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 January, 2009

Why Obama should dump Daschle and draft Dean

Posted by James McPherson on January 31, 2009

Tom Daschle’s tax issues are causing problems with his nomination to be Barack Obama’s health czar and secretary of Health and Human Services. Yet while I am constantly amazed that prominent politicians don’t have enough sense to pay (or hire competent  accountants  to pay) taxes on the kinds of “human services” that most of us can only dream about–drivers, maids, nannies, gardeners–frankly I’m more troubled by Daschle’s connections with the industry he would be seeking to reform.

So far, Daschle has mostly said the right things about the problems with health care (unlike Obama, who lately has gone silent on the issue). But as Kenneth P. Vogel reported yesterday for Politico, Daschle has made almost a quarter of a million dollars in just the past two years by giving speeches. “many of them to outfits that stand to gain or lose millions of dollars from the work he would do once confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services.”

In addition to the speeches, there’s the whole lobbyist issue that Obama promised he’d avoid, and which he is finding to be virtually unavoidable in the search for qualified people. Daschle went to work for a lobbyist (though he managed to avoid the title himself) after leaving the Senate, and as the Washington Post reported back in November, “He serves on the boards of Prime BioSolutions and the Mayo Clinic, among others, and his law firm lobbies for a number of industry clients, including CVS Caremark, the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, Abbott Laboratories and HealthSouth.” In addition, Daschle’s former beauty queen wife still is a lobbyist–who has worked for clients in the health care industry.

I’ve been a fan of Tom Daschle much of the time, and thought he did a good job of balancing his somewhat progressive leanings with the interests of his conservative state. I also still believe (one of my few departures into conspiracy theories) that the anthrax that was mailed to his office in 2001 came from a source interested in scaring Daschle into supporting the hastily-passed USA-PATRIOT Act.  The Bush administration tried to link the anthrax attacks to al Qaeda for the same reason, and, regardless of the reasons, Daschle unfortunately did support the faulty fear-inspired bill.

I also thought (and believe even more strongly today) that the Republican campaign to replace him with John Thune (a male version of Sarah Palin) in 2004 was politically smart (from a power-seeking position) for the party and its corporate benefactors in the short run, and bad for Congress and the country in the long run–pretty much like a lot of other GOP moves in recent years, particularly any involving Bill Frist, who traveled to South Dakota to campaign against Daschle.

Obama hasn’t made many mistakes since starting his run for the presidency, but Daschle was not the best choice for HHS secretary. The best option, as The Nation suggests in the issue that hit my mailbox yesterday, may have been the forgotten man who may be the one most responsible(yes, even more than Oprah) for Obama’s win–Dr. Howard Dean.

As governor of Vermont, Dean oversaw balanced budgets, income tax cutsand expansion of a universal health care system for children and pregnant women. He also happens to be married to another doctor, Judith Steinberg. Perhaps they even pay all their taxes.

Unfortunately Dean apparently made an enemy of Obama buddy Rahm Emanuel–who ironically is now chief of staff for a president who would not have been elected had Obama followed Emanuel’s favored Clintonesque key-state party-building strategy instead of Dean’s 50-state strategy.

Admittedly Dean may not as easy to like as Obama or Daschle (though he is at least as likable as Emanuel). But this administration isn’t supposed to be about who we’d like to have a beer with. It’s supposed to be about competence. The selection of Daschle somewhat calls that competence into question.

Sunday update: Today Glenn Greenwald offers an even more disturbing picture of Daschle.

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

Obama’s selective openness a bad sign for him and us

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2009

Barack Obama has been justifiably praised for his efforts to use technology to talk directly to the American people, and, since his election, for his orders to increase the transparency of government. 

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama promised on his first day in office. And as a former journalist and a citizen concerned about the workings of government, I’m happy about the promises of increased openness.

