or skimming through the stories shared by Poynter’s Jim Romanesko and you’ll see at least a year’s worth of bad media business news.

And with even Obama promising that “things will get worse before they get better”–and some very smart people such as James Howard Kuntsler (author of The Long Emergency) and my ecologist brother saying much, much worse–it’s no wonder people are afraid to make New Year’s resolutions.

As for me, I resolve to keep writing as long as I can, blogging as long as the power is on, and teaching as long as my employer stays in business. I have good neighbors and a range of skills that might keep me fed. Besides, as my wife has reminded me, at various times in my life I’ve lived in a bus, a pickup camper and a tent.

Perhaps it’s simply denial (an oft-underated tool), but I trust that whatever happens, my family and I will be “fine in ’09.” I hope you will be, too. Happy New Year!

For a funny review of the year that’s about to be gone, check out the JibJab video below:

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

Top stories and missing stories of 2008: Obama, the economy, China and Mother Nature–and by the way, isn’t something going on in Iraq?

Posted by James McPherson on December 30, 2008

It’s the time of year for lists, and not surprisingly, the election of Barack Obama topped the annual Associated Press list of the top 10 stories of the year. The next three were the economic meltdown, oil prices and Iraq. The order of those three stories help explain the election of Obama.

In fact, Iraq has faded so much in importance that now NOT ONE of the three major broadcast networks has a full-time correspondent there (reaffirming once again how far the news operations of the Big Three have fallen).

China made the AP list in fifth and sixth place, with the Olympics and the May earthquake that killed 70,000 people.  I was happy to see no “Nancy Grace specialties (“pretty dead white woman stories) on the list, while two women in politics–Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton–finished seventh and ninth. Two more international stories, the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the Russia-Georgia war, filled out the list.

CNN let readers and viewers vote on the top stories, and as of today those readers the respondents agreed with the AP on the top three. Further down, however, Michael Phelps, O.J. Simpson, Rod Blogojevich and same-sex marriage all made that list.

Fox News also lets “you decide,” though just through a running blog that lets people sound off. Some respondents’ ideas for “top story” (as written): “The biggest story of 2008 is that Barack Obama is not eligible to hold the office of the President, because he is not a Natural Born Citizen”; “It was the Democrat spawned credit crisis which they have worked so hard for to have it happen when the election was close”; “a made up money crisis to sway an election and Muslim financing in our institutions”; and “How the Democrats highjacked the economy and the white house.”

Time‘s list was considerably different and more internationally oriented than the others. The magazine put the economy at the head of its “top 10” list, followed by Obama’s election, but the next eight were the Mumbai attacks, terrorism in Pakistan, international piracy, the war in Georgia, poisonous Chinese imports, the Columbian rescue of hostage Ingrid Betancourt, and “Mother’s Nature’s double whammy” in China and Burma.

Time also offered a number of other top 10’s, including lists of crime stories, political gaffes (the Huffington Post also offers its own list of “top political scandals“), oddball news, and medical breakthroughs.

I found Time‘s list of underreported stories among the most interesting and disturbing. For example, No. 9 on the list: the shipment of 6,700 tons of radioactive sand–created by U.S. weapons during the first Persian Gulf War–from Kuwait to Idaho.

Fox News contributer K.T. McFarland offered her own “most important story everyone missed this year,” one particularly close to my own heart: “the death of news delivered in print and the birth of news delivered over the internet.” She also engaged in a bit of snarky broadcast-style self-promotional hyperbole: “Perhaps the most intriguing new way to deliver news is something FOX News came up with this summer–online streaming programming delivered right to your computer screen. FOX’s first foray into this medium, The Strategy Room, is part news program, part panel discussion, part chat room. It’s been called ‘”The View” for Smart People.'”

Actually, like “The View,” “The Strategy Room” is sometimes informative, sometimes a trivial and inane collection of posers. But if you want to be really afraid–and disgusted with the shortcomings of fading American journalism–read Project Censored’s annual list of the top 25 “censored stories.”

In truth, the stories were simply underreported or incorrectly reported rather than censored, but the fact remains that every story on the list is more important than the “accomplishments” of Britney Spears (who topped MTV’s list), Paris Hilton, and every other Hollywood nitwit combined. And speaking of nitwits, Fox News also produced a “top” list. On its Christmas Day front page, Fox–the great “protector” of Christmas–offered “2008’s Hottest Bods.”

