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, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Posts Tagged ‘blogging’

On sabbatical

Posted by James McPherson on June 18, 2013

I’m on sabbatical from my “regular job” until the spring semester. Among other things, I’ll revise my small chapter of the the most popular media history text in the U.S., work on a new academic book, and perhaps finish writing a novel that I began some time back. That means I won’t be doing much, if any, writing here.

And however much as I may need a sabbatical break from teaching, I need one even more from the nonsense that now passes for political discourse in this country. I will be doing a bit of fun and easy blogging with a new project (which for the next few months will also become my primary WordPress blog).

And perhaps I’ll write something here once in a while. I can’t seem to help myself, despite my best intentions.

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 42 Comments »

Fields of screams: political commentary and kids’ soccer

Posted by James McPherson on August 27, 2010

I read a fair number of political blogs, both liberal and conservative, and a lot of news stories that now allow anonymous nitwits to post comments. It just occurred to me recently, however, how much those comment sections resemble a game of soccer involving 5-year-olds. Both involve:

  1. lots of pointless screaming and wailing
  2. juvenile pleas for attention, especially from one or two players who seem to be everywhere
  3. uncoordinated and often pointless back-and-forth that generally goes nowhere
  4. little planning or evidence of thinking
  5. almost no paying attention to others on either side
  6. bad grammar

Both also quickly become so boring that, unless they have a kid in the game, most people quickly wander off. At least with the kids’ game, you get some fresh air, rather than stale old B.S.

Posted in Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Blogosphere of flying: Leaving cyberspace to become more grounded

Posted by James McPherson on April 21, 2009

Yesterday I gave some of the  reasons why I have enjoyed maintaining this blog, and what might tempt me to continue it (and the nice responses I’ve already had to that post make it even more tempting). I also noted that tomorrow’s post, to be mostly a list of previous favorites, may be my last. (Despite the fact that, as my brother reminded me, I said in passing back in December that I’d be blogging “as long as the power was on.” But hey, Bush and Cheney were still in the White House then; who knew we would  still have affordable energy four months later?)

Anyway, today I’ll explain why I’m at least partially leaving cyberspace. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the biggest reason is the time involved. I loved how one respondent put it yesterday: “the beast that is online journalism,” even though what I do usually isn’t quite journalism.

On some days I have spent hours crafting a blog post that very few people would ever read. Oddly, by far my most popular post (in one-day numbers, not overall) was a four-paragraph piece I wrote in about 15 minutes just before going to bed one night. I typically spend anywhere from five to 15 hours a week doing this. During the past year I’ve written more than 300 posts, and have probably produced more words than were in my first and second books combined.

That’s time that I can now spend doing other things, including other writing. During the past year I have managed to write chapters for the country’s leading journalism history textbook and a forthcoming book about popular culture, but have other more personal projects in mind (including the books of fiction I mentioned yesterday). I might try to rework my doctoral dissertation into a book, if I find a publisher interested in the story of Samuel Day Jr. (the publisher of the Progressive during the 1979 H-bomb case).

I also have at least three other books I’d like to write–one that combines history, politics and journalism (the three areas that I studied for my Ph.D. and which of course also led to my most recent book), and a couple that would be exercises in literary nonfiction. Chances are I’ll also write more letters to the editor of my local newspaper, assuming it survives, and will continue to contribute comments to other people’s blogs. Though I don’t expect it, perhaps I’ll get an “offer I can’t refuse” to write something yet unforeseen.

Aside from writing, I might also get more exercise, play more golf, do more camping and fishing, watch more Seattle Mariners games, or spend more time doing nothing while sitting by the small pond I built in my back yard–mostly things that have the extra benefit of giving me more time with my wife.

Other activities that we or I have barely tried, but have enjoyed and might pursue further, include learning Spanish, kayaking, chess, ballroom dancing, and  learning to play blues harmonica. In short, I won’t live long enough to run out of things to do, even if I suddenly stop finding new interests.

In terms of teaching and technology, I intend to keep learning about it for the sake of (and from) my students. In a comment on yesterday’s post, one outstanding student noted, “I’m interested to hear about the ways you will hope to continue to show that to students if you are not blogging.” (That’s something else I should have thought to mention yesterday about reasons for blogging–it helps keep me accountable to the people I’m working for.)

