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 the ‘Education’ Category

See you on the radio

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2011


I’ve written in the past about how much I value my regular discussions with a friend and colleague who happens to disagree with me (or me with him) on many things.

Now Mike and I are taking our “Civil Disagreement” (the name of our new program) to the air. Or at least the Internet air, via Whitworth.fm, the student radio station at the university where we both work.

Each Thursday at 3 p.m. (Pacific Time) Mike and I will chat for an hour about politics, media, or anything else that strikes us as interesting that week. He’s a former star debater and debate coach so I might have my work cut out for me, if the goal was simply to win arguments.

But even though both of us can be fairly competitive, unlike with much of what you hear on talk radio and cable news, our goal isn’t–and never has been, in more than a decade of arguing in hallways and over lunch–“to win” a debate. Our hope as both friends and academics is to simultaneously teach and learn–and now, to share how we do that.

Unlike what you might expect elsewhere, on this program sometimes the committed liberal and the avowed conservative will even agree on an issue. After all, most Americans do, too–which is why even as some of us complain about the impact of the likes of Fox News and MSNBC, more Americans both liberal and conservative actually tune in to phony “reality” programming than watch any news network.

And guess what–most people even on those cable debate shows probably don’t dislike one another as much as it might seem. I recently attended a taping of “The McLaughlin Group” and found both Pat Buchanan and John McLaughlin, like my friend Mike, to be warm, funny and friendly.

That shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Buchanan regularly ventures into the “enemy camp” on MSNBC. He and Eleanor Clift, the most liberal member of the panel, are obviously fond of one another.

For the record, I am no more a fan of Monica Crowley after meeting her than I was before. But considering my experience with Buchanan and McLaughlin, in the words of political philosopher Meat Loaf, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

And by the way, if you don’t understand the headline above, you can see its origin here.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Prospects grim for many communication grads

Posted by James McPherson on November 17, 2010

There’s not much to say, beyond the headline above and what’s offered in the annual survey report (complete with more than 85 graphs and charts), for which the brief summary notes:

All indicators of the health of the market in 2009 and early 2010 showed declines from a year earlier, which already had produced record low levels of employment.

Salaries remained unchanged for the fourth consecutive year, meaning that graduates actually were receiving less money because of the effects of inflation.

Benefit packages also continued to get skimpier.

I am happy to say that my university is stressing the need for our grads to acquire some of the things survey respondents said they most needed. “A quarter of those who mentioned a skill they had not acquired made a reference to graphic design, layout, or software for photo and graphic presentations … nearly one in 10 offered this suggestion. Nearly two in 10 of those with a skill suggestion mentioned something to do with the Internet.”

I suspect it’s not coincidental that a much higher percentage of our journalism and mass communication grads have been getting jobs in their field than some better-known schools.

And yet even now some blogger somewhere is posting his latest screed–perhaps something about how we need to keep tax cuts and cut off unemployment benefits, or how we should let workers and businesses worry about who has health insurance–while hoping he’ll be “discovered” so he can give up his day job and get rich by sharing his wit and wisdom with the masses.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

A book review, history, and media myths

Posted by James McPherson on July 18, 2010

This review of my latest book is positive over all, and I generally agree with the quibbles. I also sincerely appreciate the efforts of reviewer William Gillis. Reviewing books isn’t easy–I’ve done three or four, and I rely heavily on reviews to decide what to read and possibly use for classes. Faculty and students all over the country benefit from those who take the job as seriously as Gillis obviously does.

One funny note about one of his comments–the fact that I, like most everyone else for decades, called Spiro Agnew’s “nabobs of negativity” quote a shot at the media. Just after the book came out, I was asked to be a blind reviewer for the very good Norman Lewis article, cited by Gillis, that corrects that myth. And thanks to Lewis, I knew before most people–though  of course too late to make any difference–that I had it wrong in the book, though of course it was too late.

That’s one more example of why, despite the views of such “historians” as Lynne Cheney and Liz Cheney, we need to keep looking at even the history we think  we know. Another great example arrived at my house yesterday in the form of the latest book from myth debunker and media historian (and friend) W. Joseph Campbell.

Joe’s book, Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, takes on myths that include Watergate, feminism, Hurricane Katrina, and at least three wars (more if you count alien attacks, the Cold War and the “war on drugs.”)

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

Want smarter kids? Turn them over to lesbians

Posted by James McPherson on June 9, 2010

Heather has two mommies? No wonder she’s so well-adjusted.

That’s the conclusion of an article in New Science magazine–that “Compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples scored better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression.”

In other words, the children of lesbian parents were smarter and less obnoxious than most other kids.

Actually I’d never heard of New Science until Slate cited this study, and the research seems to have some flaws (maybe women just tend to be better parents than men, for example, making them superheroes in the traditional, often unappreciated,  sense). But the study does cast further doubt on the idea that gays shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. Homosexuals are legally prohibited from adopting in Florida, while joint adoption is illegal in several states.

Posted in Education, Legal issues, Politics, Science, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Other states should nix vexing Texas texts

Posted by James McPherson on May 26, 2010

OK, coming from a state where a substantial percentage of residents think their president is a Muslim socialist  illegal alien and perhaps the anti-Christ, a decision to ignore recommendations from a panel of experts and to insert more God and conservatism into social studies texts is no big surprise. After all, as one blogger notes, “Stupid is as stupid’s taught.”

Which raises a problem for me: I debated whether to write about this, because the Texas textbook decision seems to support so many flawed “dumb southerner” clichés. Having lived in the South, having been raised in Idaho, I know better than to buy into that stereotype. Three of the country’s best and brightest political writers of recent years have been Texans Bill Moyers, Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower (whose name raises the unrelated question, “Can there be a low tower?”).

I suspect and hope that the actual effect of the Texas folly will not be as large as feared. After all, though Texas often helps set the agenda for other states simply because of the number of textbooks it buys, other options such as e-books are becoming increasingly available (not to mention the Internet, though members of the Texas board may be unfamiliar with that particular invention). Besides, the content of most textbooks is far less likely to be read or remembered than any issue of People magazine featuring Jennifer Aniston (who today may be about as politically relevant as the Moral Majority, which makes its way into the Texas board mandate).

I also think other states should step up and tell book publishers that they refuse to follow the lead of Texas. If a few smaller states band together–perhaps even agreeing to accept the orginal recommendations of the Texas committee of experts–Texas could be the only state where children are subjected to the whims of ultraconservative wannabe educators.

One side note, in which I agree with the Texas board: It would be helpful to know more about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” After all, I wrote a book about the topic, and would give Texans a great deal on the book if they want to put a copy in every Texas school library. Still, as I suggested in the book, even more useful than having Texas kids learn about those conservative groups might be having American political journalist learn more about them.

Not surprisingly, as can be seen in the video below, The Onion offers some of the best commentary on the issue. Incidentally, one of the highlights of a trip to New York last year was a visit with Onion staffers, who were as funny and irreverent in person as in their work.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics, Religion, Science, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

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 »

’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 »

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 »