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 October, 2012

‘Newsweak’: Plug pulled on comatose print magazine

Posted by James McPherson on October 19, 2012

Tina Brown has something else to swear about. Finally, mercifully, the once-proud print version of Newsweek will be allowed to die just short of its 80th birthday.

The magazine’s demise is no surprise. After all, the entire hemorrhaging operation sold two years ago for less than the cost of a single issue (one dollar), and then folks began refusing even free subscriptions because of an odd combination of controversialoutdated, lazy and juvenile editorial choices made by Brown and other editors in an apparent attempt to avoid the collapse.

So Brown will have another failure; sadder, more journalists will be out of work. Not that Brown didn’t try, apparently–like almost everyone else, she just happens to be clueless about how to make old-line media survive in a new media world. As noted by the New York Times, “Despite her best efforts to take a flagging product and rejuvenate it, much of what she tried fell flat, and her attempts to create buzz with cover articles that discussed sex addiction and called President Obama ‘the first gay president’ resulted mostly in puzzlement and, sometimes, ridicule.”

I remember having the same puzzled reaction to the first issue of another short-lived Brown project, Talk magazine. Launched with huge fanfare, the magazine was a disappointment from the start. That first issue (shown above, and I have a copy in my office) carried interviews of First Lady Hillary Clinton and presidential candidate George W. Bush, but highlighted glossy photos of Gwyneth Paltrow crawling across the floor in what appears to be black underwear.

Print magazines are not dead, as any visit to a bookstore or supermarket will show. But old “news” doesn’t sell in an internet age, and people interested in longer more literate analysis have a host of better magazines from which to choose.

Though I’m not sure it matters, perhaps the online version of Newsweek will hang around for a while, as U.S. News & World Report has since going entirely online (except for occasional special editions) at the end of last year. And with less competition, perhaps Time will have less reason to run stupid covers.

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

My breakfast with George Will, and correcting his errors

Posted by James McPherson on October 16, 2012

Today I had the opportunity to have breakfast with noted conservative political commentator and baseball fan George Will, someone I’ve both admired and criticized at times in the past. OK, saying I had breakfast with him is stretching things: In truth, it was me and several hundred other people eating breakfast, while Will addressed the crowd and then answered a few questions as part of an event hosted by my university.

I wore my best suit and sat at a table sponsored by my local newspaper, chatting before and after the speech with the publisher, the business manager, and and a few editors of the Spokesman-Review. I met Will during a reception after the event, and I’m sure he didn’t remember my name 15 seconds later. Nor should he have.

As would be expected from someone as intellectual, witty and well-paid (typically $40,000+ per speech) as Will, he gave an interesting speech about politics, well-illustrated by baseball anecdotes. Several of the lines I’d heard before, but they were well-delivered, often funny and greeted with appreciation. He didn’t come across as a big fan of Mitt Romney, which might not be surprising considering Romney’s inconsistencies and the fact that Will’s wife has worked for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry during this campaign.

Still, Will got some things wrong in his speech. For one thing, Will offered the common conservative complaint about inheritance taxes. You can take all your money and blow it in Las Vegas, and that’s fine with government–but you can’t give it to your kids, he said. And of course that’s a blatant mischaracterization long promoted by “death tax” folks. In fact, if you choose to toss away all your money in a casino, the casino will pay taxes. Likewise, you can give away anything you want, to anyone–but the recipient should expect to pay taxes on the gift. Despite what Will and others would have you believe, it’s not the giver who is taxed; it’s the receiver.

And most of the time, if we’re talking about inheritance taxes, even the recipient isn’t significantly affected. Only the estates of millionaires like Will actually get taxed at all by the federal government–a fact that would Founding Father and “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine would find appalling. It is ironic that so many Will-style conservatives who promote “equality of opportunity” have no problem with the children of millionaires starting out with little chance of having personal stupidity bringing them down to the economic level of the smartest and hardest-working children born into poverty.

Will also criticized the format of the presidential debates, and I happen to agree with him in that regard. These tightly regulated political events are not “debates,” and (like me and many others) Will suggested he would like to see Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in which each candidate talks, uninterrupted, at length. But then Will added something like, “Can you imagine either of these guys being able to string together coherent paragraphs for an hour?” Many in the audience chuckled at the implication that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney would be smart enough to keep up with someone like, say, George Will.

But in fact, I can imagine it. In fact, though it will never happen because of cowardly party handlers, I love to imagine such a scenario. Neither of the presidential candidates got where he is by being an idiot, and having the opportunity to speak for an hour or so at a time–which both men have undoubtedly done numerous times in their noteworthy pasts–and then to answer an opponent’s comments might actually force each to stray from pre-scripted jokes and talking points. Obama might even prepare (though after his first debate performance this year, I assume he’s done a bit more prep for tonight’s version).

Will’s mischaracterizations of inheritance taxes and of the intellects of Obama and Romney are common ones, of course, and today’s errors were pretty minor compared to some in his past. And to be fair, someone who spends as much time in the public eye as Will does is bound to be wrong or to speak too flippantly some of the time. I’ve criticized him in a book (something I didn’t bring up today) for a couple of things: helping Ronald Reagan practice for a debate with Jimmy Carter (using a stolen Carter briefing book) and then praising Reagan for his performance after the debate, and for repeating a myth that Al Gore (rather than a supporter of George H.W. Bush) was the first to “use Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis” in 1988.

I started reading Will’s column when I was a kid, and have always admired his intellect, his use of the language and his love and understanding of baseball–but frankly I thought he went a bit nuts during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, letting his disgust over Clinton’s personal behavior color his perspective on more political issues. Since then he seems to have reverted to his more rational self, and I do enjoy reading his column and listening to him on Sunday mornings. But I never forget that he’s every bit as biased as I am, and therefore prone to errors that support his own side.

And even when we’re not factually wrong, sometimes we’ll just disagree. For example, Will criticized early voting, because he misses the civic exercise of going to a polling place on election day. I miss it, too–but I’d rather have more people voting while diminishing the prospect of having an “October surprise” swing an election. The old system favors financially secure conservatives, while early voting aids those who work long hours. I wish Will–a lifelong fan of perhaps the ultimate working-class team, the Chicago Cubs–had more empathy for their struggles.

Next day: After the breakfast Will went on to San Francisco to provide debate commentary for ABC. Afterward he declared Obama the winner and indicated that the debate was far, far better than what his words of that morning indicated he expected: “It was a very good fight. I have seen every presidential debate in American  history since the floor of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the  best.”

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Romney mountain-high in Colorado

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Colorado may be a swing state, but Barack Obama may have developed a new dislike for the Centennial State this week. First came his dismal debate performance, in which Obama demonstrated that he didn’t learn from Clint Eastwood not to walk onto a stage unless you know what you want to say. Now two Colorado professors–using a model they say has correctly predicted the winner of the past eight presidential elections–say that Mitt Romney will win the presidential election.

Actually they originally said so back in August for a peer-reviewed study, and conservative blogs have been touting the study ever since. But since the researchers noted that their data was from data gathered in June and would later be updated, I essentially ignored it–other than to send political science professors Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry an email requesting an update when they were ready to release it. Today, professor Berry kindly sent me a link to the press release announcing the new results.

As far as I know, only the Denver Post has beaten me to the announcement that, according to the new data, “President Barack Obama is expected to receive 208 votes — down five votes from their initial prediction — and short of the 270 needed to win.”

Perhaps Bickers and Berry are right. But the conservative professor that I had lunch with today and I think otherwise. Neither of us happens to be a political scientist, just political junkies, but a host of electoral maps from the likes of Real Clear Politics, CNN, polltrack.com, electoral-vote.com, Intrade, Nate Silver, the Washington Post, the Princeton Election Consortium, 270towin, and even the conservative Rasmussen Reports also show Romney to be in serious trouble.

One thing about it though: If Berry and Bickers are somehow proven right, they ought to auction off their services for 2016. And now conservatives will have one more reason to be enthused, while Romney has another reason to appreciate the Colorado state motto: Nil Sine Numine, or “Nothing without Providence” (sometimes translated as “Nothing without the Deity”).

P.S.: Reading the press release a bit more closely, we see, “The model foresees Romney carrying New Mexico, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.” But even Rasmussen is calling Pennsylvania “safe (for) Obama,” and most maps have him leading in almost all of the swing states. Romney could win. But most of us who follow politics closely don’t find it likely.

Post-election update: Of the eleven states mentioned above, Romney actually carried ONE–North Carolina–demonstrating the difference between political science modeling and actual polling.

Posted in Education, History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 24 Comments »

Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Mitt Romney won the first 2012 presidential debate handily, as everyone from Michael Moore to the foreign press could see. I’m surprised that President Obama failed bring up “the 47 percent,” women’s issues, the auto industry or immigration, or to counter Romney’s many misstatements and exaggerations.

Still, I can’t say I’m shocked at the outcome. I doubt that George W. Bush is, either, considering his first debate as an incumbent–or that he would be, anyway, if he weren’t getting ready to visit Romney’s bankers in the Cayman Islands. First debates are good for challengers.

Remember, Obama hasn’t debated for four years. He speaks better when he has a teleprompter, or when can interact with (and feed off of) an audience, and the debate crowd had been muzzled. Jim Lehrer did an abysmal job as moderator. And despite all the talk by pundits before the debate about how good a debater he supposedly is, I’ve never seen it. Hillary Clinton beat him in their debates, and John McCain did more to lose the 2008 presidential debates than Obama did to win them. Besides, McCain had to debate with Bush and Sarah Palin strapped to his back.

Debate moments may matter to the media and political junkies, but probably no presidential debate has ever made a difference in the outcome. To repeat: Not one presidential debate has changed the outcome of an election. Despite all the recent talk about Ronald Reagan’s supposed “comeback” against Jimmy Carter, as researchers have pointed out, “No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948.” And stats guru Nate Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning just before the debate.

Obama still leads in the states he needs to win, has a better ground game than Romney, and is better on the stump. He still has the natural advantage of any sitting president, in that he will be seen on the news every night and has the opportunity to do things that only a president can do. He’ll probably throw out the first pitch at a Nationals playoff game–and maybe an Orioles game, too. Obviously he should do more “presidential” stuff–meeting with world leaders, for example, rather than hanging out with the ladies of “The View.”

It’s still the president’s contest to lose–but ask Bush’s former baseball team, the Texas Rangers, if it’s possible to blow a big lead. Obama may have to wake up and study up for the next two debates. He shouldn’t take for granted that Americans are too intelligent to elect a guy with no meaningful foreign policy experience or who makes vague domestic promises that he won’t be able to keep. After all, that’s exactly what voters did in 2008. Just ask our current Secretary of State.

Same-day follow-up: Rachel Maddow had a fascinating piece tonight, demonstrating that of the seven times a sitting president has debated a challenger, presidents now have a sparkling record of 1-6. Even Ronald Reagan won as the challenger and then lost as president. In addition, Nate Silver actually boosted his calculation of Obama’s chance of presidential victory to 87 percent. James Downie of the Washington Post is probably correct when he  writes, “Obama lost the first debate, but he will still win the election.” And Obama himself seemed cheerful and confident on the stump today.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »