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, 2012

Newsweek opts for immature profanity over depth

Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2012

Through a weird circumstance involving donations to public radio, I get two copies of Newsweek each week. This week’s issue demonstrated why that’s typically two more than I need. The time would be much better spent on Mother Jones, The Nation, or even National Review.

While this week’s issue of Newsweek does have an interesting and worthwhile story about International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde, much of the magazine seems to have been turned over to college sophomores–the kind of sophomores who love writing for university newspapers because they’ve found that they can get away with profanity.

Warning: If you’re offended by reading profanity, even in context, please stop reading now.

I don’t swear much, myself. I did so much more when I played college football and when I worked in a sawmill, but like most of those sophomores I refer to above, I outgrew it. That doesn’t mean I’m a prude about it: Despite the fact that I teach at a Christian university, I’ll even use it in class when it seems appropriate. After all, just as biology students should look at pictures that might seem sexually graphic or gory in another context, students of media should consider even the less pleasant parts of the language.

So the “f word” pops up a couple of times in my media history class. The first is when I’m quoting President Lyndon Johnson asking the president of CBS, “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” The second comes during a discussion of protest music from various period, when I play the video for “Cop Killer.” I spend a bit of time talking about how profanity was used by young people as a way to get attention — and then, unfortunately in my view, it became much more prevalent throughout society.

That’s a trend I find objectionable, because it’s rude, lazy and generally a reflection of immaturity and/or stupidity. I have been known to ask (usually politely) people in public settings to clean up their language–even though in my journalism classes I have pointed out the goofiness of what I refer to as the “Wheel-of-Fortune” quotes often used in magazines in newspapers and magazines: for example, something along the lines of “Frank, are you trying to f___ me?”

But Newsweek, probably as a result over being taken over by the upstart Daily Beast, doesn’t take the silly “Wheel-of-Fortune” route. No, it goes out of its way to slap readers upside their heads with coarse language, even when that language serves no meaningful purpose. Maybe it’s a Country Joe and the Fish or N.W.A. flashback, but this week’s issue alone offers the following:

  • A story about “the Black Hollywood vote,” quotes Samuel L. Jackson saying, “The president got about a week of moderate applause for capturing the most-wanted man in the world. You ask me, he should have put that motherfucker on ice and defrosted his ass Nov. 1.”
  • Rick Perry and Paul Begala both are quoted using the abbreviated version of that same word: “mofo.”
  • In a piece called “Capitalism Gone Wild” (get it), novelist Robert Harris “sums up his attitude about Blair by quoting Harold Pinter: ‘We all believed in New Labour, and what a fucking shithouse that turned out to be.'”
  • Singer Ingrid Michaelson has decided to drop being “cute,” and so is quoted (via a sock puppet) as saying: “I’ve got some serious dark shit in me. Everyone is like, ‘She’s so cute, she’s so cute.’ You know what? Fuck that!
  • Perhaps worst is the annual “Oscar roundtable,” in which half a dozen Hollywood stars come across as a group of hormonal middle school students. Words from the “conversation” that were deemed magazine-worthy include “tits,” “shit,” “bullshit” and “cock” (not a rooster). I have no doubt that the stars used that language. I do doubt that it’s representative of how most of them behave most of the time. If so, let’s hope they stick to acting–they’re just not very interesting, if this is a realistic depiction.

All of those examples come from the print version of the magazine. Online you can find even more, particularly with a story about former porn actress Traci Lords. Weirdly, perhaps, one online story that doesn’t include any profanity is the  one titled, “The Sex Diaries Project,” about the sex lives of 1,500 people.

Apparently author Jessica Bennett has figured that someone who writes well doesn’t need to rely on adolescent language, even when talking about immature people and sex. Perhaps Newsweek editors should pay closer attention to her work, assuming readers stay around to see it. I certainly won’t be renewing my free subscription–either of them, for that matter.

FEB. 12 FOLLOW-UP: This post has been linked in an online story of today’s New York Times, which will apparently appear on p. B7 of tomorrow’s New York edition (I don’t know about out here in the West). The story notes that some public television donors had complained (like me, they apparently get Newsweek because they support PBS).

Writer Elizabeth Jensen quotes an email response from Stephen Colvin, chief executive of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company (essentially saying, “Hey, we’re selling more copies, so screw off”), and Newsweek executive editor Justine Rosenthal, stating, ““We do not use profanity unless within a quote or in the context of a story and care is taken to ensure it is never used gratuitously.” Of course, the examples I noted were in quotes. Perhaps Newsweek writers just used to be better at getting more intellectual responses than they are now.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , | 37 Comments »

Excited about Obama vs. Romney?

Posted by James McPherson on January 3, 2012

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: As I predicted even before Obama was formally elected in 2008, the 2012 presidential election will be a contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Or more likely, a three-way race involving Obama, Romney and Voter Indifference. Unfortunately I later chickened out on my Romney prediction, and have wavered since then–stating on the radio and elsewhere that Romney had the best chance of beating Obama, but probably couldn’t win over enough evangelicals and Tea Party members to win the GOP nomination.

So assuming that Mitt will win the nomination, we can determine that another prediction in that October 2008 post also was accurate, that “the Religious Right will continue to decline in influence”–after all, many of evangelicals will end up voting for a Mormon over a Christian (though same may still insist they’re choosing a Mormon over a Muslim). Likewise, the Tea Party effect has apparently waned, so however much we may have enjoyed the loony antics of this Republican primary race, we may have fewer interesting characters getting serious consideration in 2012 Congressional races than we saw two years ago.

Of course tonight the three cable news networks are devoting all of their time to the Iowa Republican Caucus, trying to act as if it matters. Perhaps they really think it does, though I’m giving them–even Megyn Kelly on Fox News–the benefit of the doubt, assuming they’re smart enough to know better. But if they don’t put on the pseudo-breathless political horserace act, they know that no one other than media critics and political junkies will watch.

Maybe viewers would mostly tune out anyway, keeping in mind how few (thankfully) actually watch cable news regularly. Fox News likes to brag about how its talking heads draw bigger audiences than do those on either CNN or MSNBC, but that’s a bit like claiming to be the most popular hooker in church. All of the traditional network nightly news programs have dropped considerably, but NBC, ABC and CBS news shows all get far better ratings than anything on Fox News. And when it comes to cable, the top five networks are USA, the Disney Channel, ESPN, TNT and the once-credible, now badly misnamed, History Channel.

Of those top five, only ESPN offers anything resembling news. And its high standing simply demonstrates the key point of sports columnist’s Norman Chad’s outstanding column of this week. Even if you’re not a sports fan (and especially if you are), I encourage you to read the piece, in which Chad points out, “We spend more money on stadiums than schools,” and “At our institutions of higher learning, we care more about basketball than biology.”

Chad also writes: “Think about this: We have been at war somewhere in the world since 2001 — at war — and that gets less scrutiny than an average NFL game. For real. Buccaneers-Falcons is dissected in detail much more than U.S.-Afghanistan; that’s an NFC divisional game weighed against an international armed conflict.”

Back to the Iowa Caucus: Some may argue that Rick Santorum’s relatively strong showing means something. But that would be true only if Iowa had been significant in any election since 1976. But Iowa doesn’t matter–just ask John McCain, who finished fourth there four years ago.

Romney will be the GOP nominee, and he may even win. Looking at today’s Republican party, though, I seriously doubt it. More likely is that my next trip to Washington, D.C., will correspond with Obama’s next inauguration. And chances are, I’ll watch it on a hostel TV again, just as I did in 2009. With luck, maybe Chief Justice John Roberts will get the words right this time.

A final word about the Republicans who might end up voting for Romney. My favorite recent political quote comes from a music professor I won’t name because the words come from an email: “If you were for Michelle Bachman, before you were for Rick Perry, before you were for Herman Cain, before you were for Newt Gingrich, before you were for Rick Santorum–mainly because you were against Mitt Romney before you were for him–do you waive your right to complain about flip-flopping? For all time?”

Faced with that quandry, I suspect many voters will simply stay home, helping the Obama machine win again.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 17 Comments »