Finally, on a personal note related to another list: I was excited yesterday morning to see my blog at #5 on the WordPress list of “top growing blogs,” with my post about Christmas killers hitting at least as high as #76 on the list of top posts for the day. Less encouraging were the responses from nutball racists (mixed in with several more thoughtful and thought-provoking comments) on both sides of the Iraeli-Arab issue over both that post and yesterday’s.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Barak and Barack, Israel and America

Posted by James McPherson on December 29, 2008

With Israel continuing its attack on targets in Gaza for a third day, Defense Minister Ahud Barak says Israel is now in an “all-out war” with Hamas. In the meantime, various countries with sympathies toward one side or the other are trying to provide aid to the areas hardest hit.

President Bush–whom Condi Rice predicts the American people will soon “start to thank” (and not just for leaving office)–sides with Israel. Barack Obama also has previously supported Israel as strongly as any other American politician; one might argue that he wouldn’t be president-elect, if he hadn’t.

Perhaps now, as Obama ponders yet another crisis that he’ll have to deal with when he takes office in about three weeks, he’s wondering if not being president-elect would be such a bad thing. Obama has promised to focus on Middle East issues right away (as if he had a choice) and to try to boost America’s image with Muslims. He undoubtedly will have more credibility among Palestinians than Bush does.

Among other potentially promising signs are the names of the people involved. Barack Hussein Obama’s first name is nearly the same as the Iraeli defense minister’s last name, while his middle name–as we were reminded many times during the election–is an Arabic name that he will use when he takes his oath of office.

In addition, the full name of Obama’s proposed White House chief of staff (a Jew whose father was born in Jerusalem and whose last name means “God is with us”) is Rahm Israel Emanuel.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments »

Christmas killers, foreign & domestic: More proof the world looks better from a distance

Posted by James McPherson on December 28, 2008

The second-most popular CNN story right now is actually a series of photos taken of the Earth by NASA. They include photos of a hurricane, damaged Gulf Coast wetlands, disintegration of a massive ice shelf, flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in California, clearcutting of forests in Bolivia, and irrigated fields in Sudan.

The most-popular story? “Santa shooter carried secret guilt, attorney says.” Not guilt about dressing up as Santa and killing nine people on Christmas Eve, but over how his ineptitude as a parent left his son (a son that until recently he kept secret from his now-murdered ex-wife) a paraplegic.

In the meantime, Israel continues to celebrate the Christmas season by defying the United Nations–keeping with its long tradition of ignoring the UN and recognizing that sanctions only matter when those sanctions are violated by countries the United States want to invade–and waging war against Palestinians.

Israel knew, of course, that it would have the full support of the U.S., even as Bush Administration continues to contribute to a potential polar ice cap-like meltdown of the Middle East.

The New York Times leads with a story about the Israeli bombings entering their second day, but its lead sidebar is headlined, “Israeli Foreign Minister Says Hamas Is to Blame.” Now there’s a shock. The next story is more important, in the long run: “Across Mideast, Thousands Protest Israeli Assault.”

As a more positive offering marking the end of the Christmas season and the hopes for a better New Year,  I’ll end today’s post with a Christmas version of “From a Distance”:

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

Apparently 23 percent of Americans are stand-up comedians or Fox News hosts

Posted by James McPherson on December 26, 2008

That’s the percentage of Americans who say they’ll miss President George W. Bush, according to a CNN poll. Less surprising is that 75 percent will be happy to see “the decider“–who already is questioning one of his own pardons, from less than a week ago–ride off into the sunset.

 Many Iraqis feel the same way, of course, to the point that Time magazine writes that the recent Bush “shoe bombing” will have an effect on that nation’s upcoming elections. In the meantime, retailers just wish Bush–or anyone–would go shopping.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

Merry Christmas! Twelve YouTube Christmas videos

Posted by James McPherson on December 24, 2008

After posting for 23 consecutive days (and 33 of 34), I’m taking a few days off for Christmas. As my holiday greeting to all of you, whether you’ve been bad or good, I’m posting YouTube versions of a dozen of my favorite Christmas videos below. Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song” might normally top the list, but Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas” seems especially appropriate this year.

One warning: The last two are difficult to watch, and therefore perhaps the most important. Frankly I think everyone should see the last one, but if reality bothers you more than reality TV does, you may want to hold off on this video until after Christmas Day–perhaps just before you do your New Year’s resolutions.

Queen: Thank God It’s Christmas

Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song

Mariah Carey: O Holy Night

Mahalia Jackson: Go Tell It On the Mountain

Willie Nelson: Pretty Paper

Celtic Women: In the Bleak Midwinter/The First Noel

David Bowie and Bing Crosby: Little Drummer Boy

Kristin Chenoweth: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong

Enya: Silent Night (Irish)

Band Aid: Do They Know It’s Christmas?

John Lennon: Happy Christmas (War is Over)

 

 

Posted in History, Music, Personal, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

No more silent nights: Sarah Palin and media share sentiments

Posted by James McPherson on December 23, 2008

Apparently Sarah Palin’s biggest regret of her recent bid to take over Dick Cheney‘s job was she was “not allowed” to spend “enough time with the media.”

Of course Palin has been everywhere in the media since the election, but was kept under largely under wraps during the campaign itself. John McCain talked more about “Joe the Plumber” than he did about his own running mate.

Yet despite the fact that both McCain and Palin complained about the press treatment of her during the campaign, Palin now wishes she had spent more time with the media. On that, I suspect most people in the media agree with her.

Still, now she’s getting almost as much of airtime as her northern neighbor, Santa Claus. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day she could wish us all a Merry Christmas by singing a favorite children’s holiday song about Rudolph (a name, interestingly, that originally meant “famous wolf shot from a helicopter”) while somebody butchers a reindeer in the background.

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

MTV: Moronic TeleVision

Posted by James McPherson on December 22, 2008

MTV, which became almost unwatchable at about the same time Jerry Springer somehow became cool, is undergoing another major programming shift, according to Variety. According to the article, because of a ratings slide, the once-revolutionary network “is embarking on a major programming overhaul, with 16 new unscripted series over the next 4½ months.”

MTV first aired Aug. 1, 1981, meaning it now finds itself older than the audience it wants to attract. In fact, there are few things more sad than somone pushing 30 who is trying to hang with people who just hit the legal drinking age.

Occasionally the network does try to act its age, as with some of its political activities. But now MTV execs, who recently have brought us such classics as “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” “A Double Shot at Love” and  “My Super Sweet 16“–three shows that seem to be designed to prompt America-haters  to fly planes into buildings and which the CIA might consider as a suitable alternative to waterboarding–have decided that there’s a shortage of reality television shows on cable?

In memory of what once was, below is the first video that appeared on MTV –The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” And in memory of music videos in general, largely replaced on televison by YouTube, below that video is The Wrong Trousers version of the same song (a version that has received about 1.4 million fewer hits than the Buggles’ video).

Posted in History, Media literacy, Music, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

If you’re going to write anything stupid in the future, don’t come to my class

Posted by James McPherson on December 21, 2008

Though the event boasted about as much security as Barack Obama’s inauguration will (and probably was even more expensive), Iraq’s public Christmas celebration yesterday was a good sign. Despite the security, chances are good that Bill O’Reilly or some other right-wing self-appointed “protector of Christmas”  will make some ludicrous comment tomorrow about it supposedly being easier to celebrate Christmas publicly in Baghdad than in Washington.

I expect that O’Reilly will overlook the fact that it may be more dangerous to be a Christian in Iraq today than at any time in history, and that millions of Christians have fled the country or been killed for their religious beliefs. Still, I was struck by a quote from an Iraq Interior Ministry official at the Christmas party, attended by many Muslims, that “All Iraqis are Christian today!”

The quote and the party are nice symbols of unity (though I didn’t see anything about the event on al-Jazeera today). Unfortunately, here at home, George “I’m a Uniter, not a Divider” Bush has again gone the divisive route by apparently deciding that conservative Christians should be allowed to dictate health policy for America as a whole.

That might explain why among his various lame-duck actions–which so far include attempts to ease offshore drilling, weakening the Endangered Species Act, trying to rewrite the history of his administration while dodging shoes (and perhaps other objects to come), and perhaps wondering whether to pardon Dick Cheney or just shoot him in the face–George W. Bush on Thursday announced its new “conscious protection” rule to keep health care workers from doing jobs they find “morally objectionable.”

The regulation is set to take effect the day before Bush leaves office (I guess he thinks there’s no real hurry), giving Obama’s administration one more thing to work on overturning one day later. Of course assorted feministes, rape victims, those in favor of legalized abortion, those concerned about teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and other assorted people concerned about women’s health in general hate the new regulation.

My immediate reaction was similar to those in opposition–that this is yet another stupid, petty Bushian effort to impose the Religious Right’s beliefs on everyone else–but then I realized that, taken to its natural conclusion, this decision could make my own job as a college professor teaching journalism classes a lot easier.

See, I normally ask students at the beginning of a semester to write a short paper telling me why they’re in my class, what they hope it will teach them, and how they hope to use it in the future. I do the assignment mostly so that I can tailor the class to students’ needs, where appropriate. If I have several students in my media writing class who plan to enter public relations, for example, I’ll spend a little more time on that topic than if I have a class full of future broadcast journalists.

My obvious mistake is that I’ve made the assignment about them, instead of about me. In the past I’ve thought that it was my job to teach them the necessary skills to succeed in their chosen profession, and, if possible, to get them to look at things from a variety of perspectives. Since they’re adults, albeit young ones, I assumed that they might be capable of making the decisions that were right for them.