A year has been long enough to learn what I felt I needed to learn about intensive blogging, and I intend to keep finding new ways of learning along with new ways of teaching. That’s also why a few years ago I briefly hosted a radio program. I never expected to become either a radio celebrity or an Internet star, but I greatly enjoyed both, and in both cases the learning experience was a main point of the activity.

Among the possibilities I’m now exploring are public access television, another radio program, and ways that I might incorporate technology into the aforementioned literary nonfiction projects. In the classroom, I’m bringing in more multimedia, and am seeking funding for flipcams to use in my reporting class. I also would welcome suggestions from any of you for ways to continue to improve my (and my students’) skills.

I do think it is important to try to recognize what you’re trying to achieve with an endeavor, and then to move on to something else when you either get reach your goal or realize that you never will. Of course that’s the same thinking that went into my fighting to get to–and then to get away from–the Presidential Inauguration back in January, and why I strongly dislike the fact that politicians are accused of “flip-flopping” if they change strategies as circumstances change.

If I chose to keep with blogging, readership might have continued to rise. Over the past 12 weeks, I’m averaging more than 180 hits per day, but like most other bloggers I reached fewer readers in a year of blogging than I did in a week of newspaper writing. Yet despite the small readership, my natural competitiveness sometimes makes me take this too seriously. I admit that I check the daily traffic, and want it to keep increasing.

The positive aspect of my competitive streak  is that if I’m putting something “out there,” I want to be able to stand by it and take some pride in it. I’m more careful when writing an argument than when I engage in verbal exchanges. That awareness of “public vs. private” is also why I now make my reporting students post their work on a blog to be read by people other than just them and me.

And speaking of being more thoughtful: I’m a feminist male who was a teenager in the 1970s and who now teaches a “women and media” class, so yes, the Erica Jong reference in the title above was intentional. Those of you who are teaching or majoring in psychology, gender studies, or English lit can now feel free to start your analysis engines.

Besides having other things I want to do (and probably for the sake of continued growth, need to do), I also recognize that there’s already too much hastily written stuff whirling around cyberspace–and no shortage of people writing about the same topics I do. Many of them are idiots, of course–but many others are smarter than I am. Links to several of them can be found on this page, though I’d also encourage you to find some favorites of your own. I’d also remind you not to fully believe any of them.

I briefly considered trying to open the blog up to advertising as a further media experiment, but don’t want to feel obligated to write (even if I have been somewhat obsessive about doing so even without pay). Besides, despite the fact that for years it provided my salary, I hate most forms of advertising. I can’t imagine working hard enough at this to make a living at it, even if I didn’t already have a “real job” that I love.

I will keep the blog alive (as long as the power is on, brother Guy), and may occasionally feel moved to post something. I’ll keep using blogs as a part of my journalism classes, and will encourage students to create their own. I’ll keep reading and commenting on other people’s blogs, including those of professional journalists, academics, students and former students.

Of course if you enjoy my writing, I’d encourage you to read my books, especially the less-academic second one titled, The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right. Or just fire me off an note–if you care enough to find my email address (hint: check “About the blogger”) and send me something, I’ll answer it.

Even if I don’t write more posts, I’ll keep the blog so that I (and others) can keep using  some of the pieces I’ve written during the past year, and especially to provide easy access to the links I’ve put together. I’ll continue to add to those links from time to time as I encounter relevant sites in the ever-expanding blogosphere.

Thank you for joining me on part of my journey. I hope you enjoy your future travels in cyberspace, wherever they may take you.

     Peace,

                                         Jim McPherson

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

Blogosphere and loathing in academia: To blog or not to blog

Posted by James McPherson on April 20, 2009

I created this blog it to try to reach students in a new way while learning some new technological skills and sharing information about two subjects in which I have some expertise. This Wednesday will be the one-year anniversary of the day I started blogging. It also may be my last day.

The blog has proven to be a valuable method for saving Internet links and ideas that I use in teaching and other writing, and to help students (and at least a few professionals) access some useful tools. I’ve been able to share a lot of information and some skills achieved through this experiment that I, and therefore my students, might not otherwise have picked up. An unexpected side benefit is that it actually seemed to boost my credibility–my “cool factor,” as one student put it–with some of those students.

All in all, my year of blogging has been a great experience–interesting, useful and usually fun. I would recommend it to about any teacher, in any academic discipline (though posting weekly might be more rational than my almost-daily approach).

But I’ve decided to step away from regular blogging, and this seems like a logical time. Tomorrow I’ll offer more details about why I’m quitting–or at least cutting back considerably–and Wednesday I’ll offer a list of my previous favorites, in case you want to check out any you’ve missed. Today I’ll note some of the things I’ve most appreciated about doing this.

Though I’ve tried to make the vast majority of my posts about media and politics rather than about me, please forgive this departure into the personal. Feel free to skip this post (and tomorrow’s), but if you’re a fellow academic or media professional interested in some of the reasons you may or may not want to actively participate in the blogosphere, you may want to read on.

After spending a few days at a Poynter Institute workshop and talking to some other professors and journalists about the idea, I wrote my first blog post (a prediction of success for Barack Obama and potential problems for John McCain) last April. But I’ve decided that one year (and more than 300 posts) is enough. And though I’ve been thinking about it for some time (and mentioned it in passing here a couple of weeks ago), my decision caught even my wife by surprise.

By the way, if you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that I never use her name. She actually appreciates a level of anonymity on the Web and elsewhere, as difficult as that may be to believe in this viral, egocentric, Twitterific, in-your-Facebook, screw-YouTube, blogtastic culture.

Like me, my wife has mixed emotions about my decision to step away from the biosphere… er, blogosphere (and no, the two are not synonymous). She’s happy that I’ll be a bit less compulsive about doing this (and of course will believe it when she sees it), but a bit disappointed that I won’t be sharing my ideas (most of which she likes) so regularly. At least I think that was the mixture of her emotions, and not the other way around–that she’s glad not to feel obligated to read so much of what I write, but unhappy that I may have more free time with her.

Her surprise at my decision came because she knew that I wasn’t bored with or burned out from blogging. In fact,  in some respects it energizes me. I feel more connected with the professional worlds of media and politics, and in some ways more connected with my students.

I’m not stopping because I dislike the writing. Like George Orwell and many others, I knew early in life that I would be a writer, and I love to write in varied ways. My published works include a couple of books, several book chapters, and articles in academic journals, newspapers and magazines. As-yet-unpublished works include a book of short fiction and a partially finished novel.

I love how words work, what Orwell called “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” I amuse myself, if not others, with a creative headline or turn of phrase (I hope you didn’t need to read the first five words of today’s headline out loud to get it), giving proof to Orwell’s statement, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Though I’d been warned about “trolls” and other crazies who might find me, and some did, but I’ve never worried much about criticism and frankly I’ve greatly enjoyed most of my interactions with people here (and on other people’s blogs). I take pride in the fact that even when I know I’ll offend people, I try to do it in a thoughtful way that encourages dialogue rather than closing it off. I try to do the same elsewhere, as well: At least one conservative blogger has me linked as the one liberal alternative on his site, as a result of our online discussions.

Via this blog I’ve “met” students who have never taken one of my classes, and have engaged in “discussions” with a number of professional journalists as well as with other bloggers. I’ve been enriched by all those who comment, and am especially grateful for the regulars such as Gabrielle, Luis, Zelda, Grady and Mike (at least two of whom disagree with me more often than they agree).

A few people have been very offended, of course. Blatantly stupid or offensive remarks have come from both conservatives and liberals. At least one parent of a college student has suggested that I be fired from my job as a professor–but the reaction he received from other readers who came to my defense was one of the highlights of my blogging experience.

The professional and student connections I made quickly helped me overcome some fears that blogging might somehow detract from my teaching. I don’t personally know many other faculty bloggers, and though there are some out there this is not a well-tested pedagogical approach.

I did have someone ask me how this might affect my future promotion possibilities, especially since my opinions often run counter to those of many  administrators, donors, students and parents associated with the institution where I teach. My wife chuckled at that question (which she wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t even considered), remembering what she used to call my “continuing efforts to avoid tenure.”

After all, since long before I started blogging I’ve been writing strong opinions in local newspapers, participating in political panel discussions, and joining political protests. More recently, I wore a black armband daily for several weeks to protest and mourn the Iraq War.

Along with a variety of media history artifacts, my office is decorated with items such as a large “No War” yard sign, a poster showing the 1963 March on Washington, a large 48-star American flag, a poster of a controversial Artis Lane lithograph of the Statue of Liberty, a stuffed “George W. Bush pants-on-fire doll,” and a framed copy of the 1979 “H-bomb” issue of the Progressive that led to what should have been a key First Amendment case. (I say “should have been,” because by the time the case was decided, as I’ve noted in both my first and second books, the mainstream media had mostly  given up engaging in the sorts of activities that the First Amendment was designed to protect.)

