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 ‘Blackberry’

Obama’s selective openness a bad sign for him and us

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2009

Barack Obama has been justifiably praised for his efforts to use technology to talk directly to the American people, and, since his election, for his orders to increase the transparency of government. 

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama promised on his first day in office. And as a former journalist and a citizen concerned about the workings of government, I’m happy about the promises of increased openness.

Unfortunately those promises may go largely unfulfilled, as indicated by Columbia Journalism Review writer David Cay Johnston’s  experience. Not only is the press staff difficult to reach and sometimes apparently ignorant about how the media work, Johnston reports that the administration is also editing briefing transcripts before posting them–a practice used by the Bush administration to “polish the record.”

 “Politicians make choices and have to live with them,” Johnston notes. “How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.”

Obama’s decisions likely will keep getting tougher, not easier, and with each he’ll have to decide anew his commitment to open government. Will he open the windows on U.S. torture policy? Will he keep the Bush administration’s secrets, even if it means that war crimes go unpunished? Worse, might he continue some of the abuses? How will he protect us from the end of the world less than two months after his 2012 re-election? OK, I’m kidding about that one: I’m not at all convinced he’ll be re-elected, even if we happen to survive that long.

Though Obama has been talking a lot about the economy and the need to spend lots of money to forestall total economic collapse, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wonders if the president is giving any consideration to a central theme of his campaign–how health care, perhaps the biggest draw on the economy, might be fixed? Obama and his people aren’t saying, so we don’t know.

There’s a lot they aren’t saying, despite the fact that Obama now seems to be on television constantly. As can be seen nightly on the Vegas strip or with the Three-card Monte games of New York City, the most effective magicians work not by openly hiding things but by using charm, patter, and perhaps a pretty girl or two to keep us from looking where we should. And it is worth remembering that Obama drew kudos for the “discipline” of his button-down presidential campaign, from which leaks did not escape.

Naturally politicians hate it when everyone knows what they’re doing, sometimes for good reasons. For one thing, if ideas are revealed too early, critics can jump in before plans can be given thorough consideration or a fair hearing. For another thing, leaks make a course change tougher if people know you originally intended something else. You might even become known as a flip-flopper. And sometimes information can simply be embarrassing.

But the Bush administration convincingly reminded us why we can’t simply trust officials to tell us what we need to know (even an official with his own Blackberry and YouTube channel), and why we need journalists to dig for us, to follow up on statements, to explore alternatives. After the press and government failures of the Iraq War, domestic spying and the economy, we can hope that even journalists have learned the same thing.

Incidentally, Johnston’s article also reminds us of why CJR (where editor Mike Holt graciously met with a dozen of my students in New York earlier this month) is such a valuable source both for and about journalism. I renewed my subscription this week.

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

Gadgets create more ‘reporters’–and fewer journalists?

Posted by James McPherson on January 7, 2009

Skype, netbook computers, mobile communication devices and other electronic devices make it increasingly easy for anyone to become an on-the-scene reporter. Regardless of the economy, people apparently aren’t going to give up their gadgets–at least until there’s no power to run them–which in may both help and harm journalism.

Poynter’s Al Tompkins, a broadcast & multimedia expert who last year led a workshop that prompted me to start this blog, writes today about a TV reporters using a laptop, a Blackberry and Skype to report from the scene of the college football championship game.

“She didn’t have a big live truck accompanying her, or an engineer tuning in a shot or a photojournalist standing behind the camera and setting up lights,” Tompkins writes. “[The reporter] set up her own camera, opened her laptop, connected the camera to her computer, slipped a wireless connection card into her laptop, called up Skype and used her Blackberry to establish IFB (the device TV folks wear in their ears to hear the off-air signal). It all looked just great on air.”

Spokane television stations have been going nuts with Skype lately, mostly to show how much snow and ice are on area streets as they encourage the rest of us to stay home (which most have for long periods, since we’ve already had 77 inches of snow, almost double what we get in a typical winter). As long as the news vehicle moves slowly, the pictures are good–but rarely any more interesting or informative than the shots we used to see before reporters fell in love with their newest toy.

As someone teaching future journalists, a key issue to me is the point Tomkins makes later in the story–which features an interview with the reporter about “working alone”–about the effect on staffing: “This type of reporting marks a new day. It is more than backpack journalism or one-woman-band reporting; it is soup to nuts, live reporting without a live truck or a signal that looks like a Max Headroom video. Obviously, it is also a potential cost-saving way to use fewer people and to send in live reports without using expensive trucks.” (emphasis mine)

As technology continues to improve and news organizations cut more staffers, those organizations can rely increasingly on non-professionals to provide content. My local paper, for example, may use pictures, video and/or text from some of my students who will be in Washington, D.C., for the Inauguration. That would be good for my students, would let the paper cover the event more comprehensively than it would otherwise (not long ago, it probably would have relied on wire service copy), and would let readers in on more of the action.

At the same time, amateur citizen journalism further decreases the need (in the eyes of owners) for qualified journalists, and increases the possibilty for error–or even intentional fraud by people who may try to scam a news organization with dramatic–but misleading or false–video or text.

Off to New York and D.C.

My own posts may come less frequently for the next few weeks, since a dozen students and I are about to leave for a 17-day study program to New York and Washington, D.C. We meet with about two dozen professionals in media-related fields, and most of us plan to be among the millions of people attending the Presidential Inauguration.  It didn’t occur to me when I started planning the trip that Manhattan would be the less crowded of the two places we’ll be spending most of our time.

The students will be blogging along the way (and perhaps linked with the Spokesman-Review), if you want to keep up with what they’re doing and some of their reactions to people and places they’ll visit–including the Nielsen Co., NPR, PBS, the Associated Press, The Onion, The Smoking Gun, Saatchi & Saatchi, Barron’s, Fairness & Accuracy in Media, the Public Relations Society of America, Columbia Journalism Review, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Student Press Law Center. It should be quite a trip.

And just in case I don’t get to post as regularly as usual and you’d like something more to read as long as you’re here, below are 20 favorite posts that you may have missed from the past:

As Bush people approach endangered species status, scientists find other rats, vipers and creepie crawlersBurn a flag for the Fourth

Begging to differ

Bettie Page & Robin Toner: Two women who made media history

With Jessica Alba too fat, Keira Knightly too flat, Faith Hill too plain & Sarah Palin too real, how should mags portray Michelle Obama?

Post #200 of a stupid, outdated idea

Christmas killers, foreign & domestic: More proof the world looks better from a distance

If you’re going to write anything stupid in the future, don’t come to my class

Top stories and missing stories of 2008: Obama, the economy, China and Mother Nature–and by the way, isn’t something going on in Iraq?

2012 predictions for GOP: Jindal, Huckabee, Romney, Palin or relative unknown?

Have you ever heard of the “world’s most famous journalist”?

Ignorance and the electorate

On-the-mark election predictions, and why Obama won

WOW! Young people access news differently than grandparents

Family values

Veterans Day: Thank the slaves who let you shop and spew

Speaking for the poor

Curiosity and journalism

Pogo’s enemy, revisited

Utah Phillips and other dead patriots

Warku-go-’round: A 20-part history of Bush’s War

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

Obama to get a new ride–but can he trust the service plan?

Posted by James McPherson on January 6, 2009

Like every president since John F. Kennedy’s assassinaton, “car guy” Barack Obama will get a brand new bulletproof limo when he takes office. The car is so quiet he’ll be able to block out even the press, and even without a Blackberry (and with a compromised Twitter account) he’ll have plenty of ways to keep in touch.

General Motors, the maker of the car, has announced that it will avoid bankruptcy, for now. But with its profits in freefall and new restrictions on ways the company can make money, the Secret Service might be hoping that the government bailout for GM is enough to cover to production of special Cadillac parts for at least four more years.

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