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 February, 2013

Inane confessions of the anonymous kind

Posted by James McPherson on February 23, 2013

When I was a kid, a friend’s mother always seemed to have copies of “confessional” magazines such as True Confessions or True Romance lying around. They seemed pretty silly and I didn’t understand their appeal, though of course I wasn’t among the target audience.

Such publications do have a long history (the issue pictured here is as old as I am). As a media scholar, I now have a better understanding of why those magazines became popular — why people choose the media they do — though at a personal level I still have trouble understanding the attraction of those particular publications.

And like some other forms of other print media, those magazines have largely disappeared. But of course the inane “true confession” style of media has only spread, from Oprah and Jerry Springer to reality television to the “anonymous” Facebook sites that have now become popular with the college crowd — including, sadly, among the generally more sensible students where I teach. Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised or too disappointed by that; such sites can also be found for the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton.

In fact, if you want to depress yourself, the next time you’re on Facebook do a search for “university confessions.” Or put in the name of your own university — there’s probably at least one “confessions” page there (some have two or more), with dozens or hundreds of undergrads sharing their supposed insecurities, misdeeds, fantasies, sexual escapades, etc., so that other students can then provide a running commentary.

I wonder: Does the “confessor” who gets the mosts comments feel as if s/he has “won” something?

The Facebook confessions craze is relatively new, but seemingly nearly as ubiquitous as renditions of the “Harlem Shake.” “Confessions” pages have caused problems at a few schools, including the National University of Singapore, the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and Sam Houston State University. Mostly they just reflect poorly on the students involved and their universities.[Update: At the high school level, perhaps cause more problems have come from both confessions pages and the “Harlem Shake.”]

As a writer and former college student who now spends most of his time around students, I suspect that many of the supposed “confessions” are fiction. Most seem to be trivial. A fair number are simply stupid. A few of the most troubling, whether true or not, seem to reflect a need for their writers to take advantage of the counseling services available (probably for free) at their institutions.

In part because media around the world have chosen to treat them as news, I decided to contribute my small bit here. Still, as far as making a meaningful contribution to the media world at large, the “confessions” might as well have been scribbled in crayon on notebook paper, folded into paper airplanes, and then launched into the wind.

I also suspect that the trend and the sites themselves will be fleeting, disappearing even before their student moderators graduate and go on to other things. In the meantime, the sites will worry some university administrators, titillate some juvenile readers, offend some people, and be ignored by most — pretty much like every other form of student media throughout history.

One thing I do somewhat appreciate about these Facebook sites, particulary compared to blogs: While the original posts may be anonymous, the commenters are not. That undoubtedly reduces some of the vitriol so often found among bloggers and among those who can comment anonymously on blogs — people who obviously should have no more credibility or popularity than the anonymous “true confessions” on Facebook and in once-popular magazines.

Oh, and if you’ve somehow managed to miss the whole “Harlem Shake” phenomenon (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the original “Harlem Shake”), here is a compilation of examples:

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Gulp; Rubio can’t help GOP — so I’ll try

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2013

Some Republicans have been talking about how their party needs to come up with a new message. Aside from trying to “stop being the stupid party,” though, they apparently haven’t figured out what that message might be, and so I want to help.

You might think I’m kidding because I generally oppose almost everything the modern Republican Party seem to favor, but in this case I’m absolutely serious. And I’m willing to help out the GOP for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not a loyalist of any party (I didn’t vote for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney). I want to see progress (and the end of pointess gridlock), regardless of who can claim responsibility. Second, the few Republicans who read this will probably automatically dismiss it, anyway, either because they can’t believe a liberal would have a good idea or because they’re so cluelessly entrenched in their own decreasingly relevant mindset that they can’t budge.

Before I get to what the national Republican message should be, though, a few words about the messages we heard Tuesday night. Obama’s State of the Union Address was about what you’d expect — not much discussion of the current  state of the nation, but a well-delivered (if sometimes inaccurate or misleading) speech that matters little in the long run. More interesting was poor dry-mouthed Sen. Marco Rubio. who became yet another victim of the official SOTU response, the latest Jindalesque would-be GOP savior to prove himself not ready for prime time. As Ian Crouch wrote for the New Yorker:

By the second minute of Marco Rubio’s official Republican response to the  President’s State of the Union address last night, it was clear that the  Senator’s body was betraying him. His lips caught each other in the way they do  at moments of stress, when we are suddenly confronted, after long lapses of  unthought, with the actual mechanics of speech. Under the hot lights, Rubio’s  mouth went dry. A few minutes later, sweat trickled down his right temple, and  he moved his hand instinctively to wipe it away. The dry mouth persisted, and,  at times, his eyes flashed with a kind of pleading and mounting desperation: the  speech was less than halfway over, with words and words to go. His hands,  already large in the frame when he kept them low in front of him, flashed a few  times to his lips. And then back to his temple.

And then, of course, came Rubio’s awkward eyes-forward stretch for what appeared to be Barbie’s water bottle (which did create a new marketing opportunity for his PAC), the moment destined to become the one thing most viewers would remember from his speech. However unfair, we live in a television age; as the Republicans who keep idolizing a misremembered Ronald Reagan should know, staging matters.

And instead of being able to cooly reach for a glass that should have been placed before him in case he needed it, Rubio ended up lunging as if he were trying to keep his presidential hopes from rolling off of an off-camera table. Or perhaps he just wanted to be sure to emphasize the GOP’s anti-environmental approach by highlighting not just bottled water, but water from  company that repeatedly has been the subject of a lawsuits over its product.

Rubio did follow up with a nice little story about how he still lives “in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in,” a story that was irrelevant to any plan he might have for actually improving the state of the union. It also was a story that make Rubio look like just another shifty politician, since apparently he’s trying to abandon that “working-class home,”if he can get someone to shell out $675,000. And apparently it’s OK for Rubio to benefit from lots of government help, but others should make do with less.

From a substantive point, the worst thing about Rubio’s speech was what it didn’t offer: answers or solutions to anything beyond the rotely regurgitated but meaningless “free market solutions” that voters soundly rejected three months ago. As David Brooks pointed out immediately afterward, except for a vague mention of immigration reform, Rubio’s speech was virtually indisinguishable from one Mitt Romney might have given a day before he was hammered in the election. Or as I heard someone say the next day, Rubio was “another Romney — just add water.” Ouch.

As a Republican friend of mine has said, “We can’t just say no to everything.” And since national Republicans don’t know where to go, I’ll help them out: The “states’ rights” party should actually look to the states for direction. After all, despite its failures at the national level, the GOP controls most state legislatures and most governors’ seats. At that level, many party ideas obviously appeal to voters. Perhaps that’s because at the state level they’re actually more in touch with the voters, and less influenced by national lobbyists and interest groups.

Obama actually gave me the idea for a new Republican strategy, by highlighting the success of early-childhood education programs in the deep-red states of Georgia and Oklahoma. Recall that the model for Obamacare was signed into law by a Republican governor (remember him?). And some Republican states are now embracing expansion of Medicaid and the opportunity to create state-run insurance exchanges as ways to meet their obligations under the law while keeping some control over how the projects work.

What national Republicans ought to do is to start seeking out and embracing the various state-level successes, encouraging other states to adopt programs similar to those that work elsewhere. At the same time, they can then point out to voters what responsible leaders can accomplish without federal interference. And if they focus on the things that people actually want and need — better roads, schools and medical care, for example — maybe the nation as a whole will benefit.

In truth, I don’t think this plan will go anywhere. One problem is that some Republicans would be inclined to cite the dumbest state actions — such as Arizona’s immigration policies — as the models for others to follow. And too many states likely would simply continue to neglect their poorest and most needy residents, regardless of how much federal money and control was shifted their way, leading to all-new calls for federal intervention.

Most significantly, such a plan would require conservative voters to embrace some level of government (and some taxes), a hard pill to swallow for too many modern Republicans even at the state or local level — regardless of how many little bottles of fake spring water they may gulp to wash it down.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »