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 ‘blogosphere’

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 »

Begging to differ

Posted by James McPherson on June 9, 2008

As I noted a couple of days ago, one of the highlights of my childhood was listening in–and occasionally participating–as my parents argued politics with their friends. Occasionally things would become overly heated and the gathering would break up. My first coffee table was a hand-me-down with indents in the wood where a rum bottle had been pounded for emphasis during a discussion of the Vietnam War. But the friendships themselves held together because everyone knew that the people involved were good, even if the ideas sometimes weren’t.

Today one of the things I value most about my current job is my friendship with a conservative Southern Baptist who idolizes Ronald Reagan. I frequently describe Mike as “one of the funniest, best-educated, most loving, thoughtful, well-spoken people I know–who just happens to be wrong about almost everything.” He subscribes to National Review, while I subscribe to the Nation. Of course we’re also both middle-aged white guys with beards, glasses and Ph.D.’s, which makes us more like each other than either of us is like most of the other people in the world.

Mike and I typically get together for lunch after any significant political event such as a debate or primary. I do so because he knows more about media and politics than anyone else I know around here, and I love to talk about the issues. We send each other jokes about the other guy’s favored candidates and positions. When we see each other in public we’ll exchange insults of a sort that make those around us–people far more accustomed to the modern practice of avoiding the discussion of anything that might cause discomfort–reflexively cringe. For example, the last time I stepped into the bloodmobile, there was Mike already lying prone and bleeding into a bag. “So did you make them promise not to give any of your blood to save liberals?” I called the length of the bus. Laughing, he responded: “No, I asked them to give it all to liberals. I figure it might make them smarter.” See, I told you he was a funny guy.

More important than our willingness to exchange ideas, jokes and insults, however, is the fact that we send each other jokes about our own favored candidates and positions. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Life is too short to be taken seriously.” More accurately, I’d argue that life is too short to take ourselves very seriously.

Mike subscribes to National Review and watches Fox News, but he also reads the Nation and listens to NPR. As you can see from the links on the right side of this page, I also rely on news from a range of perspectives. We both believe that generally speaking more information is better than less information, and that the best response to bad speech is better speech (more on my reasons why here). We rarely take criticism of our positions personally, and when we do take it personally–for example, when I may have gone a bit over the top in some of the language in a letter to the local paper pointing out that George Bush was a war criminal–we tend to recognize that fact and avoid each other for a couple of days.

When 24-hour cable news arrived, I hoped it would add depth to our understanding of events, that with more time to fill, broadcasters would spend more time examining individual issues. Instead, of course, they spend most of their time regurgitating trivial news stories and commenting on (rather than reporting on) events of the day. Bias, fluff and sensationalism became more prevalent, not less so.

I have found the blogosphere to be similarly disappointing in many respects. While the Internet provides amazing access to information of all sorts, and greatly expands the number of voices worth reading, it also increases the overall “noise” of the discussion. And without the kind of interaction that Mike and I have, which allows both increased verbal context and the recognition that the person at the other end of the argument is essentially a good human being regardless of his/her political beliefs, it becomes far too easy to take potshots and engage in name calling.

Add to that the idea that too many of us feel obligated to have opinions on virtually any topic, regardless of how well informed we may be about that topic, it becomes easier to attack the messenger than the message. Comparing our “language environment” to what is commonly known to ecologists like my brother as “the tragedy of the commons,” Suzette Haden Elgin notes in a book titled How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable that we worry primarily about our own needs:

People have discovered that they can put food on the table by ranting and raving on the radio or television, or by bullying their colleagues and employees. They’ve learned that they can confidence and self-esteem from using language to demonstrate their power over others, and that this not only makes them feel good but seems to help them get ahead. They’ve found that sarcasm is a quick and easy way to make a child behave. They’ve found that ethnic jokes make people laugh, and it’s pleasant to be a big hit with the crowd. These are immediate and obvious rewards, the way bug-free tomatoes are; they have far more power to affect people than the alleged consequences of language behavior in some distant and hypothetical future.

As a former editorial writer and now a blogger, I sincerely hope that language has an effect, and I don’t deny that sometimes I slip into a bit of name calling myself–sometimes with good motives, to generate thought, sometime with less wholesome motives because I’m cranky.  Last Christmas my wife gave me a T-shirt that reads, “Stupidity is not a crime, you’re free to go,” and I suspect she didn’t pick it up just because it was on sale and she thought I could wear it while doing yard work. Frankly the comma splice bothers me, but I happen to be wearing the shirt as I write this.

It is too easy  to spout half-formed opinions, and I know that if I do so in my interactions with Mike, I’ll be verbally skewered. As a result, if I don’t have a good answer for something, I don’t offer any answer until I know more. So feel free to skewer me here, too. Having been a journalist for years, a grad student for too long, and a college professor for a decade, I honestly don’t mind the criticism (my wife has accused me of enjoying it). For the sake of enlightenment, of course, I hope you’ll attack the message more than the messenger. But I can live with either one.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , | 29 Comments »