Unfortunately those promises may go largely unfulfilled, as indicated by Columbia Journalism Review writer David Cay Johnston’s  experience. Not only is the press staff difficult to reach and sometimes apparently ignorant about how the media work, Johnston reports that the administration is also editing briefing transcripts before posting them–a practice used by the Bush administration to “polish the record.”

 “Politicians make choices and have to live with them,” Johnston notes. “How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.”

Obama’s decisions likely will keep getting tougher, not easier, and with each he’ll have to decide anew his commitment to open government. Will he open the windows on U.S. torture policy? Will he keep the Bush administration’s secrets, even if it means that war crimes go unpunished? Worse, might he continue some of the abuses? How will he protect us from the end of the world less than two months after his 2012 re-election? OK, I’m kidding about that one: I’m not at all convinced he’ll be re-elected, even if we happen to survive that long.

Though Obama has been talking a lot about the economy and the need to spend lots of money to forestall total economic collapse, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wonders if the president is giving any consideration to a central theme of his campaign–how health care, perhaps the biggest draw on the economy, might be fixed? Obama and his people aren’t saying, so we don’t know.

There’s a lot they aren’t saying, despite the fact that Obama now seems to be on television constantly. As can be seen nightly on the Vegas strip or with the Three-card Monte games of New York City, the most effective magicians work not by openly hiding things but by using charm, patter, and perhaps a pretty girl or two to keep us from looking where we should. And it is worth remembering that Obama drew kudos for the “discipline” of his button-down presidential campaign, from which leaks did not escape.

Naturally politicians hate it when everyone knows what they’re doing, sometimes for good reasons. For one thing, if ideas are revealed too early, critics can jump in before plans can be given thorough consideration or a fair hearing. For another thing, leaks make a course change tougher if people know you originally intended something else. You might even become known as a flip-flopper. And sometimes information can simply be embarrassing.

But the Bush administration convincingly reminded us why we can’t simply trust officials to tell us what we need to know (even an official with his own Blackberry and YouTube channel), and why we need journalists to dig for us, to follow up on statements, to explore alternatives. After the press and government failures of the Iraq War, domestic spying and the economy, we can hope that even journalists have learned the same thing.

Incidentally, Johnston’s article also reminds us of why CJR (where editor Mike Holt graciously met with a dozen of my students in New York earlier this month) is such a valuable source both for and about journalism. I renewed my subscription this week.

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

Anticipating eruptions: Volcano and Palin prompt redoubt

Posted by James McPherson on January 29, 2009

One definition of the word “redoubt” is “to stand in dread of; to regard with fear; to dread.” That definition might apply to two events facing Alaska: the possible eruption of a volcano named Mount Redoubt, and an increasingly likely presidential run by Gov. Sarah Palin. We keep seeing more meanings  for her phrase, “I’ll get back to ya.”

In fact, Mount Redoubt has erupted a number of times. Despite being located about a hundred miles from Alaska’s largest city, it probably will never cause Alaskans the grief that those of us in the Pacific Northwest experienced with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

A more ominous event for Alaskans and the rest of us may be the establishment of Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC.com, leading to a new eruption of speculation about her viability as a presidential candidate. Incidentally, what is it with leading political women–Hillary Clinton, this includes you–that they can’t get enough support by using their last names, as male candidates do?

The images used for the SarahPAC website are fascinating from a media literacy standpoint. The dominant image is of Palin, pictured from below so as to make her look more powerful, looking slightly upward while holding her hands in what could be a praying position. Behind and beside her is a scenic Alaskan vista–despite the fact that SarahPAC is based in Arlington, Va., a seat of power that hosts numerous other political organizations (including the Leadership Institute, which calls itself “the premier training ground for tomorrow’s conservative leaders,” though it is not above using dishonest means of self-promotion–more on that below.)

Finally on the SarahPAC website, next to letters spelling out “SARAHPAC,” is an image of the continental United States with Alaska superimposed over it. The image lets us see the immense size of the state that Palin governs, yet also manages to place her state literally in the heartland of America (apparently obliterating Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and Nebraska, along with parts of a few other states). The Democratic bastion of Hawaii is nowhere to be seen–perhaps Republicans wish we’d stopped adding states after Alaska became the 49th.

SarahPAC should not be confused with another another PAC, PalinPAC.org based in Washington state, with a website that boasts a photo of cross-shaped sunlight shining through an American flag and prominent links to “Sarah Palin’s Page” and “Todd Palin’s Page.” But both SarahPAC.org and PalinPAC.org also demonstrate the games that politicians play (and perhaps must play, under the current campaign finance system). Despite the names of the organizations, the home pages of both include a line that disingenuously reads, “Not authorized by any candidate or any candidate’s committee.”

Palin says she may not run for president, of course, and says that the establishment of a PAC simply provides “an available source of funds so that we’re not coming close to any ethical line to be crossed in terms of travel or participation in events that will help Alaska, but could be seen perhaps as not worthy of state funding.” I wonder how big the clothing allowance is for “participation in events.”

And despite her protestations, a presidential bid is likely unless significant unexpected problems arise. We’ll see: As Robert Schlesinger writes for U.S. News & World Report, “A sure sign that Palin is gearing up specifically for a presidential run will be SarahPAC making contributions to New Hampshire and Iowa state-level candidates and parties.”

Following up his piece of yesterday, Schlesinger wrote today (in a piece titled, “Yes, Sarah Palin is Running for President, Or Getting Ready to Anyway”): “But politicians—especially rising star pols like Palin—don’t raise money and make national appearances out of the goodness of their hearts; they don’t do it because of unselfish dedication to party; and they don’t do it because they want to raise their state’s profile. She may not be running for president yet (though the FEC seems to think she is), but she’s positioning herself to run in a couple of years.”

Incidentally, other definitions of redoubt are “an entrenched stronghold or refuge” or “a small, often temporary defensive fortification.” In the case of Palin, despite my one-time support of her choice as John McCain’s running mate, I hope her political presence is more temporary than entrenched.

Oh, and as for the dishonesty of the Leadership Institute: As I’ve written elsewhere, a couple of years ago I checked out the membership of its “Bi-Partisan Congressional Advisory Board” and found that the board was comprised of “102 Republicans, all living, and one long-dead Democrat–ultraconservative Georgian Larry McDonald, who … was so conservative that at the time of he death he served as the second-ever national chairman of the John Birch Society, which had long since been rejected even by most conservatives as an extremist organization.”

McDonald died on a Korean airliner that was shot down by the Soviet Union after it apparently accidentally flew into Soviet airspace, prompting Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell to bizarrely state, “There is real question in my mind that the Soviets may have actually murdered 269 passengers and crew on the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 to kill Larry McDonald.”

You may also remember that one of the pithier complaints that popped up about Palin during the 2008 campaign was that she was “Jerry Falwell with a pretty face.” Palin and Falwell also apparently shared a debate coach.

Next day update: The volcano hasn’t blown yet, but remains on CNN’s front page.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Surprise: Your TV may go dead next month, after all

Posted by James McPherson on January 28, 2009

Perhaps I (and many others) spoke too soon. CNN now reports that despite an earlier unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives did not get the votes necessary (2/3 approval was needed because of the “emergency” nature of the bill) to approve delaying the switch to digital television until June 12. Odd–it’s usually the House that goes off half-cocked.

The House may take up the issue again, after members think more about it, but as I wrote yesterday, some heavy hitters oppose the delay. Regardless, if the switch isn’t postponed until June, expect lots of screaming from viewers on Feb. 17. Of course, you may or may not be able to watch the complaints on your own television.

Next day update: Broadcasting & Cable reports that a compromise bill is in the works. A new vote is likely next week.

Feb. 4 update: Congress approved the extension today.

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

Dems act like Dittoheads by wasting time on Limbaugh

Posted by James McPherson on January 28, 2009

There can be little doubt for anyone other than a committed “Dittohead” that Rush Limbaugh is a bombastic idiot. Perhaps smarter and generally funnier than Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin, nonetheless Limbaugh is a one-note blowhard who has managed to combine his ability to get under the skin of liberals with the limited intelligence of his primary audience to make himself a multimillionaire and a significant–if declining–conservative voice.

I am continually surprised that much of anyone pays attention to Limbaugh, but now Congressional Democrats have joined the parade of overreactive respondents giving the talk show host the one thing he most craves: attention. As Fox News (Limbaugh’s biggest media ally) prominently reports today, the Dems have started an online petition for people to sign complaining about Limbaugh’s recent “I hope he [Barack Obama] fails” statement. The website promises, “We’ll send Rush your comments.”

I somehow don’t think Limbaugh will be troubled by the petition. In fact, I half expect that he’ll print out the comments and roll around naked on them. In the meantime, he has started his own “reverse petition” with a link to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, urging web readers to “tell the DCCC and all other Democrats it is time to stop lying about and distorting Rush’s comments on Barack Obama’s War on Prosperity.”

Incidentally, I’ll grant that many liberals have distorted Limbaugh’s comments, and that what he really meant was that he hopes Obama fails to create a liberal state. What I don’t get is why anyone still pays enough attention to Rush to think it necessary to hear his comments, let alone distort them. As the Huffington Post’s Joe Peyronnin writes, even Obama made a mistake in elevating Limbaugh’s status with recent remarks.

Peyronnin concludes his piece, “Mr. President, please do what most Republicans can’t do, ignore Rush Limbaugh.” Other Democrats should do the same.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Congress approving digital delay that few want?

Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2009

After last night’s unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives will take “emergency action” to vote on a bill to delay the switch to digital television from Feb. 17 until June 12. The House vote may come as early as later today, though I suspect ongoing stimulus talks and other issues (which fortunately included passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) will delay it until tomorrow or later this week. So much for the idea that interest groups and lobbyists have all the power in Washington, since students and I learned first-hand last week that representatives for several powerful groups actually oppose the delay to digital.

The “emergency” aspect of the House action is somewhat humorous, since the switch to digital has been scheduled for more than a decade and those of use with cable or satellite hookups probably won’t be seriously affected (though even we may need an extra cable box or experience a slight  increase in the number of neighbors who want to watch football games at our houses). A January startup date previously had been moved to Feb. 17 after legislators realized what might happen if the switch screwed up people’s Super Bowl viewing or messed with the plans of advertisers, who will pay up to $3 million for 30 seconds of advertising during the game. No, that’s not a joke–at least three experts we spoke with in New York and Washington, D.C., verified the Super Bowl-related reasoning behind the February date.

I don’t know the significance of the June 12 date, which among other things happens to be George H.W. Bush’s 85th birthday, the 70th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the 22nd anniversary of the date Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the 15th anniversary of when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered (an event that came 27 years to the day after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriages, suggesting that O.J. may have an odd way of celebrating key anniversaries).

Regardless of the date, the Nielsen ratings folks are concerned about the switch to digital, as Dave Thomas, president of Global Media Client Services of the company, noted when we met him two weeks ago. He estimated that 5 to 6 percent of viewers are “completely unprepared” for the switch (despite the fact that as National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Marcellus Alexander told us last week, more than $1 billion has been spent on industry advertising warning viewers that “you may need a converter box” if your TV is too old and you don’t have cable or satellite television).

“What’s troubling is that it’s not going to fall evenly,” Thomas noted about the people who will be left without television. Young people, the elderly and poor people will be most likely to suffer problems, and not nearly enough cost-reducing coupons have been set aside for people who need converter boxes. I don’t know how much the problem might be aggravated by people like me who got converter boxes despite already having cable, just in case a natural disaster or the desire to watch a baseball game while camping forces me to rely on older, non-digital technology.

A bigger problem will be that some people won’t have signals even with their new converter boxes, as we were reminded last week by Seth Morrison, senior VP of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. On the digital transition issue, members of CTAM–who naturally (but not “officially”) want everyone to switch to cable, anyway–find themselves in rare agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters in opposing the delay, in large part because in the meantime broadcasters and cable companies are paying to transmit both digital and traditional analog signals.

Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, told our group last Friday (and apparently told the Associated Press a few days later) that a four-month extension would cost PBS stations more than $22 million in extra transmission costs. Coincidentally, just a few minutes into our meeting, she had to leave the room to take a call from Senator Jay Rockefeller, the sponsor of the bill (favored by Barack Obama) to delay the transition to digital.

“It sounds like they won’t extend the date,” Kerger said when she returned, indicating that there didn’t seem to be enough Senate votes to force the extension. Assuming that Rockefeller wasn’t intentionally misleading Kerger, just three days later the tide shifted dramatically to make the vote for the extension unanimous, while illustrating another Kerger point: “The conversion has not been well managed.”

On the other hand, as more and more Americans find themselves without work, at least the delay will let more of those people spend their suddenly free time watching the antics of politicians and thieving financial fat cats, so viewers can better understand just how screwed they really are.

Incidentally, for tonight’s viewing I recommend FRONTLINE/World on PBS, which starts a new season with stories about Guantanamo prisoners, the Italian Mafia and Barack Obama’s Brazilian appeal.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Walking miles to get to–and then avoid–the best Inauguration of my lifetime

Posted by James McPherson on January 20, 2009

Some students and I left our hostel before 4:30 this morning to join the masses on the National Mall for the Presidential Inauguration. After quite a bit of walking, and getting conflicting information from two police officers (believing the second, who told us more what we hoped to hear–and who turned out to be wrong), we joined a large and rapidly growing crowd of people waiting to get into the mall at Third Street.

After an hour of standing in bitter cold, my lower back was already cursing me, and we knew we had at least another hour before the gates opened to (we hoped) let us go stand for another five hours or so before and during the Inauguration.

I quickly decided on an alternate plan, and as a result had pretty close to a perfect Inauguration Day. I gave the students some advice on how to protect themselves in case of a crowd surge (take up as much space as you can, keep your feet wide, hold onto one another) and fought my way to the back of the crowd.

I walked to 18th street, on the far side of the Washington Monument from the Capitol, where I knew that people without tickets could enter the mall. I also thought I’d make a detour to the Lincoln Memorial, since my brother had once recommended it as a great spot to take in a quiet sunrise.

I didn’t quite make it by sunrise, walking past the Vietnam Memorial in appropriately gray light. Hunched against the cold in my leather jacket, hat and hood, I noticed a woman taking photos of me as I walked past the monument. Perhaps she figured I was a vet (which I’m not), or just someone paying a bit of tribute to those who died in an earlier senseless war (which I was).

From there I went to the Lincoln Memorial, unfortunately still fronted by most of the massive stage that had held the performers for Sunday’s concert. Perhaps a hundred people already sat on the steps. I climbed past them into the Memorial, taking a couple of photos of the impressive seated Lincoln statue, then a couple of shots of the mall from the top of the steps.

I went next to the Korean War Memorial, my favorite of the three in the area that honor war dead. Next was the World War II Memorial, my least favorite of the three, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is as grandiose as the American memories of that war.

I turned into the mall itself, joining throngs of people headed forward–not to anywhere other than to a spot as close as they could get to the Capitol stage on which the Inauguration would take place. By now that was probably three-quarters of a mile away.

I stopped near an area where an NPR reporter was interviewing people about why they were there. I took her picture, and when glancing up toward the jumbotrons I noticed  the portable watchtowers. Tinted windows made it impossible to tell whether they held snipers or just watchers. A helicopter flew overhead, and two armed men stood on a nearby roof. The ceremony itself was still more than two hours away.

The space had quickly filled around me, and I realized that I no longer had any reason to be there. I had already experienced the crowd, and now realized that if I was going to wanted to watch it on television, I would rather do it with my wife (who had decided not to brave the cold and crowds).

After a brief stop at the Washington Monument to watch the area in front of me fill up, I hiked back toward the hostel. For my entire walk back, the streets were filled with an endless sea of people going the opposite direction. I also noted some irony in the fact that K Street–famous for lobbying abuses that helped Republicans lose Congress–was now filled with venders hawking Barack Obama-related merchandise.

After six miles or so of walking, and about five hours after I had rolled out of bed, I grabbed breakfast and plopped in front of the big-screen TV. My wife and I quickly were joined by others, and by the time the ceremony began more than two dozen people filled the room (which has 20 chairs).

At least three countries and several states were represented in the small room. About a third of them were black, and having lived in the South for a couple of years, I wasn’t at all surprised that some of them kept talking to the screen.

The youngest person in the room was a small energetic African American boy who blurted out “Barack Obama!” every time Obama’s image appeared on the screen, making the rest of us chuckle. The oldest may have been “Manny,” who immigrated from Iran 19 years ago and who couldn’t relax until he finally reached his daughter by cell phone to find that she was safe on the mall and hadn’t been crushed by the crowd.

We all watched the Inauguration intently, and several of us cried at various times (when Aretha sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” among others). When the National Anthem began, Manny began softly singing along. My wife and I joined in. And when the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said, “Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen,” most of us said, “Amen.”

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

Valuable lessons on ‘whom you know’ and on being in the right place at the right time in NY and DC

Posted by James McPherson on January 18, 2009

I’ve been blogging less than usual the past week or so for three reasons: because of various technology issues, because other parts of the program are keeping me busy, and because I’d rather you spend some of your free blogging moments checking out the class blog (including photos and video) for the program I’m now leading on the East Coast.

The group arrived in Washington, D.C., yesterday, and if you’ve been following their class blog you know they’ve met some interesting people and have learned some things (as have I). And despite the inconveniences of a visit from mice in New York, a broken heater here (in the women’s room in both cases), and some minor transportation issues, the students have had valuable experiences that have gone far beyond walking most of Manhattan, shopping, eating prodigious quantities of pizza and ice cream, passing Barack Obama’s train on the way from New York to Washington, and beating their professor at pool.

Perhaps most significantly, students have learned two of the most important things about how the world works, things that have little to do with the traditional education that universities typically provide.

The first of those lessons is that it really is often true that whom you know matters more than what you know. We’ve met a couple of people with great media jobs who had no formal training for those jobs, but got them largely as a result of personal contacts.

Of course the lucky recipients of those jobs had to prove themselves capable of doing the work, but the fact is that most of the six billion people on the planet–including many, many folks more initially qualified for the positions–had no chance of getting those jobs.

Most of us in our group will go to the Inauguration on Tuesday as part of the mob (which as a people-watcher with a journalistic mind I’m actually looking forward to), but three students managed to wrangle tickets thanks to a mother’s connections with a Congressman. Other connections–mine, those of colleagues, and in at least one case those of a student–also helped us get meetings with several of the great media sources we’re meeting with on this trip.

And of course all of us can cite examples (even if the meritocracy-preaching fortunate such as Supreme Court justice and affirmative action beneficiary Clarence Thomas sometimes ignore them) in which family connections or even seemingly minor incidental contacts have led to jobs.

Frankly, part of the reason I have the job I do is that I met a current department colleague while we coincidentally shared an airport shuttle in New Orleans a year earlier. In addition, I was invited to write both of my books (and several other chapters and articles) as a direct result of contacts made through the American Journalism Historians Association.

The second key lesson students have learned is that being in the right place at the right time can matter a lot. Students took in a church service at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem last Sunday, only to find that the day’s surprise guest preacher was Jesse Jackson.

An incidental contact led to two other students getting to see Conan O’Brien’s program, and because I was in the right place at the right time, I was offered two free tickets to see David Letterman last week–and am still getting grief from students because I turned the tickets down due to a conflict with one of our already scheduled class meetings.

In a terrible media market (something of which the experts we’ve been meeting keep reminding us) amid a collapsing national economy, it might be easy for students to become disheartened. Knowing that they spend most of their time in Spokane, Wash., where the “right people” rarely hang out, and knowing that most of them don’t have the kind of connections that will get them easy access to the jobs they want, has provided further moments of discouragement.

At the same time, rather than becoming depressed, Whitworth University journalism students have actively sought out the people and ways to make themselves more marketable. One is doing an impressive blog about the state of the industry, and used an independent study to create and develop the blog and to discuss key related issues with a number of media professionals.

Our journalism students attend national conventions and take part in programs like this one to further enhance their chances of making the right connections. Our department requires students to complete internships, and at least four of the student journalists on this trip have already worked for newspapers or television stations.

All of the student journalists with me work for the student newspaper (comprising most of the editorial staff) and/or radio station, and a couple are discussing adding a Web “television” station linked to the newspaper site.

Last night I went to bed thinking that four students were  staying up to play cards. Instead, the three who were already bloggers helped the fourth start a blog of her own, and the two with Twitter accounts helped the other two set up accounts.

Other media-related activities not formally part of the class, but which have been undertaken by students on this trip, have included seeking and getting enhanced training at College Publisher (which hosts the Whitworth student newspaper Web site), getting up early to visit “Good Morning America,” and taking in a taping of Sean Hannity’s show, in addition to the O’Brien experience.

Even more impressive, a group of a dozen students have asked me to oversee an independent study related to new media technology during the upcoming semester. A normal independent study involves one or two students working on something not covered by traditional classes, but in this case a dozen students have agreed to show up twice a week to teach each other more of the skills that might enhance their job prospects.

Though the university will provide a computer lab for a couple of hours a week in this case, professors are not paid for overseeing independent study programs of any size. We do it because we love to see and encourage enthusiasm about learning, and because such programs teach us more about things we also care about.

In this case, I’ll sit in with the students and let them teach me some technical skills that I can then share with even more students in the future. The students are amazing in their efforts to enhance their education–but the school and I are getting the better deal.

And so will future employers, should they be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to get to know these students.

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

Print media not going away, even if ads and employees are

Posted by James McPherson on January 16, 2009

Most of the media experts we’ve met with here in New York (more than a dozen people in all) agree with what I’ve written previously on this blog: Print media will be with us for a long time to come.

At the same time, all of those experts agree that the media of the future won’t look like today’s–and no one knows exactly what they will look like. Though the experts disagreed somewhat on how much today’s students need to know about new media “tools and toys,” the specific technology increasingly used by news organizations, there is no doubt that new media will be increasingly important.

Several of the experts agreed that this is an exciting time to be a  a prospective new journalist, as the energy and skills of our best students combine with an increasing desire for news among consumers.

For more on the perspectives of a wide range of experts, and on student views of those perspectives, check out the class blog.

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The Onion and Channel Thirteen

Posted by James McPherson on January 13, 2009

We definitely saw a contrast in “news” operations on Monday.

In the morning we visited The Onion, where editor Joe Randazzo and several staffers regaled us with funny stories while at the same time telling us that they take what they do–spoofing the news media–very seriously. They even try to adhere strictly to Associated Press sylte, which I’ll be sure to point out to media writing students at home.

In the afternoon we met with folks at Channel Thirteen, where Bill Moyers tapes his show. We saw his wife, Judith, but didn’t know it was her until after we said hello while passing in the hall. The students also got to try out their teleprompter skills during a brief studio tour.

Some of the students went from there to College Publisher, which hosts the Whitworth University student newspaper Web site. And some of them are now at Good Morning America.

Today we’re on to the Nielsen Co. (the ratings organization) and the Public Relations Society of America).

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