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 ‘Media literacy’ Category

Do you know what you’re investing in, and where?

Posted by James McPherson on July 11, 2012

The question above may be trickier than it looks, but since many right-wing media have decided that their readers are clueless about how investment funds work. Maybe they’re right–they’d know their audiences better than I do–but, regardless, the question in the headline seems worth asking today.

The Weekly Standard yesterday offered a post critical of Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who while in enemy territory on Sunday commented about Mitt Romney and the millions of dollars he has apparently stashed in banks in offshore accounts in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, “Americans need to ask themselves, why does an American businessman need a Swiss bank account and secretive investments like that?”

The Standard post notes, “But disclosure forms reveal that in 2010, Wasserman Schultz invested between $1,001-$15,000 in a 401k retirement fund run by Davis Financial Fund. As the fund discloses, it is invested in the Julius Baer Group Ltd. and the State Bank of India GDR Ltd., as well as other financial, insurance, bank institutions.” Predicatably, the post was then picked up by Fox News, Human EventsNewsmax, examiner.com, Twitchy, and their conservative acolytes. You can see mostly identical examples here, here, hereherehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. (And no, I don’t expect anyone to go to all of the links; I simply wanted to partially demonstrate how far and fast ignorance can be repeated).

Some of the posts–like this one, which is actually kind of funny, if you overlook the inaccuracy–actually outrightly lie, saying that Wasserman Schultz “had her own Swiss bank account.” Keep in mind that I’m not defending the hypocracy or lying that run rampant in politics on both sides of the political aisle. But pretending that Wasserman Schultz’s foreign investments–and perhaps yours–are the moral equivalent of Romney’s is a major stretch. The two have almost nothing in common.

For one thing, the Congresswoman ISN’T RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. Even if she were, her investments were public (declared on her financial disclosure form), pretty small (less than $15,000) and occurred years ago. Any idea how much Romney still has stashed abroad today? Most importantly, the investments–which, again, were far different from “overseas accounts”–were made by the manager of her retirement fund, not directly by her. For an embarrassing example of why that matters, I’ll share a brief story:

A few years ago, using an IRS Form 990, one of my students found out that the Christian university where I work was unknowingly investing in Abercrombie & Fitch–a company popular with many college students, but not one most Christian institutions would choose to affiliate with. The investments were made by a financial manager, of course, and the student’s story led to a change in investment policy by the university’s board of trustees. In fact, chances are that if you have a retirement fund you have no idea which companies your money is supporting at any given moment. (For the record, my own retirement fund is set up to avoid certain industries, based on my own politics, but the many individual companies that get small pieces of my money vary widely and change with time.)

Oh, speaking of money: Americans paid record-low amounts of federal income taxes during Barack Obama’s first year as president. I wonder if the Weekly Substandard will get a conservative meme going about that.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

First Internet photo? Photoshopped women, of course

Posted by James McPherson on July 10, 2012

So the first-ever Internet photo hs been found, reports Mother Board. Not surprisingly, it was a photoshopped photo of women. Call Julia Bluhm.

Somewhat surprising, considering most of what seems to show up nowadays on the Web, all of the women are fully dressed. And none of them are holding the camera.

By the way, I hadn’t known before this article that the first email came way before the parents of some of my students were born. The first YouTube video came seven years ago, and is posted below. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it didn’t involve cats.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Video, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Multi-level madness from to Zeekler to zombies

Posted by James McPherson on June 3, 2012

Which is worse, a Zeekler or a zombie? Lately, both have been popping up on anti-social media, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time until they show up at your door. In the case of zombies, the Centers for Disease Control may have you covered  — unless, of course, they’re involved in a cover-up. We even know the cause of a “Zombie Apocalypse.” But what’s a Zeekler?

As if Farmville, Mafia Wars, and seeing how much your high school classmates have aged didn’t make Facebook annoying enough, now people are using it to pimp their multi-level marketing or penny auction schemes. Yesterday I encountered a post from someone who was “so excited” to have been introduced to Zeekler — complete with documentation from a serious-sounding publication about its success.