I do think that the fact that I have been tenured and promoted, and that this blog has actually been mentioned in the university’s alumni magazine, speaks well for the administration and the values of my institution–which a couple of years ago granted me one of its highest teaching awards. Yet most of my students disagree with me politically (further reflecting the idiocy of the “indoctrination” arguments made by David Horowitz and others like him), and those who disagree with me most strenuously tend to be among the students I tend to like most (yes, like parents, teachers have their favorites, and like parents we try to hide it).

I also am not ceasing blogging because I’m in danger of running out of ideas. I typically have parts of more than a dozen drafts under way. Some entries I quickly write and posted on one sitting. Others (including this one) I work on half a dozen times over a space of days or weeks before posting. Some I never finished, and they were eventually discarded or just forgotten in my “drafts” bin. Others I went back to after extended periods of thought or after an event suddenly makes them seem more timely.

So there are some of the reasons why I have reservations about stepping away from this year-long educational exercise. Tomorrow’s post will explain why it is time to do so.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Homeland insecurity: DHS chief apologizes for something Bush appointee did right

Posted by James McPherson on April 16, 2009

Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano felt obligated to apologize to veterans today, reflecting a remarkable shift in national politics. We no longer have a presidential administration that is incapable of apologizing for–or even admitting–obvious blunders (though of course, “We’re sorry we were wrong about the weapons” won’t bring back thousands of dead Iraqi children). Instead, we have an administration that apologizes when it has done nothing wrong.

The apology came in reaction to a Department of Homeland Security report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The American Legion, various ill-informed bloggers, talk radio hosts, Fox News (surprise!) and others immediately and misleadingly feigned offense (while Fox also offered Web page front-page segments about”Porn Stars and Puppies,” “Bubble Baths in Tiaras,” and “10 Cuddly Cougars“).

Many conservatives have taken offense because Homeland Security has been doing part of its job–assessing threats. Perhaps I’ve forgotten, but I don’t remember similar complaints from conservatives about reports that cited threats from left-wing extremism in 2001 or in March of this year. Furthermore, I also haven’t seen any of the whiners point out the fact that the latest report came from a division headed by Roger Mackin, a Bush-administration appointee who contributed more than $4,500 to Republicans during the last presidential campaign.

Critics falsely complain that the report demonizes veterans while targeting virtually anyone who opposes abortion or illegal immigration. I fact, it mentions abortion exactly twice, once in a footnote and once in a historical note. For the record, the first reference states: “Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”

The other, historical, note states in full: “Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage. During the 1990s, these issues contributed to the growth in the number of domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups and an increase in violent acts targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, banks, and infrastructure sectors.”

Immigration gets a bit more attention in the report, though again mostly in a historical context. And anyone with even a modest knowledge of history should be able to recognize that immigrants (legal and illegal) have been a common target of hate groups throughout history (and throughout the world). The supposed “anti-veteran” comments are equally weak, despite Napolitano’s need to apologize today.

The key point is this: Saying that some hate groups use abortion and immigration to justify their actions is in no way synonymous with saying that anyone opposed to abortion or illegal immigration is a terrorist. That would be like saying that because some terrorists are Muslims, all Muslims are terrorists. And I know that conservatives would never suggest such a thing.

Incidentally, the Obama administration should apologize for something else that it did do today, related to terrorism: It announced that CIA torturers will never be prosecuted.

Sunday update: Something else the Obama administrations should apologize for is announcing that it will keep Bush administration secrets regarding domestic spying. Unlike the DHS report that has people up in arms, that electronic spying, by either administration, is something that should worry all of us.

Posted in Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments »

Pimping the blog, and flogging the chimp

Posted by James McPherson on February 25, 2009

While thinking about today’s post, I came across a piece on bloggingtips.com titled, “How to building traffic to your blogsite the natural way.” My assumption is that all of us who write these things do so because we want people to read–and perhaps respond–to our ideas; otherwise we’d keep diaries. But with several million blogs now on the web, it’s obvious that most blogs aren’t being read by many people. For example, despite the fact that I’ve written more than 250 posts, I’ve worked for a couple of newspapers that had more readers every day than the almost 37,000 total hits this blog has had in the almost 10 months I’ve been doing it.

The reason I bring all this up is because of a couple of comments I got yesterday. Since I’m guessing that most people don’t bother to read the comments (I admit that I rarely read them on other blogs, unless I intend to respond myself or just want to get a feel for the ideological range of an ongoing discussion), and because the respondents raised interesting points that I thought worth exploring and sharing a bit more widely, I thought I’d do so here. If you did read the comments, please forgive some repetition here.

Both comments (the first probably inspired the second) noted that I link to a high number of stories from CNN. One said she was somewhat skeptical of my use of those links, because she suspected I was “just trying to beat the system.” She was right about that–I’ll discuss how and why I’m letting CNN help me pimp my blog in more detail below.

The other respondent stated that I “didn’t seem to have a particular strong stand on things” and “kinda wander all over the place letting CNN, etc. power this blog”; she encouraged me to seek a wider range of sources. She also was at least partly right, in that often I do let mainstream news sites (and especially CNN–again, more on that below) set my agenda for the day.

I would note that there are some issues in particular on which I have taken a stand (prompting at least one reader to say I should be fired from my real job). You’ll find repeated complaints about Bush administration lies, the Iraq War, domestic spying, the Patriot Act, government secrecy, the Religious Right, John McCain’s dirty campaigning, voting irregularities, media lying (ranging from talk radio to bloggers to Photoshop), PUMAs, Sarah Palin’s hiding from the press, and Israeli military actions (Palin and Israel tend to draw more comments than most subjects, for some reason). The fact of the matter is, though, after the election there was less for me to complain about, at least temporarily (though I have criticized Barack Obama’s cabinet picks, his plans for Afghanistan, his “selective openness,” his generally conservative nature, and the way the switch to digital television has been handled).

Still, in general I agree that I do “wander” quite a bit within the constraints of “media and politics,” two subjects that allow a lot of latitude. When I’m busiest (as I am now, teaching three classes and advising a student newspaper, among other things), I tend not to do as much thinking or research for the blog as I do at times when I’m less busy. Also keep in mind that my Ph.D. was interdisciplinary (combining journalism, history and political science), so I like making connections between things that other people may not see.

One good thing about doing only one post per day is that there is no shortage of things related to media and/or politics that I find interesting, so on most days (including some days that I don’t initially intend to write anything) a CNN story will trigger something. I do think that CNN gives a more balanced perspective than perhaps any other site, anyway, and I still try to make sure I make posts clear and relatively complete (considering limited time and the relatively short space allowed by a blog post), though I do link to the New York Times, the Associated Press and even Fox News less often than I used to.

As seems to be true for many bloggers, writing a blog also is partly a way of thinking out loud. For me it’s also a way to keep track of things that I think it’s my job to keep track of, some of which I’ll end up using in classes (and might someday use in a future book or chapter). And it’s a way of sharing knowledge with a general audience, something that I think academics don’t do very well–part of why we sometimes get well-deserved “ivory tower””criticisms. 

Though I sometimes make people angry, in general I’d far rather educate (or be educated), enlighten and entertain than to argue. I’ll let readers determine my success at those things. I certainly don’t do this just to irritate people (though I don’t mind doing so from time to time) or to scream at injustice in the world. As I wrote in the “About the Blog” section on my very first day back in April:

“A primary reason for this blog is the same as for many other things I do: my students at Whitworth University. As a teacher of media studies, media history and journalism skills classes, I want to use as many ways as possible to try to connect with and to learn from those students. I hope they–and you, whoever you may be–will join in the conversation.”

Regular readers will know that I also strongly agree with the idea about using other media and seeking alternative voices. That’s why the long list of links down the right side of this page includes links to various foreign newspapers (including al-Jazeera), and both liberal and conservative publications and bloggers. Even so, if I’m just commenting on something that happened, or using a news event as a starting point for discussion, I tend to trust CNN more than most.

There is another reason, I turn to CNN, though, and now I’ll reveal the secret that could in theory (assuming many people read this far) reduce my readership by increasing the number of people who start doing what I do. If you go to almost any CNN story, at the bottom you’ll see a line that states, “From the Blogs.” Click on that, and you’ll see two or three links to “blogs talking about this topic,” and, more importantly for my purposes, tow or three links to “blogs linking to this story.”

Perhpas because I try to combine clear but somewhat clever headlines with simple leads (simple for the computers to understand), I’ve been very successful in having my blog linked to CNN stories. Perhaps for the same reasons, a fair number of CNN readers then come to my site. Today is the 18th in a row that I’ve had at least 100 views, and on most of those days the majority of the visitors came via CNN.

My justification is that in this ongoing experiment I’m trying to boost “circulation” so that people might read a variety of other things that I have to offer. For example, a few days ago CNN stories apparently directly brought 145 readers to my site. Thirty-one more views seemed to come as a result of search engine search terms. But I had 266 page views that day, looking at 25 different posts, so apparently some of those readers hung around.

In addition, some of them come back. Today I’m over 115 page views so far, and only three people came directly from CNN links. For whatever reason, I seem to have developed a small but loyal following, and an unknown number of other bloggers–ranging from a blogger in Thailand to a reporter in South Carolina to a high school journalism teacher in Massachusetts  to a journalism student in Oregon–have permanent links to my site. I also get a fair number of hits from my own students looking for resources, and of course quite a few via search engines. For example, the 25 terms used so far today to find my blog include “famous journalist,” “faith hill made fat,” “crazy chimp,” “flag at half mast,” “khalilzad y obama,” “prediction 2012 election,” “japanese gay married,” “george bush anthrax,” “hannity colmes brother in law,” ” and  “james mcpherson” (I suspect most of those are looking for the famous Civil War general or the famous Civil War historian by the same name).

Increasing numbers isn’t the only thing that matters, of course, or I could simply keep doing what I did as an experiment back on Sept. 11. That day was my second-busiest ever in terms of traffic (topped only by the 876 views I got on Nov. 13, in that case with a lot of CNN help). The week of Sept. 11 and the next remain my busiest weeks, but the idea of repeating that titillating technique bugs me more from a moral perspective than does using stories that do relate to something I think worth saying, anyway. I’d obviously never make it in advertising or at Fox News (and I am frustrated to see CNN, Sports Illustrated and the Huffington Post, among others, also injecting more sex and sensationalism, no doubt for the same reason as my regular links to CNN–to attract readers). I will note that neither of my most popular posts overall–the Sept. 11 post and a July 3 piece about the flag been the most popular over time by quite a wide margin–links to CNN at all. 

 Finally, a note about one other recent comment: In talking about the “crazed chimp” and an offensive New York Post cartoon, one respondent wrote: “How many of you honestly believe they were trying to be racist with the cartoon? If they did make a mistake, are they not allowed to simply apologize for it? Do we as people not forgive people for making honest mistakes anymore?”

Well, as I noted in the orginal post, I’m willing to accept that the cartoonist didn’t have a racist intent, even if he and his editors are fairly clueless. And I fully agree that we should be able to accept apologies and move on–even if that’s not good enough for Al Sharpton, according to today’s reports. But if Reverend Al were the only one offended I wouldn’t have bothered writing about the incident.

Nonetheless, I also believe that those who are quick to be offended should also be quick to try to forgive and move on. That will do more to promote better race relations than probably anything ever done by Sharpton. Let’s move on from the cartoon, trying to learn from it. And please, can we move on from stores about the attack chimp himself? The media have flogged that story long enough.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Valuable lessons on ‘whom you know’ and on being in the right place at the right time in NY and DC

Posted by James McPherson on January 18, 2009

I’ve been blogging less than usual the past week or so for three reasons: because of various technology issues, because other parts of the program are keeping me busy, and because I’d rather you spend some of your free blogging moments checking out the class blog (including photos and video) for the program I’m now leading on the East Coast.

The group arrived in Washington, D.C., yesterday, and if you’ve been following their class blog you know they’ve met some interesting people and have learned some things (as have I). And despite the inconveniences of a visit from mice in New York, a broken heater here (in the women’s room in both cases), and some minor transportation issues, the students have had valuable experiences that have gone far beyond walking most of Manhattan, shopping, eating prodigious quantities of pizza and ice cream, passing Barack Obama’s train on the way from New York to Washington, and beating their professor at pool.

Perhaps most significantly, students have learned two of the most important things about how the world works, things that have little to do with the traditional education that universities typically provide.

The first of those lessons is that it really is often true that whom you know matters more than what you know. We’ve met a couple of people with great media jobs who had no formal training for those jobs, but got them largely as a result of personal contacts.

Of course the lucky recipients of those jobs had to prove themselves capable of doing the work, but the fact is that most of the six billion people on the planet–including many, many folks more initially qualified for the positions–had no chance of getting those jobs.

Most of us in our group will go to the Inauguration on Tuesday as part of the mob (which as a people-watcher with a journalistic mind I’m actually looking forward to), but three students managed to wrangle tickets thanks to a mother’s connections with a Congressman. Other connections–mine, those of colleagues, and in at least one case those of a student–also helped us get meetings with several of the great media sources we’re meeting with on this trip.

And of course all of us can cite examples (even if the meritocracy-preaching fortunate such as Supreme Court justice and affirmative action beneficiary Clarence Thomas sometimes ignore them) in which family connections or even seemingly minor incidental contacts have led to jobs.

Frankly, part of the reason I have the job I do is that I met a current department colleague while we coincidentally shared an airport shuttle in New Orleans a year earlier. In addition, I was invited to write both of my books (and several other chapters and articles) as a direct result of contacts made through the American Journalism Historians Association.

The second key lesson students have learned is that being in the right place at the right time can matter a lot. Students took in a church service at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem last Sunday, only to find that the day’s surprise guest preacher was Jesse Jackson.

An incidental contact led to two other students getting to see Conan O’Brien’s program, and because I was in the right place at the right time, I was offered two free tickets to see David Letterman last week–and am still getting grief from students because I turned the tickets down due to a conflict with one of our already scheduled class meetings.

In a terrible media market (something of which the experts we’ve been meeting keep reminding us) amid a collapsing national economy, it might be easy for students to become disheartened. Knowing that they spend most of their time in Spokane, Wash., where the “right people” rarely hang out, and knowing that most of them don’t have the kind of connections that will get them easy access to the jobs they want, has provided further moments of discouragement.

At the same time, rather than becoming depressed, Whitworth University journalism students have actively sought out the people and ways to make themselves more marketable. One is doing an impressive blog about the state of the industry, and used an independent study to create and develop the blog and to discuss key related issues with a number of media professionals.

Our journalism students attend national conventions and take part in programs like this one to further enhance their chances of making the right connections. Our department requires students to complete internships, and at least four of the student journalists on this trip have already worked for newspapers or television stations.

All of the student journalists with me work for the student newspaper (comprising most of the editorial staff) and/or radio station, and a couple are discussing adding a Web “television” station linked to the newspaper site.

Last night I went to bed thinking that four students were  staying up to play cards. Instead, the three who were already bloggers helped the fourth start a blog of her own, and the two with Twitter accounts helped the other two set up accounts.

Other media-related activities not formally part of the class, but which have been undertaken by students on this trip, have included seeking and getting enhanced training at College Publisher (which hosts the Whitworth student newspaper Web site), getting up early to visit “Good Morning America,” and taking in a taping of Sean Hannity’s show, in addition to the O’Brien experience.

Even more impressive, a group of a dozen students have asked me to oversee an independent study related to new media technology during the upcoming semester. A normal independent study involves one or two students working on something not covered by traditional classes, but in this case a dozen students have agreed to show up twice a week to teach each other more of the skills that might enhance their job prospects.

Though the university will provide a computer lab for a couple of hours a week in this case, professors are not paid for overseeing independent study programs of any size. We do it because we love to see and encourage enthusiasm about learning, and because such programs teach us more about things we also care about.

In this case, I’ll sit in with the students and let them teach me some technical skills that I can then share with even more students in the future. The students are amazing in their efforts to enhance their education–but the school and I are getting the better deal.

And so will future employers, should they be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to get to know these students.

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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 »

Post #200 of a stupid, outdated idea

Posted by James McPherson on December 18, 2008

Blogging apparently is stupid, at least for amateurs like myself (for whom this is my 200th post since I began April 22). We should be wasting our time and distributing our tidbits of wit or wisdom in other ways.

“It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter,”  Paul Bouten writes for Wired. Frankly, I get very few hecklers, and when I do I politely point out the error of their ways and they don’t write back. Of course, I also get relatively few readers (more on the numbers below).

Boutin points out that professionals such as the Huffington Post have taken over the blogging universe, and that “a stand-alone commentator can’t keep up with a team of pro writers cranking out up to 30 posts a day.” Incidentally, I got this bit of news via stand-alone commentator Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.

I’d also argue that some of the professional blogs are doing so well because they provide more meaningful news and commentary than mainstream news sites.

Well, I’m on Facebook, but mostly to keep track of colleagues and former students. I rarely write anything there, or read much of what anyone else has written. My page has a link to my blog–if anyone cares what I think, they can jump over here.

I refuse to Twitter, at least for now (keeping in mind that less than a year ago I said I’d never be a blogger). Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it rips the soul from wisdom.

Few things worth saying or knowing can adequately be expressed in 140 characters, and most of those brief bits should be said more personally: “I love you.” “Drop dead.” “I’m sorry.” “Dear Mom and Dad: Send money.” “You’re fired.” “We’re having a baby.” “It’s time for Fluffy to be put down.” “Would you like fries with that?” “Look at all the freakin’ snow.” (Despite shoveling last night before I went to bed, I woke up to a two-foot snowdrift ON MY PORCH this morning.)

Maybe it’s a result of my experience as an academic, but I disagree with the premise that blogging is primarily a tool for self-promotion. That obviously is the case for some bloggers, but most probably feel they have something meaningful to share. Many of those are correct, and it’s not up to me–or, thank God, the corporate media–to decide which, for all readers.

Though I do get an ego boost on days when readership is up, I certainly don’t write for the attention or the money. If I did, I’d be trying to pen crime novels instead of well-researched books about journalism history and politics.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m doing this primarily for the same reason I do most things outside of my home: my students. And the number of “my students” has expanded as a result I now have regular student readers who have never taken a class from me. Responses from those students and former students are the ones I value most.

This experiment has taught me some interesting things, some more surprising than others. Not surprising is that my most popular post (approximately 1,700 views so far) was a misleadingly titled sociological experiment, sought out by people using terms that have nothing to do with media or politics.

More surprising is that the second-most popular post (about 1,300), and the one still getting a few views pretty much every day is one about the U.S. Flag Code that I wrote back in July, based on one of my favorite classroom lectures about symbols.

Also still among the top eight are my August prediction that Barack Obama would handily win the presidential election and my back-to-back June posts suggesting that the vice presidential nominees should be Joe Biden and Sarah Palin–though because a link to to it appears at the bottom of a popular CNN story, yesterday’s post (about to pass 500) about the Bush administration, science and endangered species may blow past those two. Maybe it’s because of the YouTube clip from “Them.”

Aside from the flag post, generally speaking the two best topics for generating traffic have been Palin and sex. On a typical day I get between 100 and 200 page views. The most for a single day was 876, coming mostly from one of those Palin stories (also with help from CNN).

Not surprisingly, that same Palin story generated the most comments. Many posts draw no response. Others get an occasional comment even weeks later, which strikes me as a bit odd.

Admittedly, there may be a bit of egotistical lunacy behind generating an average of about 25 posts per month in addition to teaching four classes, advising a student newspaper, remodeling my kitchen (yes, I did it myself–some academics can use a hammer and saw), helping organize and host a national journalism history convention in October, and organizing a Jan Term study trip to two dozen sites in New York and Washington, D.C.

Insomnia helps. And besides, writing is one of the fun parts of my job, and a big part of why I became a reporter and then an editor. In addition, writing these things here may keep me from verbally torturing my wife and others with my reactions to the news items that intrigue me.

Another obvious reason that I would engage in such an archaic form of communication as blogging is that I’m a media historian. I live for soon-to-be-extinct technologies. I don’t own an ipod or a Kindle, but my office holds a 1953 television set; probably a hundred pounds of newspapers, magazines and photos; hundreds of books; phonograph “records” of various sizes; a VCR and dozens of videotapes; some old film cameras; a cassette tape deck and dozens of cassette tapes; numerous CD’s, a couple of reel-to-reel tapes; and even an 8-track tape or two.

Also related to history: The American flag on my office wall, a flag that was in use when I was born, has 48 stars. At that time there was no state of Alaska for the future Sarah Palin to govern. Perhaps you think of that time as “the good ol’ days.”

Dec. 28 update: CNN names “the ascendance of Twitter” its top tech trend of 2008. Sigh. The story concludes, “One thing Twitter is lacking, though, is a profitable business plan.” In that respect, it’s like the newspapers I love so much.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Blasts from the past: Sixteen selected posts

Posted by James McPherson on December 3, 2008

I realize that people find their way here at various times, and if you’re like me you’ll rarely go back and read many earlier posts. But I also think you might find some of those posts interesting, so here are 16 of my favorites:

Burn a flag for the Fourth

Begging to differ

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

Modern ‘poll tax’: Long lines hurt working class & democracy

Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Mos Def, Zalmay Khalilzad & Keith Ellison: Which doesn’t belong?

Utah Phillips and other dead patriots

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

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Poetry, Politics, Religion, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »