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 ‘Written elsewhere’ Category

Why I tweet

Posted by James McPherson on February 25, 2015

Drawing by Stuart McMillen

Drawing by Stuart McMillen

The title above is of course a variation on the title of one of my favorite essays, George Orwell‘s “Why I Write.” Joan Didion liked the title, too, borrowing it for one of her works.

“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space,” Didion wrote in a sentence that might have characterized social media at least as well as anything Orwell came up with. That is, assuming there’s any longer such a thing as “private space” — which brings us back to Orwell all over again.

Orwell’s best-known work is 1984, a book that may have killed him. Like many other great (and countless not-so-great) writers, Orwell “had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity,” and his death at age 46 came not via evil government agents, but via illness aggravated by trying to beat deadlines.

Orwell might also have argued that he was far from alone in his appreciation of adversity; as pointed out today in a Washington Post piece about an Orwell review of Mein Kampf, Hitler knew “that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” Considering the number of mindless Americans and ignorant politicians who now apparently favor getting involved in another ground war, Orwell obviously had a keen understanding of people.

At least since the 1985 arrival of Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, one cannot meaningfully discuss 1984 without considering another dystopian view, that of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Postman, in the forward to his book (a forward so brilliant that it has been illustrated via a Stuart McMillen comic and a YouTube video), compares the two worlds.

He notes that in Brave New World “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” and that the sheer amount of information would become so great that “we would be reduced to passivity and egoism” while “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” It may seem incredible that Huxley was writing before the arrival of television. At least as impressive is the fact that Postman wrote his book warning about “a trivial culture” before the arrival of the Internet or smart phones.

Few things exemplify this trivial culture better than the social media with which many of us spend much of our time. After I finish this blog post, I’ll post links to it on both Facebook and Twitter, where it will compete for attention with information about lying “news” anchors, war in the Middle East, Congressional inaction, vaccines, various health scares, funny cat videos and countless other messages.

I’ll post links on those social media sites despite the fact that I have regularly denigrated “anti-social media,” especially Twitter (also here, here, here, here and here). I have proclaimed that I would avoid Twitter, and for five years or so I did. But this past weekend — in what may prove to be the dumbest Sunday decision since the Seahawks failed to give Marshawn Lynch the ball at the end of the Super Bowl — I began tweeting at @JimBMcPherson.

“Why?” Three reasons: First, much of the news is being reported (and sometimes misreported) via various media organizations first via Twitter, so it relates to my job to my job as a journalism professor. Second, I found when I was making contacts for a recent off-campus study program that some media professionals probably would have been easier to reach via Twitter than they were through other means.

And finally; as I’ve managed to demonstrate here on my blog and on Facebook, I’m an egocentric fool who often thinks his thoughts about media and politics worth sharing. In that, I am like Orwell, who offered as his first reason for writing:

Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Orwell offered three other reasons; I also agree with those (and will let you read them for yourself) before noting in his final paragraph, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” Perhaps so, though he adds, in conclusion:

One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

My own writing may be driven primarily by ego. But for better or worse, what I write — even in 140 characters — rarely lacks a political purpose.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

The VaGUYna Monologues

Posted by James McPherson on February 20, 2015

angry man sad womanMy Facebook feed this morning provided a link to a Washington Post opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg that laments the fact that “while digital media has amplified feminist voices, it has also extracted a steep psychic price. Women, urged to tell their stories, are being ferociously punished when they do.”

That punishment, for feminist women writers, regularly includes threats of rape and/or murder. Not surprisingly, much of the criticism they get is for how they look, rather than for their ideas. “Some,” Goldberg notes, “particularly women who have the audacity to criticize sexism in the video-game world — have been driven from their homes or forced to cancel public appearances. Fake ads soliciting rough sex have been placed in their names. And, of course, the Twitter harassment never stops.”

Many people seemingly can’t resist proving the very point they oppose, so about half of the first several Facebook comments simply reinforced — often with sexist, obnoxious language — the idea that many men can’t deal with feminism. (Many of those same guys seem incapable of coherent thoughts, let alone coherent sentences).

I then commented, “And… the comment parade of sexist male idiots has begun. Guys, you’re not helping.” The negative responses to my comment (tempered by many positive comments and more than 120 “likes,” thus far), were as predictable as they were pitiful. I’ve copied and pasted some if them below (as written, to avoid have to use “sic” repeatedly to signify that the error was in the original).

James, have a vaGUYna much?” [Thanks for the title, Eric, though I’ll twist the meaning a bit below.]

Who want’s to help anyway? Sexist feminists?

Go sit on the toilet when you pee, okay?

A tamed white knight appears.”

I’m for women’s rights I just don’t like women whining about how tough it is. Really?! I thought you could roar? I guess not.

Most men do not spend a lot of time worrying about feminism, but when they do they realize that feminist extremists have taken feminism beyond reasonable expectations.

feminism makes women look like mentally unstable lesbians and you even have feminist leaders talking about a male holocaust… and these people who talked about the male holocaust teach their literature in gender studies classes…

“‘Feminism’ is sponsored by the ones oppressing women. Boom” [Whatever the hell that means.]

Go wear a burka, get a forced marriage and get some real problems.

These idiots over here that pass for strong women couldn’t handle a days hardship that most third world women have to face on a daily basis. These feminists first world problems pale in comparison to the real problems of women the world over.” Because apparently death threats aren’t “real problems” for

Feminist be like ‘I got PTSD from someone disagreeing with me!!'”

You assume all anti feminists are male. James, YOUR not helping you sexist male idiot.

feminist concept of a man helping women achieving social justice = ‘whatever you say is right my feminist goddess. I am ashamed of being a man and display natural manly behaviours.  I’ll be your personal dog and attack every primitive barbaric male who dares doing or saying something that bothers your highness, meanwhile losing touch with manly friendships, my masculinity and those women out there who are actually looking for a man, and not a castrated politically brainwashed creature.’ NO THANKS”

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t support equality, but I do know many people tired of benevolent (what these ‘guys who speak in support of equality’ are) sexism, as well as the malevolent sexism that is waning towards woman and increasing towards men.

Male feminists may actually be the worse, because in their benevolent sexism, they start threatening men and women who disagree with the constant demonization of men.”

how can you say that being sexist makes you an idiot? are you the ideological fountain of the universe you male betrayer” For that one, I responded simply, “I said nothing about causation, Jimmy — simply pointing out what is in this case correlation.

The comments directed at me, of course, are very mild compared to some of those aimed at women on both the Facebook page and on the article:

If a threat has no bearing on reality then it doesnt matter what the threat is. Sorry, but you feminists are just so fragile. Words can’t hurt you.”[For the record, that comment did not come from Anthony Elonis.]

Feminist writers only care about themselves and making money off of womens issues but don’t help women at all! Feminist have done more damage than good!  Look at the U.S. military they have allowed sexual assaults to go on for decades and have ignored it!” [And no, I can’t figure out what the last sentence had to do with either the first two sentences in the comment or the article.]

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” [But of course many of these folks think women should stay in the kitchen, except when they’re in the bedroom, shopping for groceries, or cleaning other rooms in the house.]

They sound like quitters that can’t handle criticism. I have also noticed that a lot of what falls under feminism isn’t really feminism at all, but comes off more as a defensive, man-hating agenda.”

Well, some feminist deserve it. The elitist ones, but the ones who genuinely want equality, dont deserve it” [Remember, this is about threats of rape and murder.]

Here i thought the message of feminism was ‘look at how awesome and powerful i am sans men….’ but a few internet comments are giving them emotional distress?? Sounds like gas. Take some Maalox and deal with your actions, sweetheart.

….and they have only themselves to blame.” [Again, this is about threats of rape and murder.]

For me, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the attacks is that almost all of them come from men engaging in “mansplaining” — or what might justifiably be termed “VaGUYna monologues.” Speaking of women’s bodies, of course, most of those who make laws regarding abortion also are men.

Naturally some folks pointed out that many women also oppose what they understand to be feminism (and many oppose abortion, as well), while also arguing that men are also threatened. (Hey, I get that.)

But even if the abuse were anywhere close to equal, I fail to see how abuse of one group justifies abuse of another. And as for the argument about how “some women” feel, so what? Just as no feminist I know would argue that every man is evil, none would argue that women can’t also be ignorant. For example, here’s how “Jeanne” responded to my Facebook comment:

Sad that I stood picket with my Mom at age 11, I am now 58, for equal pay at a factory where she worked. I wouldn’t wipe my butt on so-called feminists of today. Make me sick. Equal rights does not mean more rights. Grow up. Not all men are predators. Funny how loudly many of these women protest, however, I’ll wager most of them have read those abusive books, ’50 Shades of Gray,’ and are now either breathlessly watching the stupid movie or planning a ’50 Shades of Gray,’ party, or planning a ‘Girl’s’ night out to go see the crap. Shut up.”

First, while the abominable 50 Shades of Grey was weirdly popular, I suspect Jeanne would lose her bet about how many feminists chose to read/watch it. Second, there was nothing in the Post article or my comment asking for “more rights” vs. “equal rights.” Third, no one claimed that “all men are predators.” And finally, though “Mom” may have picketed for equal pay almost 50 years ago, she probably didn’t get it — despite the best efforts of feminists whom her daughter now denigrates.

 

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Politics, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Riding, writing and resting

Posted by James McPherson on November 25, 2013

For the past six months, politics has been relatively low on my list of concerns. Call it burnout, or simple disgust with almost everyone in politics (including those in the media who cover it), but after my sabbatical began at the end of May I probably watched and read less about contemporary politics (especially from cable news) for the next several months than during any similar period in perhaps a decade. I have to admit that I didn’t miss it.

Nor have I missed most things about my “real job” as a professor. Someone asked me a while back the most important thing I’d learned during my sabbatical. My answer: “That I probably won’t have any trouble adjusting to retirement in 12 to 15 years.” I love being in the classroom and interacting with students, but certainly haven’t missed grading, course prep or meetings.

During my sabbatical I added a regular Wednesday “guys’ breakfast” and a regular Thursday golf game to my Tuesday and Friday morning basketball games. I’ve read more — and more for fun — than usual. I worked in the yard and garden. I spent time with parents, siblings, kids and a grandchild.

Most importantly, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with my wife of almost 33 years, especially during a 25-day 5,700-mile drive that included visits to various family members and the cities of Boise, Tucson, Santa Fe, New Orleans and Natchez — the lovely Mississippi city (with the troubling history) in which my wife was born. The cities of Las Vegas, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Salt Lake City we passed through quickly, but not too quickly to be reminded of the sprawling corporate sameness that scars the Great American Landscape (though perhaps not for much longer, if my brother and other “doomers” are correct about the fate of the world).

More directly related to my profession, while in New Orleans I attended the annual convention of the American Journalism Historians Association. The convention was held in the beautiful historic Hotel Monteleone, where, despite a steep discount, the nightly rate was more than I paid for my first car, and where it cost more to park my pickup each night than I’ve paid for a room in some motels.

Back home, I attended a breakfast at which I chatted with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and then (at her request) sent her a copy a book I wrote. (Unlike a similar event with George Will a year earlier, I didn’t notice any errors worthy of correction here.) Later that month I helped out with a high school journalism workshop.

In terms of writing, I have revised a book chapter, chipped away at a novel, compiled notes and done research for a new academic book, and written more than 90 posts for an ongoing blog project. Today I even started our annual Christmas letter, having put up and decorated the tree a couple of days ago. And naturally I’ve been writing on the most pervasive medium in America today: Facebook.

Yes, I’ve devoted too much time to one form of anti-social media, though I’ve managed to forego Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, Pinterest and Alltherest. I don’t tweet, or even text, and I definitely don’t twerk, Thanks to modern media, sometimes I twitch.

What I’ve written on Facebook  was typically far less important than what I “shared” from elsewhere (the same sorts of things that have no doubt prompted some “friends” to hide me from their feeds). And in retrospect, at least some of what I took the time to share via Facebook also seems worth sharing here. Some examples follow, though for space reasons I obviously can’t include oh-s0-witty-and/or-insightful comments I offered with each post.

The eclectic mix includes: an 1812 test for eighth-graders that few of us today could pass; a professional football coach (who knocked me out in practice when we were on the same college team);  the discovery of a new dinosaur; police brutality in New Mexico; empathetic high school football players; a revised “U.S. map” based on watersheds; Boeing’s anti-union efforts; Richard Cohen’s racism and sexism; how some of Apple’s overseas employees end up as virtual slaves; “15 Ways The United States Is The Best (At Being The Worst)”; the highest-paid employees in each state; a lesson on being quick to judge; some bragging about my workplace; and “the incredible story of Marion Stokes,” an obsessive librarian who taped — on VHS videocassettes — 35 years of television news.

Related to media, I posted items about the dangers of texting while driving and  sexist cyber-bullying by football fans. I explained why my local newspaper screwed up, placing a beautiful photo of a Native American mother and child next to an unrelated headline stating, “Child porn cases result in prison.” I pointed out that a widely quoted ESPN piece about NFL hazing used faulty math and therefore probably drew erroneous conclusions. I made fun of a local television station for misusing a word during a hostage crisis. And I shared a funny piece about a newspaper that retracted its criticism of the Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks” worthy of “a veil of oblivion.”

As a feminist who sometimes teaches a class on women and media (while serving on the board for a local nonprofit devoted to media literacy), I shared various items related to women’s issues: a story about “how we teach our kids that women are liars“;  a piece about sexist treatment of Janet Yellen; how women like working for women; and one about the Bechtel test for movies. I also addressed males, sharing “Five Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Needs.”

I shared some items about religion, including mega-churches and the fact that the region of the country most opposed to government health care is the Bible Belt. Naturally I couldn’t avoid mention of the Affordable Care Act. Posts compared: Al Jazeera America’s coverage of Typhoon Haiyan and Obamacare with the coverage by CNN, Fox News and MSNBC; how journalists were fact-checking other journalists; Sean Hannity’s lies;

I didn’t managed to ignore other politics entirely, either, discussing such issues as Barack Obama’s judicial nominations; Senate filibusters and the “nuclear option”; nutjobs who advocate killing Obama; National Security Agency wiretapping; Texas textbooks and evolution (a subject of this blog in 2009 and 2010); George W. Bush addressing the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute; some loony Sarah Palin fiscal hypocrisy; Chris Christie’s flip-flop on immigration; and Rand Paul’s plagiarism. What, you expected me to go six months without criticizing a few conservatives?

Most of those Facebook comments came during the past month and a half, suggesting that I’m being sucked back into caring more about politics than may be healthy. Too bad; I’ll have to keep working on that for the couple of months that remain on my sabbatical. Perhaps I’ll report back after that.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Personal, Politics, Religion, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 14 Comments »

Comparing Obama to other presidents — and to mermaids

Posted by James McPherson on May 31, 2013

mermaidAfter watching an Animal Planet program about mermaids the other night, I realized that the sea creatures and President Barack Obama have some things in common. Perhaps the comparison is inevitable, considering that the Weekly World News, a “news source” at least as reliable as World Net Daily, assures me that Obama has met with mermaids. Less surprising is that the article tells us that the mermaids are being “kept at an undisclosed aquarium.” Perhaps in Cuba?

And yes, I know the show was fiction, even if many people have apparently been fooled by the “documentary” style and the lengths the network went through to trick viewers. The fact that folks were duped isn’t a big surprise, though one might hope they would check things out before buying into the latest version of “Alien Autopsy.” I am a bit disappointed to find that Animal Planet is apparently now as much about animals as the History Channel is about history and the Arts & Entertainment network is about the arts.

In part, though, people believe in mermaids (check out some of the claims and a bad poem about mermaids and sonar in the comments section here), for some of the same reasons they believed–and in some cases, continue to believe–that Barack Obama is liberal, anti-war, anti-business, Muslim, a gun-grabber, Kenyan-born, a supporter of economic regulation, deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, a socialist, or the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In fact, because both were relatively unknown and perhaps unknowable, mermaids and Obama became defined by how others want to see them. (We often elect “outsiders” for that reason.) But just for fun, here are some other comparisons:

  • Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was translated into dozens of languages and led to an animated movie; Obama’s Dreams from My Father was translated into dozens of languages and led to an unanimated presidency.
  • Mermaids are famous for melodious singing that mesmerized sailors; Obama is famous for melodious speeches that mesmerized Democratic voters.
  • Mermaids hang out with fish; Obama also has been accused of having some fishy compatriots.
  • In some cultures, mermaids are thought to be seeking souls; Obama brought soul to the White House.
  • Mermaids can be found all over the world; Obama also has made appearances all over the globe.
  • Mermaids never appear on television without the help of CGI; Obama rarely appears without the aid of a teleprompter.
  • And perhaps most significantly, mermaids are thought to be half human, half fish; Obama seems to be half Democrat, half Republican.

In fact, Obama is pretty much like most other presidents, and that’s the problem. He’s certainly no liberal; like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama is a politically practical neo-conservative who relies on a combination of charm and corporate money for his power. Like FDRHarry Truman and Bush, he’ll freely kill civilians abroad to look politically strong while reducing American military casualties (for example, more Americans have been killed by guns in this country just since the Newtown massacre than were killed in the entire Iraq War). Like Bush and Roosevelt, Obama will overlook civil liberties to lock up potential “enemies.” Like Nixon and Bush, he is secretive. Also like Nixon and Bush, Obama is willing to let the government be intrusive, if not abusive.

I’ve noted previously the similarities between Obama and Ronald Reagan, and have become increasingly troubled by some of the current president’s similarities to Richard Nixon. (I agree with Bob Dole’s recent statement that neither Reagan nor Nixon could be elected as Republicans, though I think either might have a shot as a modern-day Democrat. After all, both Reagan and Nixon were more liberal in many respects than Obama.)

Obama is not particularly brave, nor especially effective in accomplishing his goals. He has accomplished some good things while doing some bad ones. He seems to be more reflective than Bush, but who isn’t? The one thing that liberals and conservatives might agree on in regard to Obama is that he has been … a disappointment.

Obama’s new support for a federal shield law and his nomination of James B. Comey as FBI director might seem to be encouraging notes in a presidency that has otherwise been marked by its obstruction and intimidation of the press and a general lack of once-promised transparency. But it’s worth noting that Obama previously helped kill the shield law (which probably would prove largely meaningless, and may actually make things worse for journalists, anyway) and the drone warrior’s latest “transparency” promise lasted all of about a week. And, of course, Comey may have had the gumption to bust Martha Stewart and WorldCom execs, but he also is another demonstration of how the president is continuing the work of George W. Bush, even if Comey proved to be a thorn in Bush’s side.

Obama’s attorney general apologized for the administration’s treatment of the press, but I wonder why he felt the need to offer the apology in an “off-the-record” meeting. (I’m also troubled by the fact that three of the five editors who attended the meeting promptly violated the terms to which they had apparently agreed; they should have done what most media organizations did and boycotted the meeting.)

So while it is true that some of Obama’s recent words sound good, we’ve heard false promises in the past. Until I see more evidence, I’m not putting a lot of faith in either Obama or mermaids.

Sunday follow-up: Slate offers some more perspective on the Animal Planet’s mermaid tales, and five things the channel could better be focusing in regard to the world’s suffering oceans. Related to#4 of the list, today I bought a tie covered with pictures of a dozen kinds of sharks. Maybe they ate the mermaids.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

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 »

‘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 »

Ten things we’re told could influence the presidential election–but won’t

Posted by James McPherson on September 13, 2012

While President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney seems to be widening and Romney seems to be sinking stupidly into dishonest John McCain-style desperation, and despite the fact that I’ve been predicting an Obama victory for some time, I do recognize that there is time for the electoral picture to change. Perhaps the debates will swing things in Romney’s favor, if he doesn’t offer to bet Obama $10,000 or if he suddenly becomes the anti-war candidate that Obama once pretended to be.

Or if Obama suddenly starts referring to Romney as “John” because he forgets which tall, stiff, rich Massachusetts flip-flopper he is debating. (Romney’s practice opponent has done this gig before, pretending to be John Edwards, Al Gore and Obama).

With the possibility of an electoral shift in mind, I offer the following list of ten things that media folks and others (I’ve fallen into one or two of the traps myself) often suggest will make a difference in presidential elections–but which, in fact, almost certainly won’t matter  in this or any future presidential election:

1) Your vote. I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere, so won’t go into detail here. But your presidential ballot has virtually no chance of affecting who becomes president. Still, you should turn out to vote: Cast a protest vote for president, and recognize that your ballot might mean something in a local election where fewer people vote.

2) Public opinion polls. At least those measuring the popular vote, since it’s the electoral vote that matters (ask Al Gore). And if we look at the Rasmussen poll (which I chose because it is considered one of the most politically conservative), we see that Obama has a big lead in the electoral count. According to Rasmussen, only seven toss-up states remain–Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri and Colorado–and if Obama claims ONLY Florida, or Ohio and ANY ONE of the other six, or ANY THREE of the seven, he wins the election. By contrast, Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll would give you the impression that the election is close. And that impression would be wrong.

3) Citizens United. Yes, this was a horrible Supreme Court decision that lets corporations and lobbying groups spend too much power to try to influence elections. But that’s not necessarily much of a change. And there’s so much money in presidential politics that neither major party will lack enough funds to compete in the states that matter. On the other hand, just as your vote means more in local and state elections, big money also has more influence in those elections.

4) The current economy. Yes, since even before Bill Clinton, we’ve been hearing, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Maybe that was true in 1932. In fact, the economy today may even help Obama. To repeat, economic models tend to favor Obama, not Romney, in part because voters care more about trends than about where the economy sits.

5) Evangelical Protestants. Ironically, if these folks get their way in November, for the first time ever we won’t have a Protestant president, vice president or Supreme Court justice. Conservative Christian influence has probably peaked.

6) Candidates’ verbal gaffes. All candidates tire and say dumb things. The media then overplay the gaffes, but I doubt that voters make decisions based on the verbal slips of a candidate. (Again, the state level may be different.) Sarah Palin’s gaffes have mattered more than most because we heard so little else from her.

7) Cable news networks. There’s some evidence that Fox News changed the 1980 election, but probably not any election since then. Now every voter knows that Fox News is a house organ for the GOP, just as MSNBC has become for the Democrats. Besides, more Americans watch mainstream network news and any number of reality shows than watch anything on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN.

8) Convention platforms. Yes, I previously suggested that these might matter, and both the GOP platform and its Democratic counterpart drew attention during the conventions. Now they’ll be largely forgotten, including by the candidates themselves, until 2016.

9) Vice presidential candidates. Here again, at times I’ve thought these people mattered, but they haven’t since at least 1960. People vote for presidents, not vice presidents. Palin may have hurt McCain a bit, but she helped him first. And after eight years of George W. Bush, even Jesus Christ would have had a tough time winning as a Republican in 2008.

10) Candidates’ wives. Some are more glamorous than others. Some are smarter. Some bake better cookies. And until they run for office themselves, as Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton did, they’re entertaining diversions that don’t matter much in the big picture.

So take some time to study local issues and vote thoughtfully. If you’re in a swing state, worry about things such as voter suppression that actually might influence the election. But stop worrying about things that won’t matter, anyway.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , | 41 Comments »

Republican platform: gallows for GOP suicide?

Posted by James McPherson on August 25, 2012

It has seemed for some time as if the Republican Party is suicidal, and determined to make sure that Barack Obama wins re-election. Maybe Republicans just want to prove that a couple of professors who forecast a Mitt Romney win aren’t so smart. Because the schedule proposed platform for next week’s GOP national convention provide new evidence that Republicans either cluelessly think that they will win easily–perhaps by voter suppression in key states–or have simply decided that they can’t win and so might as well be entertaining as they go down in flames.

A positive sign for Romney is the fact that various media are now helping him do what he and his campaign have generally been unable to do–look more human. Though he was unfairly bashed for a ride on a personal watercraft, yesterday two major media sources–the New York Times and MSNBC–have produced largely flattering portrayals of the GOP nominee. OK, it may be stretching it to call MSNBC a major media source, but it is a generally liberal-leaning cable network that could help portray Romney as more moderate than his campaign has been. Both stories include what Times writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg calls a “crisis” narrative, details about Ann Romney’s multiple sclerosis and Mitt Romney’s auto accident in France (a head-on collision apparently caused by a priest who may have been drunk, killing a passenger in Romney’s car).

There also are signs that Romney is ready to reveal more about his faith (even if he won’t say the “M-word”), as demonstrated by a laudatory Bloomberg piece on Thursday, a Tuesday Seattle Times story picked up via the Associated Press by newspapers around the country, and the fact that the invocation for one night of the GOP convention will be given by a fellow Mormon. MSNBC has also taken advantage of Romney’s religion to do a “Rock Center” program about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Thursday. Not that the religious aspects may matter much. As I’ve mentioned previously (demonstrating the decreasing influence of the Religious Right) it seems a bit ironic that if the Christian Right gets its way in November, for the first time ever there won’t be a single Protestant among the president, vice president and entire Supreme Court. But anyone on the far right will be voting against Obama, even if not for Romney–or, as some fruitcakes might phrase it, will favor the Mormon over the Muslim.

Bigger problems than religion come from the fact that Romney has run to the right to represent a party that is already “akin‘,” with controversies about”legitimate rape” (more evidence of the need for better science education) and a judge who suggests that Obama’s re-election could lead to “civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war” (considering that he’s a Texan, though, his stupidity may not be particularly surprising). Still, it might be moderately surprising that Republicans will apparently repeat their Sharron Angle/Christine O’Donnell/Joe Miller/Ken Buck Tea Party debacle of two years ago with a new round of questionable candidates–Todd Akin, Ted Cruz, Richard Mourdock, Deb Fischer and  Josh Mandel–who (along with repeat loser Linda McMahon) will likely keep them from gaining control of the Senate.

Still, it would be nice if voters would cast ballots based on the actual positions of the candidates. So while party platforms rarely matter much, I would recommend that everyone check out this year’s GOP draft version (thanks Politico)–just to affirm how thoroughly the party has given up on attracting the number of women, gays and people of color that it needs to win the presidential election in November. Some of the key points of the platform would:

Admittedly, all we have so far is a draft document. But it is a draft that the New York Times accurately depicts as “more aggressive in its opposition to women’s reproductive rights and to gay rights than any in memory.” Not a good sign, for a party scrambling to come from behind. A blogger for the Guardian compares it to a useless body part: “Like party platforms, the appendix’s role is a mystery to most people: it may be a useful harbour for bacteria but can also rupture, causing pain and misery.”

Speaking of misery, in fact, Republicans may want to start praying that Hurricane Isaac will reduce Americans’ exposure to official GOP ideas, just as Hurricane Gustov disrupted the GOP convention four years ago. If that does happen, perhaps Pat Robertson and other loonies will point out that Republicans must have offended God in some way (maybe, considering the male names of the hurricanes, with the party’s official anti-gay stance). On the other hand, if this election does drive off enough Americans to lead to the death of the Republican Party–or at least to generate a future GOP “crisis narrative”–perhaps Romney can baptize it after its demise.

P.S.: Just after I posted this, the GOP announced that Isaac will indeed cancel the first day of the convention.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments »