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, 2010

’Nullius in verba’ appropriate for both science and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on March 30, 2010

Nullius in verba (roughly translated as “take nobody’s word for it”) has been the motto of the Royal Society since 1663.

It would also make a great motto for journalism, and for anyone who uses the media.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Science | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Bipartisan agreement that conservatives should ease off the trigger

Posted by James McPherson on March 25, 2010

Having Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck of “The View” agree on something should give pause to those who would disagree with them. And if the agreement comes in the form of harsh criticism of Sarah Palin–for whom Hasselbeck stumped during the 2008 campaign–maybe it’s time for angry gun nuts and other Tea Party types to turn things down a notch.

The criticism revolves around Palin’s use of crosshairs on a map “targeting” Democrats, which Hasselbeck referred to as “purely despicable” and “an abuse of the Second Amendment.” Of course, John McCain defended Palin’s language–oddly, I agree with him in this case more than I do Hasselbeck, though I find the use of crosshairs more troubling. (By the way, if you Google “McCain defends Palin,” you get almost 3.9 million hits.)

I rarely agree with Hasselbeck, but I do sometimes feel sorry for her because she is so badly outnumbered on “The View,” just as I feel for Eleanor Clift when she frequently has to fight four conservatives on “The McLaughlin Group.” And as I said, I’m not sure that Palin’s language is that far over the line, in historical terms.

But if folks on your own side find problems with your methods, the proper response isn’t an Eric Cantor knee-jerk blame-the-Dems reaction. Instead, conservatives should be looking to how they might appeal more to the rational middle rather than to the the lunatic fringe that is now getting so much attention.

Republicans, you lost, despite your best and worst efforts. Get over it. Elections have consequences. Approval of both health care reform and Democrats is already climbing, probably in part because of your obstructionist methods.

Of course, you’ll probably focus on the part of the CBS poll that says most Americans want you to keep fighting health care reform, and either through ignorance or (more likely) willful distortion you’ll misinterpret that result the same as you did the polls showing that most Americans weren’t happy with the proposed health care bill.

You see, many of us opposed the bill not because it went too far but because it doesn’t go nearly far enough, even if we think it’s better than the nothing you would have given us. Likewise, many of us hope you keep fighting reform, because we want you to keep demonstrating how out of touch you are with most Americans, boosting the party of “Yes we can” even more over that of “Hell no you can’t.” (For more on that, see the video below).

Frankly, we aren’t crazy about the Democrats, but considering the mess you created when you were in charge, we much prefer a Democratic majority over a Republican one. Come to think of it, please keep listening to Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and ramping up the loony language–it seems to be doing wonders for our side.

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

Bare and unbalanced: Fox News again uses ‘porn’ to criticize porn

Posted by James McPherson on March 22, 2010

“Don’t be surprised these days, when you’re searching for that perfect Easter, Mother’s Day or birthday card, if you run across a little soft porn on the shelves,” starts a Fox News story headlined, “Greeting cards gone wild.”

Not surprisingly, the story was soon the third-most popular on Fox. Also not surprising is that a Natalee Holloway story was No. 1, and that nothing about the health care bill–just two hours  from historic passage at that writing–was in the top five.

Today video of John Boehner’s health care rant from last night now is No. 1, though a “hot list” of bikini-clad celebrities also makes the list. Many Fox regulars just aren’t that into anything without pictures.

And, alas, also not surprising are these lines (and their placement) in the Fox greeting card story:”

Cards showing bare behinds, barely covered breasts, lewd sentiments and off-color humor are pushing the envelope of decency. They’re meant for adults only, but anyone can buy them.

SLIDESHOW: Check out the steamy greeting cards 

What’s more, anyone can see them — including children.

Yes, that’s right–Fox inserts a link to its slideshow that shows the cards within the same story that complains about the cards. With absolutely no sense of irony, writer Lauren Green goes on:

Today, regulating bodies monitor just about every area of public consumption. There are decency standards for television, radio and cable. Movies are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has parental warnings on CDs. And many states and municipalities regulate the public display of adult magazines.

But the greeting card industry has no controls.

Acccording to the Green’s apparent view, the Fox News Web site also should have more controls. But anyone who has seen Fox’s almost-daily “Pop Tarts” section already knew that.

“The trend toward raunchy, humor-filled cards shows how society’s moral standards have changed as well,” Green writes. She may be right. But the popularity of Fox demonstrates the moral decline far more than does the supposed shift in greeting card messages.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

How to be a better media user

Posted by James McPherson on March 16, 2010

Today I spoke to three groups of middle school students about media literacy, offering a few tips for becoming more knowledgeable media consumers. At the request of one of their teachers, I’ll post part of it here. Some of it I’ve gleaned from elsewhere over the years, but can’t remember where–let me know and I’ll add it. When I have more time, perhaps I’ll also come back to this and add relevant links and photos.

Four questions to ask yourself when watching/reading/hearing a media message:

1. Who controls the message? A relatively few media conglomerates control most of the media we get. And despite cries about supposed liberal media, News Corp is one of those biggies. All of them exist primarily to make money, not to enlighten, entertain, or provide a “fair and balanced” perspective.

That’s why the people who complain most about sex and violence on television are most likely to be found on Fox News, which uses the same methods to draw an audience–and which also is associated with the Fox Entertainment, the sleaziest major network on television. That’s also why MSNBC, when it couldn’t beat CNN, tried to out-Fox Fox with conservative hosts and commentators. Only after that failed did it become the liberal answer to Fox.

2. Is it real? There are a lot of ways to lie in and with the media. There are more public relations professionals than there are journalists. And everybody has access to Photoshop and a junior high student who can use it.

3. What are the underlying messages? That’s the point of one entire semester-long class that I teach, but in short, every media message offers implicit messages along with explicit messages. The messages about gender alone probably are worthy of a year’s lectures.

4. Why am I watching/reading/listening to this? Uses and gratifications theory points out that we use media for a reason, even if the reason is escapism. Thinking about the “why” can improve one’s motives (and life in general).

Four tips for making better use of the media:

1. Reduce the use of your favorite medium. Turning more often to a different medium–or to friends, family and personal observation–will likely broaden your perspective.

2. Actively watch/listen more often. Watch television with family members, rather than in separate rooms, and then talk about what you saw. Talk back to the screen. But not in a movie theatre, please.

3. Reduce the number of opinions you feel obligated to hold. Like talk show hosts, we often feel we must have an opinion on everything, whether we understand the subject or not, lest we appear either apathetic or dumb. It’s OK–and inevitable–not to be an expert about anything. And you’ll be taken more seriously when you speak about areas in which you do have some level of knowledge/expertise.

4. Consider a personal or family media code of ethics. Put it in writing: If something in the media offends you, what will you do about it? Just whine? Write a letter? Stage a protest? Are there certain kinds of shows, or certain number hours, that you won’t watch? Will you let your kid watch an hour of TV or spend an hour on the Internet if s/he then reads a book for an hour? Will you allow a television or personal computer in your child’s room?

In answer to that last question, by the way, I wouldn’t. I asked more than a hundreds kids today how many of them watch things on TV that they wouldn’t be allowed to watch if their parents knew the content (I didn’t even bother to ask about the Internet). Most of the students–a good group of kids, it seemed to me–raised their hands.

Of course, they might be forgiven for using media irresponsibly; after all, they’re kids. Most people reading this don’t have that excuse.

Posted in Education, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

March Madness & March badness

Posted by James McPherson on March 15, 2010

Like perhaps a few million other folks, each year I fill out an NCAA bracket for an annual office competition. I never win, in part because I too often go with heart over head (silly liberal!) and in part because I simply don’t pay much attention to college basketball except as it involves the Washington State Cougars and the Whitworth Pirates–neither of which plays the brand of basketball that will be featured on CBS and ESPN during March Madness.

In fact, despite the fact that I played college football (and have a son-in-law who played more and better), still join in a twice-weekly basketball game, and follow a few college and sports teams, I am (like sports columnist Norman Chad) seriously conflicted about the emphasis we as a society put on college and pro sports. I love the games. I hate what they’ve become.

It bugs me that major college football coaches make more money than college presidents. I hate the fact that so few major athletes graduate from college, and that so many of them fail to take advantage of their scholarships. I hate the gambling culture that revolves around sports in general, a practice even sleazier when it involves college athletics (the pool I’m in involves no reward other than bragging rights).

For years I’ve told students that a worthwhile story might start with checking out the cars in the athletes’ parking lot for any major college football or basketball program. We read and hear lots of stories about how athletes have overcome economic adversity to get to college, but we don’t see stories about how they manage to drive there in nicer cars than the ones owned by the faculty. But criticizing the home team doesn’t pay, so the story doesn’t get done.

And I understand it. I’ll be yelling at the TV during the tournament myself, and I have nothing vested in any of the teams. And to show you just how bad I am at this, I offer the highlights of my bracket: Washington, Louisville, Old Dominion, Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech, and Florida State are my first-r0und upsets; Temple, Washington, Louisville and Michigan State are the upset winners in the second round; and my Final Eight are Temple, West Virginia, Louisville, Villanova, Kansas, Michigan State, Georgetown, Ohio State, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Pittsburgh and Kansas State.

My Final Four are West Virginia, Villanova, Kansas and Kansas State, with Kansas beating Villanova in the championship. And for the next few days, I’m as right as you are.

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

Supreme Court & NRA may kill 2nd Amendment, aid abortion

Posted by James McPherson on March 2, 2010

Remember when gun nuts were claiming that Barack Obama would take their firearms away? Those paranoid claims bolstered weapon and ammo sales, but in fact gun regulation has decreased since Obama took office, not increased.

It’s easier (though more expensive) to buy a gun now than before Obama was elected, easier than it was under Ronald Reagan (funny how getting shot clarified his mind). Even Yellowstone Park can now boast something scarier than grizzly bears. To be fair, though, those who feel a need to wear a gun just because they can often may not be able to afford new trucks or other traditional mechanical redneck means to public prove their manhood.

Now, in response to a Chicago case, the activist Supreme Court probably will further the Wild West approach to gun ownership favored by the National Rifle Association. Chicago allows homeowners to own shotguns (which are better for home protection that handguns), but not handguns. So how open should it be? As I heard on NPR this morning, ormer Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, representing the NRA in the case, “says a bazooka is probably not even an arm ‘for purposes of the Second Amendment.’ But, he concedes, ‘A machine gun is a more difficult question.'”

I’m not against firearms, by the way. I grew up in Idaho, own a variety of long guns and handguns, and once taught gun safety. That’s how I know that that vast majority of homeowners (and their children) would be safer with a dog at home and pepper spray in their purse or pocket than having guns in either place.

And please forget the tired and inaccurate argument that we’re all safer if more of us have guns and regulation is less strict. As shown here, states that are the most pro-gun tend to have the highest firearms death rates. That would seem to be common sense, but when it comes to the gun debate, common sense often is in short supply. In fact, you’re more than three times as likely to be killed by a gun in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Lousiana, Mississippi or Tennessee than you are in New York.

In the category of unintended consequences, once gun ownership becomes more widespread, and deaths ranging from kids accidentally shooting themselves to Virginia Tech-style massacres to domestic terrorism become more common, expect a backlash. That backlash might even result in a new constitutional Amendment that overturns the Supreme Court interpretation of the current Second Amendment. The NRA may find that it has a much easier time buying off members of Congress than it will controlling an fearful anti-firearms movement that it helped start.

Interestingly, the case could end up being a good thing for liberals in another arena, as well. The Court’s pro-gun decision may also help preserve abortion rights, a result likely to bother many of the same folks who are apparently untroubled by the fact that a few dozen kids are killed each day by guns.

Posted in History, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Will Dems have the guts for budget reconciliation?

Posted by James McPherson on March 1, 2010

Though I’d be surprised by almost any evidence of a Democratic backbone, I do hope Congressional Democrats have the courage to go ahead and try to pass health care reform through reconciliation–a process that is far from “the nuclear option” that some Republicans and news commentators (and, naturally, Fox News in a “news” story) have wrongly called it.

In fact, the nuclear option is something that only Republicans have actually threatened to use, taking pride in the term a few years ago. Reconciliation is much closer to the “up-0r down vote” that Republicans also made popular at the same time they were threatening to nuke the filibuster process.

Ezra Klein offers a useful reconciliation primer, explaining what it is and how it has been used in the past (most often by Republicans, and often to make sweeping changes, including with health care, that would not have passed otherwise).

The Plum Line blog also offers a handy guide to Republicans who have voted for it in the past (including every Republican senator who attended last week’s health care summit). In the words of one Fox News writer, on this issue, “GOP objectors could not be more fundamentally hypocritical.”

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