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 April, 2010

Social networking making us stupider–and me cranky

Posted by James McPherson on April 30, 2010

I’m on Facebook even though the social networking leviathan–now the most popular Internet site in the country–apparently makes people stupider. Like we can afford that.

I tend to check in on my page relatively rarely, most often when an e-mail alert tells me I have a message, when I want to track down someone I know, or to pimp this blog or other writing. I hope my disinterest beyond that is more because I’m too busy than because I’m too selfish to care what my “friends” are up to most of the time, but in fact I use Facebook in the same way I use other technology–as a tool.

That’s why the only cell phone I own is a prepaid version that’s never turned on unless I want to make a call (which happens probably about once a month, usually when I’m trying to remember what I was supposed to buy at the supermarket), and why I have caller ID and an answering machine. I own technology for my own convenience, not, frankly for the convenience of others. As convenient as cell phones are for many things–and I no longer no anyone that doesn’t have one–I wouldn’t mind terribly going back to a world without them. I don’t text, let alone Twitter; life is too short. And I don’t understand, as I weave my way through traffic past numerous nitwits talking on their phones, how people can have so much to talk about.

One of the best things about Facebook is seeing how some people change; one of the worst things about Facebook is what it demonstrates about how many people are stuck in the past. I once imagined that years after graduation, everyone would be different–that we’d all be less petty, more enlightened. But attending a 20-year-reunion showed me that far too much of the change was external; we were grayer and heavier, and the men had less hair. But the people who were jerks and morons in high school mostly still were.

More than a decade after that reunion, Facebook lets me see that they still are. And for better or worse, they now have the opportunity to exhibit their ignorance far beyond the confines of a small Idaho logging town.

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Where do you stand politically?

Posted by James McPherson on April 26, 2010

It’s been around for awhile, I’d never taken “the world’s smallest political quiz,” produced by the  libertarian Advocates for Self-Government, until today. I wasn’t surprised at the outcome (Hmm, I’m a liberal? Who knew?), but find the quiz interesting because of how it attempts to go beyond simple left/right dichotomy.

I also appreciate the Political Compass, which tries to do the same (though with a longer quiz). Neither quiz is perfect, of course (for example, I think I’ve moved slightly on the Political Compass since I last took it more than a year ago), and both are oversimplifications in their own ways. But both tell a bit more than the simple liberal/conservative continuum that too often seems to exemplify modern American politics. You can see my unsurprising (to me, at least) but seemingly consistent results below (the red dots represent where I fell on each scale):

Oh, and by the way–if you want more support for my regular claim that Barack Obama is not a liberal, below is how the Political Compass folks ranked him and others during the last primary season. He may be liberal compared to any of the Republicans, but not compared to most Americans:

US Primaries Chart 2008

Posted in Education, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Armed and delirious: Save 2nd Amendment, to heck with the 4th

Posted by James McPherson on April 21, 2010

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of the actions of white domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, gun rights activists held a couple of rallies to express their fanciful concerns about another supposed government conspiracy. To quote the CNN story:

“We’re in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it,” said Larry Pratt, president of the Gun Owners of America. “They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of socialists.”  

The protests come despite the fact, as I’ve noted previously, that  gun regulation has decreased since Obama took office, not increased. And with crowds much smaller than should be worthy of so much media attention, I find the protests interesting mostly because I’d bet that many of the same people who are now worried about some undefinable communist/socialist/facist/Muslim takeover of their civil rights were among the biggest supporters of the Patriot Act.

I’ll bet they also fully support the Arizona immigration bill under which “police would be required to question anyone they suspect of being undocumented.” Some of those same gun-toting irony-challenged folks will soon support similar legislation elsewhere–folks like “robincalif,” perhaps, who responds to a Fox News story with these words: “If your [sic] here ILLEGALLY then GET THE “F” OUT OF OUR COUNTRY PERIOD!! It’s time the American Citizens of the USA stop pandering and making excuses for criminals just because their [sic] of a deverse[sic] background. Justice should know NO color.” I assume, rockin’ Robin, that last line means you think that cops should be required to ask you for identification whenever they see you. (Of course John McCain supports the bill, but McCain has turned into such a hypocritical panderer that his opinion is essentially meaningless.)

The ancestors of many of those same people, no doubt, supported the illegal rounding up and mass deportation of a million Mexican Americans during previous economic hard times. After all, we have a great legacy of taking out our frustrations on people of color. And politicians of all stripes find the idea of “protecting America” from its farm, factory and construction workers to be a handy diversion.

By the way, I predict that the governor of Arizona will sign the immigration bill into law, and that a few years from now it will be overturned by the Supreme Court–which despite its recent conservative radicalism doesn’t have to pander (though it sometimes does) to populist paranoia. In addition to the millions of dollars Arizona will spend on legal fees to support its untenable position, it also will lose millions in lost tourist dollars.

Not that there will be anyone available to change the hotel sheets or wash the restaurant dishes, even if tourists do show up.

Posted in History, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Little trust in government–does it matter?

Posted by James McPherson on April 19, 2010

So apparently record numbers of Americans distrust their government. As someone who still has a “Question Authority” pin in in his office (albeit pinned to a stuffed moose), I don’t think that distrust is necessarily a bad thing, and today NPR offers an excellent historical look (with a timeline that starts in 1775) at the issue.

Of course it is unfortunate and perhaps crippling if our distrust is so deep that it keeps us from even considering that government officials (whom, after all, we elected) and especially folks on the “other side” may have good ideas, and that they generally choose to serve because they want to do what’s best for the country or their community.

It’s even more dangerous for our democracy and our safety–as Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative writer Kathleen Parker and others point out–if at the same time that we seriously distrust government and mainstream media, we also decide to put inordinate trust in inflammatory whackjobs such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and various conspiracy theorists such as the “birthers” and “truthers.”

Domestic terrorism is nothing new in this country. There is little reason to think there isn’t more such terrorism on the horizon, fueled by incendiary rhetoric (often the ranting of anonymous cowards) on the airwaves and the Internet, and by and fearful, intellectually lazy Americans who place their trust in “authorities” even more questionable than those we elect.

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

A question for Tea Partiers who want to ‘take back America’

Posted by James McPherson on April 16, 2010

I’m not trying to be facetious; I really want to know. I keep hearing you talking about “taking back America.” Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann say it. You have a Web site that says it. You’ll sell me a bumper sticker that says it. Clinton-era whoremonger Dick Morris wrote a book that says it (though why conservatives listen to him, especially, escapes me). There was a whole conference about it. And there’s even a a weird song and video (below) that have Uncle Sam saying it. And still I don’t get it.

My question: Exactly whom or what are you taking America back from? Those of us who voted in the majority in the last election?

Same-day addition: Martin Lobel at Nieman Watchdog points out something else that seems to confuse the Tea Party crowd and reporters: If you reduce taxes, you increase the deficit. Except in that wonderland that provides a magical escape for many of today’s protesters and a few Republican members of Congress (some of the same folks who pretend they can repeal the just-passed health care bill, though they’re basically after your money).

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

More Whitworthian honors

Posted by James McPherson on April 14, 2010

The student newspaper at Whitworth University has rung up some more regional awards, including being named “Best All-Around Non-Daily Student Newspaper” and being cited as having the “Best Affiliated Web Site.” Current opinions editor Jarod Jarvis won the online opinion and commentary category, Aileen Benson placed second for editorial cartooning, and the editorial staff placed second for editorial writing.

I’m less happy with where two other students placed. Jasmine Linabary finished second in the category of online in-depth reporting for her multimedia package on gender at Whitworth. It is simply the best multimedia package I’ve ever seen done by a single journalist, student or professional. Yong Kyle Kim finished third in the same category, with a series about pornography.

So why would I be dissatisfied when Jasmine and Kyle both did so well?  Well, naturally I went online to see what finished first in the category: What I found was a package that had been produced by a team of almost 30 students, three professors and a professional photographer/videographer with a master’s degree who did a multimedia project about the same issue for her master’s thesis.

Worse, as far as I can tell, unless some links have been removed, that woman’s master’s thesis project—an admittedly outstanding package that is linked to the winning project, but which was produced in 2008, outside of the time frame of this year’s competition—provides the only multimedia part of the winning entry.

Finally, of the students involved with the winning project, 16  were law students and two were graduate students. Both Whitworthian projects were produced by individual undergraduate students who were carrying full course loads and serving as student newspaper editors at the same time.

As far as I’m concerned, that makes their achievements far more noteworthy than those of the declared “winners.”

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

More Bush-league antics: Did administration knowingly lock up innocents to play politics?

Posted by James McPherson on April 9, 2010

New revelations about the ongoing international embarrassment that is Guantanamo:  The Times of London today reports, “George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up that hundreds of innocent men were sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp because they feared that releasing them would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror.”

The claim is made by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and because Wilkerson has been a regular critic of the Bush administration his account will (and should) be questioned. Still, according to the newspaper, Wilkerson maintains that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld “knew that the majority of the initial 742 detainees sent to Guantánamo in 2002 were innocent but believed that it was ‘politically impossible to release them.'”

Once again we’re left to wonder if the most dangerous post-9/11 war criminals were those who had offices in the White House.

Sadly, if Bush administration abuses are ever considered by the same Supreme Court that put Bush in office in the first place, the sole remaining real liberal on the court–Justice John Paul Stevens–will be gone.

It is a sad reflection of how far federal politics has shifted to the right, despite the fantasies of Glenn Beck and assorted Tea Party Mad Hatters, that the most liberal member of the court is someone who was appointed by Republican Gerald Ford. Sadder still is that a president whom loonies now claim to be a “socialist,” despite the fact that Barack Obama is more probably conservative than Richard Nixon, is the “liberal” who will get to try to replace Stevens.

At least the conservatives who will reflexively fight the nomination (and if Obama were to nominate Rush Limbaugh, those conservatives would suddenly be screaming that Limbaugh was “too liberal”) cannot hope to credibly claim that they don’t want “activist judges,” if they’ve paid any attention to Supreme Court decisions of the past few years.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

NPR asks, ‘Where are the women — at NPR?’

Posted by James McPherson on April 7, 2010

“When it comes to female voices from outside NPR, the network is not as diverse on air as it would like to think. NPR needs to try harder to find more female sources and commentators.”

Those words come from a piece by National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard (and highlighted today by Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore), who also points out that, to the network’s credit, that NPR “has been an industry leader with female correspondents and hosts. Three out of the five hosts of its biggest shows — Morning Edition and All Things Considered — are women. The CEO and the head of the news department are women, as are many other top executives throughout the company.”

The study conducted by Shepard and two NPR interns came up with a number of interesting statistics and graphs, which I encourage you to check out (one graph can be found below). And all that at a news organization which is doing a better job in terms of gender balance than perhaps any other national organization.

The article manages to demonstrate the value of both NPR and of ombudmen, which far too few news organizations are have the courage to employ–part of the reason that the media have such low credibility ratings.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Rachel Maddow stole my line

Posted by James McPherson on April 2, 2010

Actually I doubt that Rachel Maddow has ever read anything I’ve written, or overheard anything I’ve ever said. But my wife and I were surprised–and I felt affirmed, in an odd way–when the other night we heard her say something along the lines that she thinks “Bill Clinton was our best Republican president.”

I’ve been using that line, and that argument, for years. I don’t know if I’ve used in on my own blog, though my brother once wrote in his blog, ” I steal a line from my older and wiser brother in referring to Bill Clinton as the best Republican president since Eisenhower.” By the way, I’ll admit to being older, not necessarily wiser.

In my most recent book I didn’t go so far as to call Clinton a Republican (it was an academic work, after all), but I did write, “President Bill Clinton was lambasted as a liberal by Republican opponents, yet he drew critism for ‘stealing’ and implementing supposedly Republican ideas such as deficit reduction, international free trade, welfare reform, increased numbers of police officers, and charter schools.”

Of course we’re now seeing the same sorts of criticism and compromise with Barack Obama, though so far the Republicans are backing away from their previous ideas rather than complaining about theft–while Obama is well on his way to becoming at least our second-best Republican president. As for Clinton, elsewhere in the same book I wrote:

Bill Clinton might justifiably be considered the best conservative president of the modern age. After all, both his successes and his failures helped conservatives far more than they did liberals. By turning a federal deficit into a surplus (with considerable help from a Republican Congress, of course), overseeing sweeping welfare reform, and pushing through a North American Free Trade Agreement that corporations favored and most unions disliked, Clinton was truer to the policies of traditional conservatives than Reagan had been. … Further evidence of Clinton’s innate conservatism might be seen in the fact that many prominent neoconservatives turned their backs on Reagan’s former vice president to align themselves with Clinton when he campaigned for the presidency.

Elsewhere in the book I also note the observations of conservative George Will (before Will was apparently driven insane by Clinton’s sexual infidelities) and a couple of British observers that “Clinton’s big achievements–welfare reform, a balanced budget, a booming stock market and cutting 350,000 people from the federal payroll–would have delighted Ronald Reagan.”

In truth, I suspect that Maddow (an extremely intelligent and politically astute woman with a doctorate of her own) and I both have long been saying something that is obvious to most thoughtful followers of political history. But it’s something rarely acknowledged, and that I had never heard said by anyone other than myself until the other night.

And by the way, Rachel, I’ll forgive you if you let me pimp my book on your show.

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