I have to admit that I’d never heard of Zeekler. I’m not a fan of the likes of Amway and Nu Skin (especially not as much of a fan as Mitt Romney and many of his fellow Mormons) because I don’t like the apparent odds, but normally I might figure “caveat emptor.” I have no idea whether Zeekler (or ZeekRewards) is a scam, and I’ll let others (also here or via government advice here) try to figure it out. I now know that one Zeekler Facebook site has almost 13,000 “likes” and  another almost 1,300, but both include many negative responses in the comments sections and quite a few apologies from the “Zeek geeks” for delayed payments. I also see that Zeekler and its parent company, Rex Venture Group, are becoming increasingly well-known to the Better Business Bureau.

Still, normally I’d just ignore an obnoxious sales pitch and go on — but in this case, the inclusion of a “media” support message made me feel an obligation to respond, especially because I saw the same quote word for word on other sites. The comment reads as follows:

I am still just amazed at what we all have our hands on. This is “ground floor Microsoft”, “ground floor Google”. Thank you [name deleted] for showing this to me, my friend. This has changed out lives forever! MARKETING BUSINESS JOURNAL (April 2012), “What has happened in the last 14 months will be carved out in the history books of business and technology along with business icons such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google.” “If you are reading this now, you are witnessing history in the making.” “Pay attention here. You may never see anything like this again in your lifetime.”

These folks may be “amazed” by their multi-level marketing opportunity that they can’t help throwing in extra quotation marks, but I am regularly amazed that some of the same who don’t trust CNN will spend money based something they read on the Internet, or something backed by a supposed publication such as the “Marketing Business Journal.” Especially since it’s easy to see that part of the page is missing. For all we know, this “article” was a paid advertisement.

Still, even the visible part of the page has the Network Marketing Business Journal website. And what do you find at that site? A slogan stating that the NMBJ is the “newspaper for the newest network marketing, direct sales, homebased business opportunities and articles.” In other words, it’s a trade journal (previously called Money Maker’s Monthly) founded and run by a former Amway distributor. Its own readership profile states, “The readership of Network Marketing Business Journal consists almost entirely of businesses in network marketing and direct sales roles.” Gee, I’d bet that publication uncovers scandal in the industry every day — and who could you trust more for an honest evaluation of a multi-level “opportunity”?

The site boasts links for a company of the month, a product of the month, a supplier of the month, and others. Unfortunately, apparently those “feature articles” are blocked to would-be readers who are not “authorized” to read them. The companies featured must be so proud to be so highly touted.

But of course the magazine’s readers may not be the most important target. The promoters who “read” the publication can forever use some version of the published “article” to pass to their Facebook “friends.” And with friends like those, who needs zombies?

Posted in History, Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Another reason Romney will lose: Bad graphic design

Posted by James McPherson on April 18, 2012

As expected for some time, the presidential race is down to Mitt Romney(s) vs. Barack Obama. And unless something dramatic occurs–such as Republicans figuring out that they’re running in 2012 rather than 1952–Obama will win handily in November. Regardless of what the conservative activists on the Supreme Court have decided about health care.

I’m not saying Obama deserves to win; there are many reasons he shouldn’t. And obviously some think the Secret Service should be getting ready to retrofit the presidential limo with a rooftop doggie carrier. Even more predict a close election; polls might seem to bear that out. (Not that media have a vested interest in those predictions–otherwise, why would you keep watching?) Those folks are probably wrong, despite the fact that most Americans will pay almost no attention to presidential politics for months, after arguments about a “war on women” and the bitter Republican primary rhetoric have been forgotten.

Recently the students in my media criticism class joined me in figuring out another reason Romney won’t win: His team apparently knows little about graphic design. Check out his logo, in which (as students pointed out in class, and New York magazine noticed earlier), the “R” looks like a smear of toothpaste. One blogger compared it to a cruise line logo, while another compared it to a soft drink ad. (Coincidentally, as a colleague has noted, that smear precedes a set of five letters that if just slightly rearranged spell out an appropriate word for the candidate: money.)

Then comes the kerning, or the space between letters–the last two of which are crammed together, as if the designers ran out of room. Was this a product of some Gingrich-like child-employment scheme? Unlike Romney himself, it’s ugly. Like Romney, the design looks wimpy and indecisive.

My class critiques candidates’ graphic design choices every year, and generally notice things that professionals should have seen. Here is Rachel Maddow’s take on the Romney logo. The New York Times offered interesting logo perspectives in 2004 and 2008.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Now I’m part of ‘profanity police’

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2012

At the bottom of my most recent post, I noted a couple of days ago that New York Times media writer Elizabeth Jensen cited that post in an article. Her embedded link brought more than 3,300 readers to this blog yesterday–more than double the previous record (from a few years ago when a link to a post appeared at the bottom of a CNN story. That’s also more readers than I get most months, since I gave up blogging almost daily in April 2009.

Not surprisingly, among the new readers were some folks who found fault–including one who apparently didn’t read my post very closely, let alone anything else I’ve written, since in a comment he referred to my comments as “right wing.” That made some of my conservative friends chuckle. And now the Atlantic Wire blog  and the liberal blog Con Games, among others, are apparently lumping Jensen and me in together with the “profanity police.”

“McPherson may be shocked to discover that movie stars ‘come across as a group of hormonal middle school students’ as the foul-mouthed bunch did in the magazine’s Oscar Roundtable, that may just be because he hasn’t spent enough time on set,” offers Con Games. And that’s certainly true, if by “not enough” one means “none.”

But of course I’m not terribly surprised by the juvenile behavior–just that Newsweek writer David Ansen seemed to be so enthralled by that behavior. Maybe Ansen hasn’t spent enough time on sets if he is so fascinated by such juvenile pap. I’ll repeat my previous quote: “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.”

In fact, previous editions of Newsweek’s “Oscar Roundtable” can easily be found online. And while I won’t take the time to check right now, I’d be willing to bet that none of them–despite the fact that they, too, involve “movie stars”–include the amount of profanity found in the most recent version. In fact, the “new” Newsweek is the problem. And perhaps, according to the blogs, it’s a Tina Brown problem. Both blogs contain this profanity-landen quote (I don’t know which is the original source):

“Tina Brown watchers with long memories might recall a similar complaint dogging the editor after she took over The New Yorker in 1992. On the occasion of her one year anniversary at the helm of that magazine, Spy Magazine ran an item headlined ‘Fuck Yes, The New Yorker,’ that compared some of the words that appeared in The New Yorker before and after Brown took over. Among the words used under Robert Gottlieb, the magazine’s previous editor: ‘Intransigent,’ ‘avuncular,’ ‘ballyhooed,’ and ‘panoply.’ Among the words used under Brown: ‘fuck,’ ‘masturbatory soft porn,’ ‘warm piss,’ ‘fart,’ and ‘bitch.'”

I can’t say that I’ve ever been as big a fan of Brown as many other media watchers, and a previous much-ballyhooed Brown effort, Talk, was awful and blessedly short-lived. I do appreciate her occasional book reviews on NPR’s “Morning Edition”–which, perhaps ironically, I listen to on the same radio station that provided my “free” subscription to Newsweek.

Same-day follow-up: The “others” who have commented on this issue, with links to this blog, now include a New York magazine blog, the conservative Accuracy in Media, a blog titled “Caffeinated Politics,” and another seemingly liberal media blog from Bemidji, Minn.

Feb. 16: Mediabistro, an American University blog about public media, and many in the Twitterverse also have commented on the issue. Perhaps my favorite from the latter: One that quotes Sarah Palin to seemingly compare me to GOP contraception goofballs.

Posted in Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 »

See you on the radio

Posted by James McPherson on February 14, 2011

http://a1.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash1/182415_203629729653463_121277961221974_902465_7424672_n.jpg

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 »

Fields of screams: political commentary and kids’ soccer

Posted by James McPherson on August 27, 2010

I read a fair number of political blogs, both liberal and conservative, and a lot of news stories that now allow anonymous nitwits to post comments. It just occurred to me recently, however, how much those comment sections resemble a game of soccer involving 5-year-olds. Both involve:

  1. lots of pointless screaming and wailing
  2. juvenile pleas for attention, especially from one or two players who seem to be everywhere
  3. uncoordinated and often pointless back-and-forth that generally goes nowhere
  4. little planning or evidence of thinking
  5. almost no paying attention to others on either side
  6. bad grammar

Both also quickly become so boring that, unless they have a kid in the game, most people quickly wander off. At least with the kids’ game, you get some fresh air, rather than stale old B.S.

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

Insurrection, conspiracy theories and truth snippets

Posted by James McPherson on July 7, 2010

Today offers more evidence of why media literacy is so important in this country–and, sadly, why many people who rely on one-sided blogs for information are so politically ignorant.

Some blogs that appeal to right-wingers and conspiracy theorists, such as this one (also here, here, here, here and here) now offer YouTube “evidence” that Barack Obama had admitting he was “born in Kenya.” Watch it quickly, the reader is warned, “before it’s pulled.” (By socialist/communist government agents who monitor the Internet from mosques and black helicopters, no doubt.)

But if you go to the original posted video–and are capable of reading–you see a description from the person who posted it that starts out: “The video starts out with some content from obamasnippets.com, which, of course is contrived. And yet, there seems to be a synthetic truth about what the president says.”

Aside from the question of what is “synthetic” (and therefore by definition, fake) “truth,” the words clearly state that Obama’s “admission” is a creation of whomever created the video. And who is that?  Someone who states that his/her site is “not ‘political,'” not anti- or pro-Obama, and  “just for fun.” One of those who has done most to promote the video, on the other hand, getting more than 200,000 hits on it, does have a clear agenda, listing his favorite “news sources” as “Hannity’s America, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity Radio Show, Roger Hedgecock, Michael Reagan, Gordon Liddy, Sec. Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove…”

Ironically, he also states on the same page, “May the Glory of God be revealed so Truth can prevail.” Perhaps God might have an easier time revealing truth if there weren’t so many supposed Christians working so hard to distort it.

Another conspiracy site unintentionally (I hope) further illustrates the silliness of the whole argument and the futility in trying to convince conspiracy theorists of anything when it states: “Was Obama born in Kenya or America? Kenya….But we will never know the truth!”

Go ahead, read that last quote again. Yep, that’s what it says: “We’ll never know the truth, but here’s the truth.”

One thing many of the conspiracy sites have in common is that they often warn against the “lies” of the mainstream media. One of those linked above also reminds us why there may be good reason to fear some of the Tea Party crowd–or at least there might be if they had the numbers, youth and courage to back up their inane words. One commenter writes:

Someday American’s will realize there are only two options left if the desire for a sane government is the objective.
Number one would be to de-legitimize DC and reform independent States, with State owned Banks, which negates the power of the federal Banksters, and provides a method of political segregation so we would not have people like [a previous commenter] for neighbors.
Number two is civil war! Take your pick.

Insurrection, anyone? Or instead, how about just doing a bit of reading from a history book, a copy of the Constitution, or Snopes.com?

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , | 38 Comments »

‘Lost’ and soon to be forgotten

Posted by James McPherson on May 24, 2010

The series finale of “Lost” aired last night, and even hardcore Losties can’t agree on what it meant. Frankly, the ending was as disappointing as I expected it to be (too much hype to live up to and too much ground and too many actors to cover well)–not as dismal as the finale of “Seinfeld” (How could it be?) but not even on par with the overwrought conclusion of “M*A*S*H.”

In fact, the highlight of the evening was Jimmy Kimmel’s third “alternative ending,” starring Bob Newhart and Evengeline Lilly (who was my favorite actor on the show, while my wife’s favorite was Josh Holloway–go figure).

“Lost” is one of the few shows that I’ve somewhat committed to in recent years. In general I don’t like getting into shows that have to be watched regularly to keep up with, though “Lost” was made easier by frequent reruns and the Internet. InDemand has let me become involved with a couple of better shows, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

Last night’s finale also reminded me that “Lost” is probably too complicated to perform well in syndication. The DVDs will sell and rent well for awhile as some people try to catch up with what others are talking about, or as fans try to hold onto their good memories of the show. But no one will be spoofing the final episode in two years , let alone more than two decades from now.

And if you want to see probably the best series finale ever, from 1990, you can do so here:

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