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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Posts Tagged ‘2008 election’

Key presidential election question: ‘Which liar do you trust most?’

Posted by James McPherson on November 2, 2008

The presidential campaign seems to be “spinning” to an appropriately odd ending, with John McCain discussing strategy (“Reverse Maverick,” “Double Maverick” or “Sad Grandpa”) on “Saturday Night Live,” McCain robocalls using Hillary Clinton’s voice and words as an authoritative voice to try to boost Republicans, and Barack Obama’s latest ad promoting the endorsement of his opponent by a sitting vice president.

At least they don’t have anyone pretending to be the opposing candidate in those ads (a move that may cost Elizabeth Dole her Senate seat in the same election in which the GOP presidential candidate reminds voters of her husband’s 1996 “Sad Grandpa” bid). Dole’s Senate campaign provides a reminder that perhaps every political campaign has its share of distortions and outright lies. As campaigns grow increasingly desperate, the lying tends to increase. Fortunately for those of use who care, there are more ways than ever to check the accuracy of campaign ads and stump speeches.

The oft-criticized mainstream media do a better job than they once did at fact checking. Even more valuable are FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.org (a product of the mainstream St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly). On Friday, Factcheck.org released an updated version of “the whoppers of 2008,” including McCain camp lies about welfare, taxes, health care, terrorism and ACORN, and Obama lies about Medicare, stem cell research and job losses. The site also calls attention to distortions from other groups both liberal (MoveOn.org and VoteVets.org) and conservative (National Rifle Association and National Republican Trust PAC).

PolitiFact also released a Friday update, recalling some especially egregious “pants on fire” moments from the campaign. Those cited include Mike Huckabee, who falsely claimed that most signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen, and John Edwards who suggested that the president has power over Congressional health care. Of course other Edwards lies were to cause him more problems, but by then his campaign had ended.

PolitiFact gave most of its “pants on fire” ratings to e-mail messages: “They include the bogus list of books that Sarah Palin supposedly wanted to ban, the fake receipt that supposedly showed Michelle Obama ordered $400 in lobster and caviar from a New York hotel,  and the distorted Bible verses to suggest that Barack Obama was the Antichrist.”

It is sad and disturbing to see how often candidates and their supporters lie. But the increased oversight is a bright spot. As PolitiFact notes: “The 2008 election has been the most fact-checked campaign in American history. Between our 750-plus items, and dozens of articles published by our friends at FactCheck.org and other news organizations, the presidential candidates have been challenged about their accuracy more than ever before.”

In short, in this election–as with perhaps every election–Americans will choose between liars as they cast their ballots. The key question thus becomes, “Which liar do you trust most?”

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Palin/McCain administration: Put whom or what first?

Posted by James McPherson on September 18, 2008

In a discussion about political symbols, students in my media criticism class last spring liked Barack Obama’s logos and signs much better than John McCain’s. My students are more politically conservative than the nation’s as a whole, so I think they were fairly objective in their analysis.

Though I thought Obama’s logo looked too much like one for a natural food co-op, the students thought it well represented his “change” motif. McCain’s logo seemed stodgy to them; they criticized it as looking like a real estate ad. For that reason I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when the words “Country First” began to appear on the signs–I keep envisioning a suburban ranchette.

I also would argue that the campaign’s seemingly desparate attempts to smear Obama through negative ads suggest something other than “country first.” But now it seems that Sarah Palin has forgotten even whose names is first on the signs (see video below).

Perhaps that confusion is understandable. The media and Republican supporters alike have been treating Palin as if she were at the top of the ticket. Some of those supporters have been sticking around at rallies just long enough to hear Palin speak, then leaving while McCain does his best not to numb the crowd.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Craig Ferguson: “If you don’t vote, you’re a moron”

Posted by James McPherson on September 15, 2008

Craig Ferguson has been a U.S. citizen for just over seven months. But he has a grasp of some of what’s wrong with the media, and with the American people, during elections.

Since he’s on TV after my bedtime–and probably after many of your are either in bed or starting the homework you have due the next day–I’ll share the video below.

Some of the most important lines:

“If you watch the news, you’d think that Sarah Palin was running for president. Spoiler alert…”

“I think a lot of the reporters want to be as famous as the candidates they’re covering.”

About the candidates: “Shame on you, you manipulative hypocrites.”

“Which candidate would you rather have dinner with? Here’s an easy answer: ‘None!’ They’re politicians. I don’t dinner with you. I don’t want your friendship. Here’s what I want to know: What are you gonna do for this country, pal?”

“Are we so lost we need to be sold our own democratic right?” … If you don’t vote, you’re a moron.”

“Voting is not sexy. Voting is not hep. It is not fashionable. It’s not a movie, it’s not a video game, all the kids ain’t doin’ it. Frankly voting is a pain in the ass. But here’s a word–look it up–it is your duty to vote.”

“This country is at war right now. Americans in foreign lands, wearing uniforms representing this country, are losing their lives. Americans here in this country are losing their homes.”

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Straight Talk Express derailed, falls off “bridge” to become mired in mud

Posted by James McPherson on September 13, 2008

It’s an old story, of course: Politicians lie. But usually in presidential campaigns the candidates let their surrogates take on the most egregious fabrications, staying somewhat above the fray themselves. John McCain and Sarah Palin seem to be the exception, cheerily tramping through the mud on their way to a lead in national polls.

The lies range from tales of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” (see video below) to taxes to health care to immigration (bilingual lying!) to sexism to Alaskan oil production to pig lipstick to kindergarten sex education to Cindy McCain’s drug theft problems to even the findings of  FactCheck.org. In the words of the Associated Press’ Charles Babington, “The “Straight Talk Express” has detoured into doublespeak.”

Considering how much admiration I once had for McCain, I am troubled that he has become not just a typical campaigner but even worse than most. The campaign he has chosen to run is costing him other one-time fans, as well, while supporting the latest Obama camp claim that McCain “would rather lose his integrity than lose an election.”

The lying has become so bad that even the women of “The View,” a morning show watched mostly by stay-at-home wives, feel compelled to question McCain about it. His response: Lying, of course. Unfortunately Barbara Walters, long one of the most overrated journalists in America, helped McCain out by following up his lie with a trivial lipstick diversion rather than confronting him with the truth.

I don’t think McCain and Palin can lie their way to the White House. But a part of me fears that too many voters don’t care about the lying even if they recognize it. If those voters happen to help McCain win, they deserve what they get–four more years of Bush Administration nonsensical tough talk and bumbling policy. Unfortunately all of us may get an even more conservative and out-of-touch Supreme Court that will last for a generation.

Same-day update: Apparently the McCain/Palin camp also misrepresented her “world travels,” falsely claiming she has visited Iraq. And in a lengthy story about Palin today, the New York Times reports: “Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records. ” She appears, as one of my colleagues noted recently, “Dick Cheney in a dress.”

Next day update: To John McCain–When you’re on the same side as Karl Rove and even he calls you a liar, maybe it’s time to dial it back.

Palin’s bridge to falsehood:

Posted in History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Johnny comes lately to change: Let the campaign begin

Posted by James McPherson on September 4, 2008

A week ago I wrote that the Democrats had achieved most of what they hoped for at their convention. After listening to John McCain tonight, I think the Republicans did the same. I now think the GOP might get more of a bounce than I previously predicted, though I disagree with the commentators who tonight predicted that he would at least briefly pull ahead in the race.

As for the McCain’s speech, I thought it was exciting for the last three minutes, and OK but fairly dull before that (though maybe I’m the only one tired of hearing the POW story and yearning for specifics). I wasn’t as impressed with the speech as some of the talking heads, though perhaps that’s a reflection of my own bias (and my conservative buddy Mike is the speech professor). Topping Sarah Palin’s speech of last night would have been tough for McCain. Not surprisingly Fox News commentators seemed to like his speech the best, though PBS folks (except for liiberal Mark Shields) also lauded it.

Some of the most honest parts of the speech came when McCain criticized the current administration (though never by name), following the “change” message of the entire convention. The Republicans ended up benefitting from Hurricane Gustav, which kept President Bush–the implied target of many of the negative comments–off of the convention floor.

McCain failed to say how he will do things differently than the current president or his fellow Republican congressmen, who waged power for six years and then still had enough power to keep Democrats from enacting any meaningful legislation for the past two years. He drew some of his best response with promises to reform education–but conservatives before Bush thought education should be left to the states.

Liberals generally think the feds should be involved in things as important as education, but not in the way that McCain and Bush think they should be involved. Most Americans will agree with McCain that Washington and America need change, but he is literally a “johnny-come-lately” to the idea. He’ll need some real ideas to back up the talk.

The next two months should be interesting. I’ve written repeatedly that not much that happened before now would matter much to voters. But now they’ve started paying attention, and each speech and perceived gaffe will matter more–especially what I call the “blogcessive compulsive” times. McCain appropriately said little or nothing about Republican hot buttons such as abortion and gay marriage in his speech, but he will have to address them in the weeks to come.

Now that people are tuned in, it would be nice if the mainstream news media would focus on the issues Americans will face and how each candidate might realistically affect those issues. Don’t hold your breath.

Saturday update: Al-jazeera summarizes what’s ahead in the election.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pressure now on McCain, GOP

Posted by James McPherson on August 29, 2008

It appears that, as expected, John McCain will announce his running mate today in an effort to decrease Barack Obama’s post-convention bounce in the polls. Republicans should hope, of course, that voters don’t make one interesting coincidental connection–the fact that the Bush administration and McCain have made an art of releasing bad news on Fridays so as to draw as little attention as possible.

We don’t yet know what Obama’s convention bounce will be (I expect 8-12 percent over where he was when the convention started), and as I’ve stated previously, the polls don’t mean a lot at this point, anyway. Nor do we know what impact McCain’s choice for VP might have. One fascinating note for me: Fox News is noting this morning (though Drudge disagrees) that Sarah Palin might be the pick–which would mean both McCain and Obama made the selections I said they should (though I doubt either of them was reading my blog for advice).

It does seem that Obama and other key Democrats–Hillary and Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama in particular–did what they wanted to do in their convention, and that last night Obama gave a speech worthy of the grand venue chosen for it. That puts more pressure on McCain and his party to do well this week at their own convention, assuming the weather and events cooperate.

Incidentally, one respondent has suggested that because I noted that Tropical Storm Gustov may put a dent in the Republicans’ ability to get their message out, I actually was hoping for a hurricane. That contention is both ludicrous and insulting, of course. Unlike Pat Robertson and a few other assorted nuts, I don’t believe God uses hundreds or thousands of weather-related deaths to punish sinners (remember the Noah’s Ark rainbow story from Sunday School?), and no rational person would wish for a natural disaster under any circumstances.

Analyzing the media and politics is what I do in my real job, not just as a blog hobby. But suggesting that what I predict MAY happen is an expression of my own desire makes little sense. After all, you may recall that I predicted that Obama, Hillary Clinton and McCain would all be leading presidential candidates even before any of them announced their intent to run–even though none of the three were among my two favorite candidates. I predicted years ago that George W. Bush would be a disaster as president, though for the sake of my country and its people I hoped otherwise. I predicted that Bush and a gutless Congress would take us to war in Iraq and that the war would last for years, though I opposed the war from the outset.

Besides, I hope the GOP convention goes off without a hitch and that the Republicans get their message out. As I hope I’ve made clear elsewhere in this blog, I think we need as much information as possible–even (and maybe especially) from sources with which we generally disagree–to make the choices necessary for meaningful self-government.

By the way, speaking of my real job, today I’m off on a day-long retreat and next week I go back to teaching four classes, advising a student newspaper, and participating in various committee roles and other activities. I’ve also promised to complete a book chapter within the next couple of weeks, and am organizing a January study program taking a dozen students to New York and Washington, D.C.

The point isn’t to garner sympathy (though I’ll take it), but to note that, though I’ve tried to post entries here at least four days a week throughout the summer, my frequency likely will decrease during the school year. Of course, there are a multitude of good sources in the links at the right side of this page to keep you busy on days I don’t happen to post.

Thanks for reading, and for any comments you feel moved to make. And have a great weekend.

Posted in History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Another Clinton triumph; can GOP compete?

Posted by James McPherson on August 28, 2008

Like Hillary Clinton the night before, last night Bill Clinton did what I predicted he would at the Democratic National Convention, coming out strongly in support of Barack Obama. Bill Clinton gave a maybe the best speech of the convention so far, after getting an opening ovation even longer than that for Ted Kennedy two nights earlier (more cheers, fewer tears).

In other convention activities, the roll call vote offered some interesting drama, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden gave a sometimes touching, sometimes tough (but less effective than Clinton’s) address, and Obama made a surprise appearance at the end. All in all the night was a positive one for the Democrats. Still, the promise of drama outweighed the actuality, partly because the nervous Dems had both the roll call and Clinton’s speech early, not during prime time.

Maybe it was just me being tired and sometimes bored myself, but even the talking heads seemed a bit off after the night’s activities were over–less eager to compete for airtime, less enthused about making pro- or anti-Clinton points. An interesting thought occurred to me as a result. It could be that they’re all getting tired. If so, that might be a negative for John McCain.

Until yesterday, I thought the Republicans had an advantage in terms of potential post-convention “bounce,” because their convention comes just days after the Democratic Convention. In addition, McCain apparently will name his running mate today or tomorrow, in a further attempt to blunt the impact of Obama’s mile-high stadium extravaganza tonight (a reminder: CNN has paid for the best camera angles for the stadium coverage).

Now, however, I’m not sure that I’d want to be in the Republicans’ shoes. After two weeks of the Olympics and this week’s convention, and with summer coming to an end, it may be that most Americans are tired of made-for-TV specials and ready for regular programming to begin. Watching a four-day miniseries that revolves around an old white guy whom everyone thinks they know (and that’s one line the GOP has been pushing heavily, that you “know” McCain but not Obama) may turn viewers away in droves, especially if he selects another fairly dull white guy as his running mate.

Another potential problem for the McCain camp is the fact that a hurricane named Gustav may be bigger news than the convention next week, especially in places like Florida and Louisiana. If Gustav happens to hit near New Orleans on Monday or Tuesday, it might be a “perfect storm” for destroying Republican hopes of getting much positive coverage out of their convention.

Face it, people aren’t likely to spend much time watching a bunch of speeches from mostly white folks in Minnesota, especially if they’re looking to see if black people will again be stranded on rooftops in Louisiana–and how the Bush administration, which McCain hopes to continue in many ways, will respond this time around.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Howard Kurtz and the Democratic National Convention

Posted by James McPherson on August 25, 2008

“Four years ago in Boston, a young state senator named Barack Obama took the convention by storm with a rousing speech about unity and hope, an oration without which it is hard to imagine that he would be accepting the nomination this week. Neither ABC, NBC nor CBS carried it.”

Those lines are from a column today by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, and of course I’ve agreed with the assessment that the speech helped launch Obama’s candidacy, comparing it to Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech for Barry Goldwater 40 years earlier.

Kurtz also offers much else, discussing the “newsworthiness” of political conventions, how the networks will cover the Democratic National Convention that starts today (CNN may have the best pictures), the coverage of John Edwards’ affair, Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as running mate, and Tom Brokaw’s contention that Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews have gone “too far” in their biased commentary during the presidential campaign.

The column doesn’t mention Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show,” which probably will offer some of the sharpest insights (mixed, unfortunately, with often sophomoric wit) about the convention.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

McCain camp desperate, silly and sad

Posted by James McPherson on August 24, 2008

Affirming my observations of recent weeks that the John McCain campaign steadily becomes increasingly silly, increasingly desperate, and–despite recent polls–decreasingly likely to win the upcoming presidential election, the campaign is doing what it feels it must to have a prayer of victory.

Previously noted by many is how McCain now panders to the Religious Right figures whom he once termed “agents of intolerance.” At the same time that he engages in increasingly unchristian behavior, even to the point of adding to his own lies by refusing to criticize obvious lies from a man who has been one of McCain’s harshest critics. Nonetheless, his most recent ad must make “straight talk express” fans cringe when they hear the candidate intone, “I’m John McCain and I approved this message.”

This ad (the first clip below) asks why Hillary Clinton isn’t Barack Obama’s choice as running mate, and states that she was kept off the ticket “for telling the truth.” While that message might work with a few PUMAs, it seems likely that even many of them might be turned off by such blatantly pandering on the part of a man who consistently has done little on behalf of women–even if they believe that anyone in the McCain campaign knows the inner workings of their opponent’s operation.

McCain himself, it seems, once would have been embarrassed by such a commercial. Doesn’t he have some other means of attack other than to put his own face and voice in an ad that not only doesn’t say anything about himself or his candidacy but which actually promotes a losing candidate from the opposition party? Of course he obviously likes those folks, since he pals around with two-time loser Joe Lieberman. But isn’t McCain’s new language more befitting of Jon Stewart or bloggers than of a candidate for president? And does his new ad suggest that McCain like to replace sidekick Joe Lieberman with Clinton (a good idea if she’d go for it, but she’s far too smart for that).

One problem, I suppose, is that McCain has relatively few positive options because his own campaign message to voters might be boiled down to: “I was tortured before most of you were born (though if we do the same things now to scary Muslims I would no longer call it torture), I hate war but think we ought to engage in a lot more of it, I’m old, I’m cranky, and I disagree with almost everything else I said a year ago, back when I was still voting in the Senate–so elect me president before I die or before my rich wife leaves me for one of my lobbyist friends.”

Another somewhat silly McCain ad came out on the same day that Barack Obama announced what most followers had considered inevitable for days if not weeks, that Joe Biden would be the Democratic nominee for vice president. That commercial (the second clip below) shows Biden criticizing Obama and complimenting McCain. The only problem with the ad is that it merely reflects the kind of rhetoric that happens in political races all the time–in fact, the third clip below is a version that might be used against McCain if he chooses Mitt Romney to be his running mate. Biden’s rhetoric also reflects the give-and-take nature of the Senate, reflecting why I was somewhat surprised when two Senators won their party’s nominations.

Obviously a current senator will become our next president, while another will go back to serving with Clinton in the Senate. Perhaps that’s why McCain is being so complimentary to her now–he figures she can remind him where things are in the Capitol once he gets back there. 

Posted in Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments »