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 March, 2009

If you’re reading this, apparently the worm didn’t turn

Posted by James McPherson on March 31, 2009

The dreaded “Conficker” virus may have shut down your computer, and mine, by the time you would have read this, since I’m writing it just minutes before midnight.

But I doubt it. On Monday, I had my media criticism class analyze the “60 Minutes” report about the virus from the previous night. They chuckled about much of it, and noticed a lot of advertising for the same company that protects my work computer but that my computer store rep suggested I avoid. And that was before the Web version of the story started out with a correction.

My students, fledgling media critics that they are, agreed that their grandparents, and other people my age and older, might be as afraid of that as many were of Y2K. Of course, few of the students remembered the panic about Y2K. Do you?

If so, you’re probably sleeping as soundly as I intend to be very shortly. Waking up on April 1, I’ll have other hoaxes to worry about–like whatever the students produce for the April Fools edition of the student newspaper.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Beating the Bushies to investigate war crimes

Posted by James McPherson on March 29, 2009

Those of us who believe that the Bush administration should be convicted of war crimes might be heartened by a Spanish judge’s order to investigate whether Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and others should face charges, especially since the judge in question is the same one who issued an arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet more than a decade ago.

Unfortunately, though Pinochet was arrested, he died without being convicted of any crimes, still a millionaire from the proceeds of his evildoing. I suspect the same–though without the arrests–will be true of senior Bush administration officials. After all, I can’t see Barack Obama–who has already been following too much of the Bush strategy (including the use of independent contractors to supplement American troops) in international affairs–endorsing the Spanish judge’s actions.

Obama likely will ignore the issue, just as he has been creatively ignoring tough press questions while pretending to provide unprecedenced access, even if an investigation finds what already seems to be obvious–that actions at Guantanamo and much of the rest of the Bush administration “war on terrorism” violated international laws.

Since as a nation we selectively concern ourselves with human rights abuses in countries that we see some reason to demonize or invade (Iraq, perhaps Iran, sometimes Libya), but ignore those abuses elsewhere (Saudi Arabia, China, Darfur, sometimes Libya), I doubt that the Bush/Cheney underlings will be called to account.

Even less likely is that Bush and Cheney themselves will be held accountable for their crimes. Congress, mindful of how the Clinton impeachment circus went over–while forgetting that important investigations such as Watergate and the Church Committee actually increased respect for Congress–remains largely gutless and clueless.

The one hope for justice might be if a declining press suddenly figured out that a way to save themselves might be to somehow make themselves relevant again by serving as a voice and guardian for the American people (and people elsewhere, for that matter). By bringing enough attention to the issue, and investigating the Bush administration’s false claims in a way that they failed to do before the Iraq War began, the media might bring enough pressure to prompt the sort of  investigation that would send the weasels to jail–or at least scurrying to countries from which they couldn’t be retrieved.

In other words,  if those in charge of news media–along with those of us who care about democracy–would do more in the words of Poynter’s Roy Peter Clarke to “feed the watchdog, euthenize the lapdog.” But I suspect the media will continue to mostly roll over and play dead–until they’re no longer playing.

The one bright potential bright spot: As mainstream media continue to abdicate their watchdog role until most of them finally sink largely unnoticed beneath the waves, perhaps more people will find their way to sources such as the Nation and Mother Jones.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Freedom Tower goes way of freedom, making room for Chinese

Posted by James McPherson on March 28, 2009

Remember that “Freedom Tower” being built in New York where the World Trade Center once stood? It’s still going up, but don’t call it that. You wouldn’t want to confuse the Chinese tenants.

After a slow start, the building is now about one-eleventh of the way toward its eventual 108-story height. But the Port Authority, which owns the land, has announced that the name of the structure will be “One World Trade Center.” Is that to remind us that there will be “one” tall building where there used to be two?

Also announced was the first tenant of the tower: a Chinese corporation that will occupy more than five floors of the new building after it is completed in 2013. Somehow that seems appropriate.

After all, the Bush/Cheney administration lied us into an unending war in Iraq, and kept warning us about Iran, but continued warm relations with the equally nasty Saudi kingdom–where most of the 9/11 hijackers and money actually originated.

Then, to “get back” at the terrorists even as the economy was headed toward a cliff, Bush told us to “go shopping.” That was a great boost for the Chinese, who produce most of the stuff we buy. In the meantime, the administration (aided, of course, by gutless and clueless of Congress) spent the next few years doing all it could to strip us of freedom at home.

Now Barack Obama tells us the fate of the world rests in Afghanistan, and maybe we ought to worry about those crazy drug lords on our southern border. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first overseas trip was to China, the nation that will be–if it hasn’t already–the one that replaces us at the top of the heap in terms of world power.

Clinton went to plead with the Chinese to please, please, please don’t let us go bankrupt. Hey, soon perhaps freedom will return: After all, in the words written by Kris Kristofferson and famously sung by another Texan, Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

You can hear the full song below, by both artists:

Posted in History, Music, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Saving the world in Afghanistan, killing the media at home

Posted by James McPherson on March 27, 2009

Barack Obama apparently can’t decide if he’s George W. Bush or one of several former leaders of the former Soviet Union, declaring that we must win in Afghanistan to “save the world.”

Despite worries about those other dangerous folks on our southern border, apparently Afghanistan seems small enough to win (chances are Obama won’t be the first leader to be wrong about that) and far enough away that we can be inspired to worry enough to fund operations there and think Democrats are strong on defense–but not be too scared to pour money into other things.

Americans know they should worry about Obama-the-Conservative’s plan when Fox News and David Brooks both are quick to approve. In the meantime, of course, there’s less reason to believe even fewer Americans will be informed about that issue or any other, as news media continue to die.

Interestingly, CNN highlighted financial costs in the headline and lead of a story about job cuts at the New York Times and Washington Post yesterday–at the same time it was featuring a clueless “iReport” feature titled “Let newspapers go”–holding the fact that the Times cut 100 jobs and would slash the salaries of other workers until the second paragraph. The third paragraph mentions that buyouts will be offered at the Post, which “could not rule out laying off staff.”

Contrast that with a story the same day about Google, for which both the headline and the lead highlight almost 200 lost jobs–leaving the company with 20,000 employees–or about five times as many people as we’ll add to our “world saving” force in Afghanistan.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Bordertown and raging on: Remembering Dan Seals

Posted by James McPherson on March 26, 2009

I don’t often do more than one post in a day, but I just saw a report that singer/songwriter Dan Seals has died. Considering the topics in the news that I’ve been discussing lately, these videos seemed appropriate as a tribute:

“Bordertown”

“They Rage On”

Posted in Music, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

As economy goes to pot, which ‘dope’ questions should Obama answer?

Posted by James McPherson on March 26, 2009

Barack Obama is hosting an “online town hall” meeting today, continuing his Roosevelt-esque creative use of technology to try to continue to connect with Americans. Unfortunately the site, despite being named “Open for Questions,”  is “no longer accepting new questions.”

But you can still vote for the questions you hope the president will answer. A quick review of a few of the more than 32,000 questions submitted shows too many questions that could be answered by reading news accounts about Obama’s many recent appearances, but considering how many respondents don’t even read comments above their own on a blog post, that’s not surprising. Besides, not everyone follows the news as closely as some of us.

In addition–and perhaps related to the issue of people not reading before they write (the equivalent of the too-common speaking before listening), apparently a number of the questioners spend much of their time sitting around the house smoking marijuana. Many of those  folks seem to be the target of Hillary Clinton’s comments of today, but their questions go directly to points made in my post of a couple of days ago.

Under the category of “Budget,” the FIRST SEVEN questions all ask about the legalization of marijuana, starting with Ryan Palmer from Dallas who asks: “With over 1 in 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control, and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy? Do we really need that many victimless criminals?”

Brian of Minneopolis writes: “Mr. Obama, Thank you for allowing us to ask our questions of you, unfiltered [nice pun, Brian]. What is your stance on legalizing marijuana federally, taxing it and regulating it much like alcohol and tobacco? I believe that the Drug War has failed, and needs an overhaul.”

Ryan McLaughlin (Rindge, N.H.) states, “I am not a marijuana user, but I do believe that making marijuana legal could provide  some relief as to it could be heavily taxed and regulated. Legalization of drugs will also be a detriment to the drug cartels in Latin America.”

Matt S. (Huntsville, Ala.), Mark B. (Sterling, Va.), JHawk (Santa Barbara, Calif.) and T. Kapanka (San Fransciso) round out the top seven, all asking similar marijuana-related questions.

Under the category of “Financial Stability,” the first four questions all are drug-related. Anthony of Warrington, Penn., asks, “Would you support the bill currently going through the California legislation [stet] to legalize and tax marijuana, boosting the economy and reducing drug cartel-related violence?”

Sarah of Atlanta, Ga., asks: “Have the administration given any thought to legalizing marijuana, as a cash crop to fuel the economy? Why not make it available, regulate, and tax something that about 10 million Americans use regularly and is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.”

Peter McNamara of Minneapolis (a friend of Brian’s?) writes: “Growing up I have noticed many around me always talk about legalization of marijuana, and I always thought, why not put a tax stamp on it. If marijuana was legalized it could really change a lot of things. America had the same problem with Alcohol.”

And Andy Drake of New Brunswick, N.J., asks, “Could legalization of marijuana and laying a tax on it, given restriction allow the government make [stet] back some of the glaring debt considering it’s [stet] inelasticity and the history of economics of prohibition?”

Under the category of “Green Jobs and Energy,” the first question (from Green Machine of Manchester, Va.) asks: “Will you consider decriminalizing the recreational/medical use of marijuana (hemp) so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it [good luck with that], and create millions of new jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?” Apparently Green Machine is a farmer.

The second question in the same category comes from Ashley of Brooklyn, N.Y.: “Has your administration given any serious thought to how legalizing marijuana could help solve the economic crisis? We could tax this green product and create an influx of cash while reducing violence created by the war of [stet] drugs & illegal trafficking.”

In the first question under the category of “Jobs,” Matt B. of West Bend, Ind., asks, “What are your plans for the failing ‘War on Drugs’ that’s sucking money from taxpapers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals.” The third question comes from Phill of Georgetown, Mass.

Phill’s question (yes, his name has two “l’s,” though that may be an accident stemming from, well, you know…): “President Obama, do you plan on letting Science end the failed “War” on Marijuana for personal and medical use thus taking the strain off our prisons and police forces so we no longer have to arrest over 800,000 non-violent drug offenders?”

In addition, the second question under “Health Care Reform” is another marijuana question. Only the categories of “Home Ownership,” “Auto Industry,” “Veterans,” “Small Business,” and “Education” failed to see a marijuana question make the top seven (though it easily could have been an issue for at least the last three of those).

It seems obvious that if Obama is to take the town hall issue seriously–and despite Obama’s predilection for caring too much what other people think, I suspect it’s as much a ploy to look responsive more than it is to be responsive–he’ll have to go from talking smack to talking weed.

Same day update: Obama addressed–and dismissed–legalization of marijuana during today’s forum. More than 104,000 questions apparently were submitted.

Posted in Media literacy, Politics, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Texas and Idaho consider devolution into confederacy of ignorance

Posted by James McPherson on March 25, 2009

Perhaps because some Texans can’t stand being upstaged in their ignorance by the likes of Kansas, Idaho and various states of the Deep South–and perhaps as a reflection of dismay over the fact that the end of the Bush administration has taken away the state’s national platform for promoting scientific ignorance–the Texas Board of Education apparently will vote this week on new science standards that may promote religious views over scientific theories.

Of course, I’m not surprised when Texas looks  stupid, and I appreciate much of what the state has given us. (My Top 10 list for today: Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers, Barbara Jordan, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carol Burnett, Steve Martin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.) But Texas matters more than most of other states in the discussion about science textbooks because it’s so big that decisions made in the Lone Star State can influence textbooks in other states.

As it is, U.S. kids trail much of the world in math and science, finishing behind Finland, Canada, Japan and a dozen other countries. On the plus side, we beat Mexico so we finished second in North America.

In the meantime, a state legislator in Idaho has convinced fellow Republicans to go along with a resolution declaring the United States to be “a confederacy.” The resolution “declares Idaho’s sovereignty from the federal government and ask the federal government to ‘cease and desist’ from violating that sovereignty.”

Since the biggest “violation” would seem to be to make Idaho (where support for its own residents is an embarrassment) into a welfare case (like most Republican states, Idaho takes in more federal tax dollars than it pays, about 20 percent more in this case), the action is a ludicrous and unnecessary, but typical, effort to suck up to the base.

Keep in mind, this is the state that elected Bill Sali and Larry “Wide Stance” Craig to Congress, and where, despite the state’s conservatism, for many Idahoans Sali was considered the bigger embarrassment of those two. Yet the only way to defeat Sali was to have a conservative former Republican–who probably will lose to some other Republican in 2010–run against him.

The state house of representatives approved the confederacy resolution–which has absolutely no power to do anything other than to make Idahoans look like idiots–by a 51-17 vote. The article didn’t mention how many of the legislators were actually capable of counting to 51.

Same-day update: Though Idaho’s legislature is dumber than most, I didn’t mean to imply that the state of my birth is the only one (though almost all are  red states that get more than they give in federal funds) now talking about sovereignty. As I’ve said before, I’m willing to let them go, if they’re willing to stop taking my money. But now I’m curious: Just in case things ever went so far as the creation of a new confederacy, I wonder what percentage of Idaho legislators can name any of the states in the original Confederacy–or realize that Idaho doesn’t share a border with any of them.

Posted in History, Politics, Religion, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

‘Just say no’ to aliens: Fear of foreigners alive and well under Obama

Posted by James McPherson on March 24, 2009

The Obama administration announced today that it will increase funding for border security. The plan was announced by Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano, who until recently was the governor of Arizona, which has seen Mexican drug violence spill over its border.

“The administration is trying to help the Mexican government break up drug cartels believed to be responsible for the killing of roughly 6,500 people in Mexico last year,” CNN reported. BBC went back two years, using a figure of 8,000 deaths.

Fox News was probably the most accurate in its characterization of the plan (now there’s a phrase I never expected to write), highlighting the fact that the funding is “aimed at stopping Mexico violence from entering the U.S.” The lead of the Fox story reads, “The Department of Homeland Security is doubling the number of law enforcement working along the Southwest border and could request border state governors to send National Guardsmen to help curtail spillover violence from Mexico.”

The plan will send $700 million to aid Mexico law enforcement, to be used in part for five new helicopters and “news surveillance aircraft for the Mexican navy.” (Mexican helicopters are apparently cheaper than U.S. ones.)

Mexico is the third-leading provider of imported oil for the United States, but the leading provider of illegal drugs. Oil companies tend to be much more refined than drug cartels in their use of violence, and to have bigger U.S.-backed armies, so in Mexico it’s the drugs, not the oil, fueling the war.

In return, Americans provide the money and the guns to keep the war going–pretty much as we do in the rest of the world, though in this case it’s not through major corporations with the endorsement of the U.S. government. Of course at the government level we are still continuing a failed decades-long “war on drugs” policy instead of taking the simpler, cheaper route of drug legalization.

At least Obama is discontinuing the Bush adminstration policy of overriding state medical marijuana laws, so perhaps fewer cancer patients will die blaming Republicans for their pain. But they and Lou Dobbs can go on blaming Mexicans and other “foreigners” for pretty much everything else, from lost jobs to leprosy.

April 12 follow-up: In the comments section of this post, I referred to legal citizens who were deported during the Great Depression. Apparently it’s happening again (or perhaps still).

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

No news is bad news: Read this, and then pick up a newspaper

Posted by James McPherson on March 23, 2009

One sign indicating the seriousness of so many failing newspapers is the number of seeming competitors that are bemoaning the passing of those papers.

CNN is doing it today. Time did it last month, in a story titled “What happens when a town loses its newspaper?” Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker has done it. Chris Matthews did yesterday, recalling his days as a delivery boy and concluding the segment by showing how to fold a newspaper for throwing and then hurling it at the camera.

A site titled “Newspaper Death Watch” keeps track of the metropolitan dailies that fold. Just over a dozen such papers have gone under in since last March, with more to come. One of my students (for whom it matters even more, since she is about to graduate and will need a job) and many others also are keeping track of the morbid and apparently endless decline.

“A century ago, 689 cities in the United States had competing daily newspapers,” Princeton University researchers recently noted. “At the start of this year, only about 15 did, but one of those has already lost its second newspaper and two more will likely become one-paper towns within days.”

Yet frequently when I (or others, with much bigger audiences) complain about the state of the media someone–usually a young person who doesn’t read a newspaper–asks why we should care. After all, there’s lots of news online, right?

This flawed thinking is in itself an obvious sign of the costs, which include, to use a favorite phrase of one of my regular commenters and others, the “dumbing down” of America. (In fact we may not be getting dumber, but despite an explosion of types of available media, neither are we getting smarter). And though I have written about the issue previously here  (including in response to comments) and elsewhere–all the new attention to the problem seems to warrant further discussion.

Actually Time did a good job of discussing some of the problems, citing the Princeton University study that found (as I also have noted) that the loss of a newspaper is bad for democracy. Voter turnout drops. Fewer people run for office. Incumbents, who rarely lose anyway, are re-elected at even higher rates (so perhaps Democrats should be hoping for more newspaper deaths).

The fact that most people got most of their political news before the last election from cable television–the likes of MSNBC and Fox News–also helps indicate why electoral knowledge is weak. At least one study has shown, as I’ve written elsewhere, that increased watching of Fox may actually make people less informed; I suspect the same is now true of MSNBC.

Relying on a single source for news is invariably a bad idea, which is why we should worry even though most of the newspapers now going out of business are in cities with other newspapers. Lack of competition creates complacency, and encourages the remaining survivor to do what’s easy and cheap–as my own local daily has become too accustomed to doing.

Some news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have gone online only, typically making deep staff cuts while shifting to a format that many Americans can’t or won’t use (though newspapers have for some time also neglected to serve wide segments of the population that seem unlikely to appeal to many advertisers).

Besides, those who point out that they can get their news from the Internet often neglect to notice that almost all of their favorite news sites–and by far the most accurate and useful sites–come from mainstream news organizations where web operations are being heavily subsidized (monetarily and in terms of content) by the traditional newspaper or broadcast operations.

In addition, the typical web-only reader tends to neglect local community news–about city hall, local schools, etc.–which happens to be the level of government where most citizens could have the most influence. As I’ve noted before, you have a far greater chance of being struck by lightning than you have of affecting a presidential election with your vote. But you can affect the course of your school district, and therefore the education of your kids.

Because no one has yet figured out a way to adequately “monetize the web” (to use a phrase students and I heard repeatedly in January from media leaders in New York and Washington, D.C.)  when traditional news sources disappear, their web presence also often disappears (or is dramatically reduced) along with them.

Despite the optimism of some (including some former journalists), if that happens then at least some of our ability to govern ourselves will go, too.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Uneasy riders: Yen and the lack of motorcycle company maintenance

Posted by James McPherson on March 22, 2009

Another sign of the faltering U.S. economy: The New York Times today offers a story about the serious problems affecting Harley Davidson, producer of the nation’s iconic motorcycle.

Among the problems are that the age of the average rider has climbed to 49–a year shy of the requirement for AARP membership–and the average income of those riders is $87,000. In the meantime, as with cars, Japanese companies have been more efficient, producing better, cheaper and more varied products. And as with cars, those competitive problems began in the 1970s.

I spent my last summer before college working for a small-town newspaper and pitching for a softball team sponsored by a bar; the team and the bar’s clientele were made of largely of Harley riders. We were the only team in the league virtually guaranteed to have a police presence at all of our games, but in fact most of the guys were working blue-collar jobs and, though perhaps engaging in a bit too much drinking and recreational drug use, were essentially harmless.

Assuming those guys are still around, unless their lives have changed dramatically, most of them wouldn’t be able to afford to own and maintain their preferred band of motorcycle today. If they had bikes at all, they’d probably be riding what my teammates of 30 years ago denigrated as “rice burners.”

So the venerable Harley, once a sign of the kind of rebellion that Americans pretend to appreciate but generally try to crush, has largely become just another rich person’s toy. And unlike a yacht or private plane, you can’t sleep on your motorcycle or easily use it to pack your bonus off to another country.

The Associated Press and the latest issue of consumer-porn magazine Town & Country are among those at home and abroad that recently have reminded us that this isn’t the best time for the rich to be flaunting their wealth–even if humorist Joe Queenan (writing for Fortunesays they should.

“The one unquestioned moral responsibility of the wealthy is to act as role models for the less fortunate,” Queenan writes, satirically (I hope) bemoaning what he calls “the crisis afflicting self-effacing rich people, a class best described as the wallflower wealthy.”

In reality, perhaps at least a few of those wallflowers, typically old enough to remember the film “Easy Rider,” recognize that some poor guy driving an old pickup to pick up his unemployment check may still own a shotgun powerful enough to blast you off your bike.

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