Yet many of those students eventually go on to write conservative columns, work for conservative politicians, or do public relations for conservative organizations. Despite the wailings of David Horowitz and similar fear-based donor-funded nuts, and to the probable dismay of some egotistical academics, we liberal professors just don’t have all that much political influence on our students (neither do the conservative profs, which, though outnumbered, still are relatively common).

So now when when I ask my opening questions I’ll be on the lookout for students who might plan to someday use any writing or editing skills picked up in my classes for evil purposes. Since I teach at a Christian university and most of my students are political conservatives, if we can get the latest Bush doctrine expanded, this might greatly reduce my workload.

A Christian myself, of course I’ll continue to teach journalism basics to the “right kind” of believers–those opposed to war and torture and in favor of tolerance, telling the truth, and helping the poor.

But as soon as a student suggests (as many have, over the years) that she hopes to go on to work in government or church activities, maybe even in a way that will help promote her own conservative views, I’m obviously going to have to know a lot more before I agree to share the wonders of the summary lead or the inverted pyramid.

Christmas Day update: Chrismas has been named a national holiday in Iraq for the first time, though there are far fewer Christians left in the country to celebrate it.

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

Movies and history: Is there any good history in cinema?

Posted by James McPherson on December 20, 2008

In responsed to my post of a few days ago in which I complained about the historical inaccuracy of “Frost/Nixon,” author David Schleicher (who also happens to be a regular reviewer of movies) asked if there have been any recent films that I considered to be historically accurate.

That’s a great question. Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer, because movies are the medium that I may know least about. I’m so out of touch with cinema that the last two films I saw in theaters were “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille.”

Schleicher also asked about my perspective on HBO’s recent John Adams miniseries. Even though “Freakonomics” author Stephen J. Dubner had a few problems with its history, in fact that miniseries and “The Wire” were two of the most recent reasons for me to wish I had more than expanded basic cable.

Dubner also points out that the miniseries strays from the facts offered in the David McCullough book on which it is based, offering an argument that gets to the heart of my original complaint about “Frost/Nixon”:

I’m not looking for embellishment when it’s not necessary. Sometimes it is necessary. …

When such dramatic license isn’t necessary, however, and it’s used anyway …  it makes me feel that the filmmakers are trying too hard to do something they shouldn’t be trying to do. It makes me feel that they are trying too hard to make the characters richer than they need be, that they are desperate to “get inside the mind of” the characters, as people like to say.

But what makes McCullough, in my opinion, one of our best living writers is that he doesn’t work that way at all. Instead, he accumulates stubborn fact after stubborn fact — an act of accretion that borders on alchemy — and presents such a robust portrait that there is no need for the sort of psychobabble noodgery that fills up lesser books.

I probably watch too much television, especially considering how much of my viewing is skewed toward news-oriented programming. (On the plus side, I generally avoid “reality TV.”) Most of the remainder of my media time is spent reading newspapera, magazines and blogs.

Still, the question about good history in films piqued my interest enough to do a bit more research, in which I came up with a number of commentaries about films with good or bad “history.” Among the films regularly rated as particularly “bad history” are “Gladiator,” “300,” “Titanic,” “The Insider,” “The Last Samarai,” “Braveheart,” “The Patriot,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Elizabeth,” “Dances with Wolves,” “JFK” and “The Alamo.”

I would add almost any film starring one of my childhood heroes, John Wayne–which gets to another point. “Citizen Kane” is considered one of the best films of all time, and is one of my favorites. Yet it, too, takes considerable historical liberties.

That film’s saving grace–other than the fact that it is a cinematic masterpiece–is that the film changes the name of the main character. Part of the reason people considered the portrayal so truthful is that William Randolph Hearst (the model for the fictional Kane) tried to have the movie stopped.

Some of the other films noted above I also liked, “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “Dances with Wolves.” Interestingly, though, I didn’t consider any of them to be particularly historical as I watched them.

As for historically accurate films, almost a decade ago author James Roquemore offered these as his top five: “A Man for All Seasons,” “Apollo 13” (like “Frost/Nixon,” a Ron Howard film and one I liked a lot), “Ulzana’s Raid,” “The Duelists” and “Conagher” (a 1991 film I can’t remember ever hearing of before today).

Other book-length takes on the topic have been offered by Robert Brent Toplin,  Robert RosenstoneMarcia LandyFrank Senello and  Mark C. Carnes. I must admit that I haven’t read any of those books, however–if I had that much time to spare, I’d be more likely to take in a movie or two.

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