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 ‘Berlin Wall’

Congress approving digital delay that few want?

Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2009

After last night’s unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives will take “emergency action” to vote on a bill to delay the switch to digital television from Feb. 17 until June 12. The House vote may come as early as later today, though I suspect ongoing stimulus talks and other issues (which fortunately included passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) will delay it until tomorrow or later this week. So much for the idea that interest groups and lobbyists have all the power in Washington, since students and I learned first-hand last week that representatives for several powerful groups actually oppose the delay to digital.

The “emergency” aspect of the House action is somewhat humorous, since the switch to digital has been scheduled for more than a decade and those of use with cable or satellite hookups probably won’t be seriously affected (though even we may need an extra cable box or experience a slight  increase in the number of neighbors who want to watch football games at our houses). A January startup date previously had been moved to Feb. 17 after legislators realized what might happen if the switch screwed up people’s Super Bowl viewing or messed with the plans of advertisers, who will pay up to $3 million for 30 seconds of advertising during the game. No, that’s not a joke–at least three experts we spoke with in New York and Washington, D.C., verified the Super Bowl-related reasoning behind the February date.

I don’t know the significance of the June 12 date, which among other things happens to be George H.W. Bush’s 85th birthday, the 70th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the 22nd anniversary of the date Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the 15th anniversary of when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered (an event that came 27 years to the day after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriages, suggesting that O.J. may have an odd way of celebrating key anniversaries).

Regardless of the date, the Nielsen ratings folks are concerned about the switch to digital, as Dave Thomas, president of Global Media Client Services of the company, noted when we met him two weeks ago. He estimated that 5 to 6 percent of viewers are “completely unprepared” for the switch (despite the fact that as National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Marcellus Alexander told us last week, more than $1 billion has been spent on industry advertising warning viewers that “you may need a converter box” if your TV is too old and you don’t have cable or satellite television).

“What’s troubling is that it’s not going to fall evenly,” Thomas noted about the people who will be left without television. Young people, the elderly and poor people will be most likely to suffer problems, and not nearly enough cost-reducing coupons have been set aside for people who need converter boxes. I don’t know how much the problem might be aggravated by people like me who got converter boxes despite already having cable, just in case a natural disaster or the desire to watch a baseball game while camping forces me to rely on older, non-digital technology.

A bigger problem will be that some people won’t have signals even with their new converter boxes, as we were reminded last week by Seth Morrison, senior VP of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. On the digital transition issue, members of CTAM–who naturally (but not “officially”) want everyone to switch to cable, anyway–find themselves in rare agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters in opposing the delay, in large part because in the meantime broadcasters and cable companies are paying to transmit both digital and traditional analog signals.

Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, told our group last Friday (and apparently told the Associated Press a few days later) that a four-month extension would cost PBS stations more than $22 million in extra transmission costs. Coincidentally, just a few minutes into our meeting, she had to leave the room to take a call from Senator Jay Rockefeller, the sponsor of the bill (favored by Barack Obama) to delay the transition to digital.

“It sounds like they won’t extend the date,” Kerger said when she returned, indicating that there didn’t seem to be enough Senate votes to force the extension. Assuming that Rockefeller wasn’t intentionally misleading Kerger, just three days later the tide shifted dramatically to make the vote for the extension unanimous, while illustrating another Kerger point: “The conversion has not been well managed.”

On the other hand, as more and more Americans find themselves without work, at least the delay will let more of those people spend their suddenly free time watching the antics of politicians and thieving financial fat cats, so viewers can better understand just how screwed they really are.

Incidentally, for tonight’s viewing I recommend FRONTLINE/World on PBS, which starts a new season with stories about Guantanamo prisoners, the Italian Mafia and Barack Obama’s Brazilian appeal.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Using the threat of Iran to bring back the Cold War

Posted by James McPherson on July 8, 2008

Apparently longing for the bad old days when it actually mattered much as a nation in the overall scheme of world politics, the Czech Republic has agreed to let the U.S. deploy part of a disputed, unproven and perhaps unworkable anti-ballistic missile defense shield in former Soviet-held territory.

“Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat,” said Condi “Mushroom Cloud” Rice, an expert on imaginary threats. The Bush administration promotes the shield as it has promoted pretty much everything else it has wanted to do since Saddam Hussein was dug out of a hole, as a defense against Iranian extremism. In this case, the shield would supposedly defend the U.S. and European allies from long-range missiles launched from Iran.

Even if Iran had weapons capable of reaching the U.S. and a reason to risk total annihilation by using them, of course, this would be a ludicrous argument. On the other hand, Bush and his cronies know that most Americans couldn’t use a globe to find Iowa, let alone Iran. If we really worry about missiles from the Middle East hitting the U.S., we should be building defenses in Canada. But then the Canadians aren’t as easily swayed by promises of foreign aid as are the eastern Europeans (and even Poland, another planned shield location, is holding out for a bigger U.S. payoff, which may force a shift to another former Soviet territory, Lithuania).

Iran’s missiles could reach Europe, and so maybe that alone is an argument for the shield, and of course the Bush administration strives to never avoid exaggeration, unless outright lying might work better. But Europeans also have little to fear from Iran, since the European Union is Iran’s biggest trade partner. Eastern Europeans do fear Russia, however, so they’ll appease Bush’s bait-and-switch if the U.S. might protect them from the Russians. And speaking of the Russians, of course they’re protesting the U.S.-Czech plan, with Mad Vlad Putin claiming it could lead to a new Cold War. They were already upset and understandably suspicious because Bush had previously rejected a missile treaty that even Ronald Reagan thought was OK.

And perhaps a new Cold War–which more than anything else helped give various forms of conservatism both the enemy and the credibility they needed to gain power–is Bush’s real aim. After all, just before he ran for office he bought a ranch like Reagan had, fashioned himself as a bumbling cowboy like Reagan did (OK, how much of that was intentional is debatable, but still…), attacked a country he thought would be easy to whip (sorry, Gee-dub, Iraq ain’t no Grenada), and tried to bring back the Gipper’s “Star Wars” defense system.

And still Bush’s approval ratings hover in the 20s. So maybe if he can get Putin (or Putin puppet Dmitri Medvedev) to rebuild the Berlin Wall, then insist that he tear it down, all in the next five months…

We could even lend some wall-building expertise and some undocumented labor.

Next day update: The Bush and news organizations are making a big deal of the fact that Iran just just fired nine missiles–with a maximum range of 1,200 miles. Of course Fox’s headline (for what it made the lead story of the day) was the scariest: “Iran Test-Fires Missiles Capable of Hitting Israeli, U.S. Bases.” Not Europe or the U.S., of course, meaning it took only a day for Condi Rice to be again revealed as a serial exaggerator. But with media attention spans being what they are, if the administration screams loud enough, perhaps people will think today’s story actually supports yesterday’s claims. The least surprising part of today’s story? “Oil prices jumped on news of the missile tests.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »