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 ‘ACORN’

My first NYT quotes, and a wacky conservative reaction

Posted by James McPherson on June 26, 2011

I made the New York Times for the first time today, and hadn’t even noticed it until this blog got a pingback from a conservative blogger who chose to criticize me–not surprisingly, doing so inaccurately. (I’d been interviewed by the Times once before, but that time had my quotes end up on the cutting room floor., just like the time I was interviewed by C-SPAN.)

The Times piece, written by Jeremy W. Peters, is about conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, to whom Peters cogently refers as “part performance artist, part polemicist.” Neither my comments nor the article were particularly harsh in regard to the guy famous for distortion of stories about Acorn and Shirley Sherrod.

In fact, Breitbart himself commended Peters to Sean Hannity just a week ago, saying the author had defended him from liberal bloggers  during the Netroots Nation blogger conference. And the conservative Media Research Center complimented Peters for another article about Breitbart earlier this month, so the journalist could hardly be considered a Breitbart basher.

In fact, the person most critical of Breitbart in today’s article is… Andrew Breitbart, whom Peters quoted as saying: “I admit it. I’m from LA. I still am shallow. Don’t anyone think otherwise.”

My most critical comment (in the article, at least): “I think his actions show that if he’s not willing to distort, he is at least careless with the facts.” I was more critical of his followers (and by inference, at least, those who are similarly committed to left-wing bloggers): “There are no standards of fact anymore for a lot of people. We’ve gone from selecting sources of opinion that we agree with to selecting facts that we agree with.”

My only other quote in the article: “On the right, [Breitbart] is seen as an investigative journalist along the lines of Woodward and Bernstein.” Scathing, huh? Well, scathing enough to have a right-wing blogger criticize me in a silly and inaccurate post titled “NYT uses Blumenthal crony to attack Breitbart.”

The post was short, but  managed to get several things wrong. I followed up with a polite correction in the comments–which the blogger refused to approve, instead  following up with another short snide comment of his own. So for what it’s worth, I’ll go ahead and correct the record here.

First, blogger Moe Lane stated that I “wrote a book with Sid  Blumenthal.” Though I’m happy that Blumenthal wrote the foreword for my latest book–at the request of the publisher, Northwestern University Press–some time after I wrote the book (and in response to what’s in it), I have never met him, talked to him, or corresponded with him, let alone co-written anything with him. Lane’s reference to me as a “Blumenthal crony,” while in fact fairly complimentary, is in fact ludicrous.

Besides, I didn’t want a liberal to write the foreword in the first place, since the book is a scholarly work about the rise of modern conservativism. I had recommended that NU Press try to get George Will, Pat Buchanan or William F. Buckley to read and write about the book.

Lane also writes that “a perusal of McPherson’s blog indicates that, for somebody supposedly interested in objective journalism, he likes to call people names and babble about conspiracy theories.” As I pointed out to Lane–and frequently here–I’m hardly someone who would qualify as “supposedly interested in objective journalism,” since I don’t believe there is such a thing.

Though I don’t disput that sometimes I “call people names,” the post to which Lane links to prove the point is probably more critical of Barack Obama than of anyone else. And of course regular readers here know that I “babble about conspiracy theories” to make fun of them–as I clearly did with the one Lane linked to but apparenlty didn’t bother to read closely.

On the plus side, both Lane and Peters included the title of my book. And perhaps Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Even more to the point is the line attributed to Irish writer Brendan Behan, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Right-wing lies lead to Vil-sacking

Posted by James McPherson on July 21, 2010

With the amazingly speedy news cycle we now have, it’s already old news that a right-wing blogger lied about an Obama administration official, that the lie was spread by Fox News, and that the official was wrongly forced to resign because her bosses were too lazy or cowardly or paranoid to check out the truth and stand up to the liars.

Fox then gained the added benefit of being able to then suggest that Shirley Sherrod had been railroaded by the administration, despite the fact that with this runaway train it was Fox News was among those pouring on the coal. (Sherrod apparently may have been fired even before the story appeared on Fox, though with the apparent knowledge that it would appear there.)

Today Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack accepted full responsibility for the mess, publicly apologized to Sherrod, and offered her another job.

“I didn’t take the time I should have,” said Vilsack, who was portrayed by himself and others as the villain in the case. And there’s no doubt that Vilsack blew it, though of course he had help. And others were equally quick to react badly, including the NAACP.

It’s no surprise that Fox would turn bad information from a questionable source into a biased story designed to make the administration look bad, of course–that’s what the network does. This is at least twice from the same Matt Drudge spinoff; the first was the much more widespread lying about ACORN. Sadly, also not surprising is that Bill O’Reilly thinks the false stories should get even more coverage from other media–perhaps so his employer won’t so often stand alone among major networks in its stupidity.

Nor should we be surprised that a multitude of kneejerk bloggers quickly relayed the bad info (sometimes adding their own obnoxious comments or misstatements); for examples, see here, here, here, herehere, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. At this writing, only the last two of those had offered a full correction or apology.

This case provides further evidence that you cannot fully trust video unless you shot it yourself. Another sad but probably true reminder comes from Bob Cesca at Huffington Post: “This will all happen again. Why? Because the traditional news media and, to a certain extent, the Democrats including the president, are too easily cowed by right-wing freakouts.”

Same-day update: Thanks to Poynter’s Jim Romenesko, I just came across this excellent summary of the case and some the media issues involved.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Catholics and conservatives campaign against mythical threats

Posted by James McPherson on February 19, 2009

You might think that with various economic crises, a housing crisis, worsening unemployment, rampaging monkeys and race issues, there would be enough to fear in America today. Obviously if you thought that you’d be wrong. A couple of days ago I wrote about Sarah Palin (who apparently pays taxes as if she were a Democrat) grabbing a bit of face time on Fox News (the sort of time she has billed Alaskan taxpayers for in the past)  to warn against the Fairness Doctrine. Now Time reports that Catholics are waging a lobbying effort and national postcard campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act.

The problem, of course, is that there is no such Freedom of Choice Act, just as–despite the wails of right-wing fear-mongers (including some who cloak themselves at “think tanks“–there is virtually no chance of the Fairness Doctrine ever returning. So why the campaign against them? Mostly, in my view, to keep “the base” (particularly the more ignorant parts of the base) constantly fearful. The Fairness Doctrine and the Freedom of Choice Act seem to be just the latest monsters under the conservative bed, keeping key parts of the base shivering under the covers.

As I wrote in my most recent book, conservatives gained power in part because they were so effective at engaging in scare tactics. Fox News and conservative talk radio often get the credit for bringing Republicans to power, but in fact direct mail was the most important medium in the conservative resurgence. Direct mail was most effective because, like the Internet today, it could reach people one-on-one and scare them with threats of what they feared most, even if the scaring often veered into exaggeration or outright dishonesty. It also was largely ignored by Democrats and by the mainstream media (and scholars of media and politics, for that matter), which is why so many of them were surprised by increasing conservative influence that often seemed to run counter to what most Americans said they believed.

Apparently one can’t have too many threatening bed monsters, so I’ve decided to do my bit to help conservatives in their cause. With my blessing, they can now start warning their followers about the following seven fictional threats that Congress may consider:

The First Peoples Trump Trump Act: Now that Native Americans have proven to be better at business than Donald Trump, all gambling properties in America–along with the entire states of Florida, Nevada and Arizona–will be given back to the Indians. Texas, New Mexico and California will be given back to Mexico. The non-gambling portion of New Jersey will be given to anyone willing to take it.

The Workers of Color Act: If two people want the same job, that job will automatically go to the person with the darkest skin. The exception is in the case of a conservative black person, who will be treated under this act as if s/he were white.

The Make Up for Slavery Act: Once promised “40 acres and a mule,” the descendents of slaves will finally be granted those awards, with interest. Because of the state of the economy, the interest will include the entire states of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, both Carolinas, and any part of Virginia ever owned by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

The Congressional Clone Act: Any clone created from the DNA of a member of Congress will automatically be entitled to claim that Congressional seat when the original holder dies. Once Republicans have lost the remaining seats they now hold in Congress, the CCA will be the only means by which a new Congressman or Senator can be appointed, except via normal elections.

The ACORN Elections Act: Since normal elections will still take place, this bill will do away with the Federal Elections Commission and put ACORN in charge of all electoral activities at the federal and state levels.

The Test-Tube Voter Act: Any person who develops out of an implanted embryo that might instead have been used for stem cell research shall be denied all voting rights on account of selfishness.

The Happy Cheerful Gay Marriage Act: No person shall be allowed to marry unless both parties seem appropriately happy. Any two creatures judged to be appropriately happy can marry, regardless of sexual orientation, race, age or species. “Appropriate happiness” will be judged by a Congressional subcommittee chaired by Barney Frank–or his clone.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

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 »

ACORN makes GOP & media nuts while others try to steal the election

Posted by James McPherson on October 22, 2008

A recommendation: Before you consider for one more second the potential problems associated with ACORN, read the latest issue or the online version of Mother Jones magazine, which offers “10 Ways to Steal an Election.” Some of the methods are illegal, some are just sleazy, all have been used by conservatives, and all are more insidious and more likely to affect the final vote count than anything ACORN is doing now.

The magazine also carries a story about the Republicans’ cynical last-ditch effort to win the election (or to raise doubts about the veracity of Barack Obama’s victory). Unfortunately, too many of the supposedly liberal mainstream media, not just Fox News, are devoting disproportionate amounts of time and energy to the GOP line about ACORN stealing the election (though they don’t seem to be yet buying the conservative talking point that perhaps ACORN is doing so with the help of Barack Obama).

Perhaps ACORN is worth looking into, though I have yet to see anyone explain how registration fraud equals voter fraud (or point out that inflated registration numbers may do more harm to Democrats, who might have unrealistic expectations about voter turnout, than to Republicans, who should know that Mickey Mouse won’t show up to cast a ballot). A bigger problem, though, is the relative lack of meaningful stories about the real election fraud threats. For those we have to turn to such media as last night’s episode of the Colbert Report (see the video of “The Word“) and Mother Jones.

Speaking of which, you also can see an interactive map of states in which election “shenanigans” are known to have occurred. I doubt that the mainstream media, interested in keeping the election close (and in not creating an anti-media backlash vote), will be moved to carry their own versions of the map. After all, unlike Real Clear Politics and CNN, over at MSNBC and CBS, they’re still running maps that show neither candidate having enough likely electoral votes to claim victory.

I dislike the fact that the media base so much election coverage on polls. But I dislike even more that they they misrepresent their own polling information, which now suggests, barring some nearly miraculous event, that Obama will win big and Sarah Palin will be sent packing back to Alaska (but apparently won’t be packing the $130,000 worth of new clothing bought for her by the GOP since she became the VP nominee).

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How many cell phone users won’t vote for a black guy?

Posted by James McPherson on October 15, 2008

I raise the above question–not a serious one–to highlight a couple of issues that concern pollsters who worry that today’s political polls may be flawed. The first is the so-called “Bradley effect,” which supposes that many people who tell pollsters they favor an African American candidate will then cast ballots for a white candidate instead.

With Barack Obama we’ve also heard discussion of a supposed “reverse Bradley effect,” which theorizes that some white people might not openly admit they’ll cross racial lines to vote, but under certain conditions (such as a compelling individual candidate or a collapsing economy while the white candidate’s party is in the White House)  will do so in the privacy of the polling booth.

Another issue, raised by the National Journal today, is related to cell phone usage. As I noted back in August when I predicted a substantial Barack Obama victory: “Many surveys rely heavily on phone interviews, which tend to underrepresent college students and techno-savvy people who rely on cell phones and/or computer phone services instead of traditional landlines. Yet those people are the ones who seem to be among Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters. I would not be surprised in this election to see Obama’s numbers underrepresented by 5 percent or more in many polls.”

I actually hope the polls are screwed up (assuming my favored candidate wins, of course); maybe then journalists will stop relying so much on polling for political coverage. Unfortunately if the polls are significantly wrong, many people will suspect another culprit: voter fraud.

Conservatives are now beating a drum about ACORN–despite the facts that the voter registration problems involving signature gatherers were discovered and reported by the organization itself, that no real problem exists (after all, “Mickey Mouse isn’t showing up on election day, and states have safeguards built in), and that the ploy is an obvious Republican smear designed to harm the credibility of the organization.

As Editor & Publisher points out, it is too bad (though perhaps not surprising) that so many in the media have helped hype the story, while turning a blind eye to the type of voter problems that may have cost Democrats the presidency in both 2000 (in Florida) and 2004 (in Ohio), and which Republicans are pursuing for this election, as well. “The allegations can also help cover up actual election fraud undertaken on behalf of McCain,” author Glenn W. Smith writes, adding that the media seem to find the more common situations that limit voter turnout to be somehow less egregious than the remote possibility that someone might accidentally be allowed to cast a vote: “Exclusion is a tradition with deep roots in our cultural narratives and founding documents. Historically accustomed as we are to exclusion, maybe we don’t judge it to be news.”

As for the supposed “threat” of ACORN, John McCain characterized the organization more fairly a couple of years ago as a keynote speaker FOR the group. You can see his remarks, along with more voter fraud discussion, in the first video (from “Countdown”) below. If you have the stomach for it, the second video–with claims similar to those made in an ad that drew a “pants on fire” rating from PolitiFact.org, shows the new, dishonest, attacking McCain perspective. In about an hour from this writing, we’ll see which version shows up for the debate.

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