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 ‘blogs’

New ‘gotcha’ politics — making fun of ignorant fellow Americans

Posted by James McPherson on July 7, 2012

We know that politicians say dumb things, some more than others. And one of the more troubling-but-ubiquitous parts of campaign season has long been how much the news media and political campaigns play “gotcha,” blowing out of proportion the occasional inevitable gaffes made by politicians.

Admittedly, a series of gaffes–or the inability to answer even the simplest questions–may signify something important about a candidate’s qualifications, but most slips of the tongue can be attributed to the exhaustion and distraction that naturally come with a campaign. How many of us could be “on” all the time? My students can verify that I get tongue-tied or say something dumb on a fairly regular basis.

But at least politicians know what they’re getting into. I’m becoming increasingly concerned with another apparent trend–that of trying to make our neighbors look stupid

I don’t know if Jay Leno did it first or best, but his “Jaywalking“segment may be what introduced many of us to the phenomenon of using video to point out how stupid Americans can be about their history, politics and current events. I’ve laughed at some of those segments, though they also make me uncomfortable because, like too much other American humor, they strike me as mean-spirited. (I liked Leno better in his early days, anyway, when his humor seemed more thoughtful and less sophomoric. How long is he going to keep telling Bill Clinton sex jokes?)

Not surprisingly, following the apparent popularity of Leno’s segments, others followed. Howard Stern has done it. Of course, Stern has never been one to shy away from the stupid or mean if it would draw and audience–and while I don’t believe in astrology, it is an interesting coincidence that Stern and fellow blowhard Rush Limbaugh share a birthday. Australian news media and others have also joined in the fun.

But it’s not just “professionals”: Now you can find Jaywalking-style videos everywhere on the web, making fun of either conservatives/Republicans or liberals/Democrats. Which you find funniest, if any, probably depends on your own political biases. But we should find all of them depressing–not just because so many Americans wouldn’t be able to pass a citizenship test, but also because one-sided buffoons think making fun of their fellow Americans is all in good fun, and that video of a small group of people, perhaps subjected to Breitbert-style editing, somehow represent what’s typical of an entire group.

Some say that the way we treat our politicians discourages many qualified people from running for office. I don’t think it’s in our best interest, then, to discourage through ridicule the relatively few people actually interested enough in the process to take part. We want more public participation, not less. And we can hope the participants will learn more through the process.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Democrats panicky: read all about it (while you still can)

Posted by James McPherson on March 11, 2009

Apparently some Democrats want Barack Obama, in the words of a CNN headline, to “Hurry up and fix the economy.” Put another way, members of the party without guts are joining members of the party without ideas in begging the new president–now in office for more than a month and a half, after all–to undo all that they have done (or failed to do) through greed and  partisanship for the past decade. Perhaps they wanted him to reject the funding bill they just passed, rather than offering threats about future such bills?

And speaking of a part of the economy near and dear to me, my home state legislature is about to approve a tax cut for newspapers (which may not be enough to keep one of the two newspapers in our biggest city from shutting down next week). Even politicians who proclaim to hate the media recognize the importance of newspapers for getting out their messages, and for citizens to be able to govern themselves.

Citizens themselves don’t get that, though–as demonstrated by a Time article listing 10 more newspapers about to fail, and a Wired article saying that even a New York Times employee thinks newspapers don’t matter. He’s wrong, of course. But more and more newspapers are disappearing, and all of us suffer as a result. Face it; even Obama can’t save us from ourselves.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Hillary’s convention speech and her “supporters”

Posted by James McPherson on August 27, 2008

As expected, Hillary Clinton came out in full support of Barack Obama in her Democratic Convention speech last night. As I also predicted, Fox News wasted no time in questioning whether Bill Clinton would do the same tonight.

Hillary gave an excellent speech, and after she finished speaking I spent a couple of hours flipping back and forth among the various network talking heads for their reactions. Even Chris Wallace of Fox News praised Clinton’s performance, after the other three Fox commentators had taken turns bashing her for giving a speech that was “all about her.” Most condescendingly dismissive, as might be expected, were Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol. Can anyone really watch those two preening clowns and still call liberals the “elitists”?

At least scared Foxes have some bitter company among the most diehard PUMAs, who have sought and achieved enough attention to be the focus of a segment ridiculing them on last night’s “The Daily Show.” Some PUMAs now are thrashing Hillary on the Web, and saying they will not follow where she has chosen to lead (so maybe she’s not as effective a leader as they maintain?).

Read the comment sections of a blog or two to see how much some of them are willing to twist their previous logic. (The latter of those two declares that Clinton’s message to PUMAs was to “keep running.”). Here are quotes from one PUMA who was live-blogging during Clinton’s speech:

WOW! She is really pushing Obama! Sorry, Hill. I own my vote! …

OH MY GOD! She used the Politics of FEAR! She did follow up with Universal Health Care. WOmen’s rights, civil rights, and GAY rights. Hell yeah!

Oh, no she di-in’t! Michelle can suck it!

FUCK. This is SO disheartneing! PUMAs are weeping all over the place!

She just lied about John McCain.

But at least she moved on to Seneca Falls.

Okay, that was nice. “MY mother was born before women could vote. My daughter got to vote FOR her mother.”

Nope. Not gonna do it. NOBAMA for me. No deal. Not even for you, lady.

On the other hand, many of the comments on blog posts suggested that many PUMAs will come around and vote in their best interests (again, assuming they weren’t conservatives to begin with). Another PUMA site offers this:

If anyone can make me for him, it’s her and only her. Fanboys, assholes, fauxgressives—if your asshole wins, you can thank Hills. She’s magnificent, magnanimous, and thrilling. She even manages to be kind to McCain. “Four more years of the last eight years.” …

I see her and I’m proud to be a liberal. You’re goddamned right I’m a liberal. I’m a liberal because I believe in moments like this: a woman standing on the podium at the DNC, surely thinking ahead to her next—and victorious!—run for President.

Hillary’s my President and one day I’ll see her take the oath of office. But, damn, what she stands for means enough to me to abide by her gracious wishes. She’s got more courage and class than I’ve ever had or will have, and hope never to need. …

God, I feel hope again. I feel like things can change. It’s not fear of the Them that I’m feeling; it’s the knowledge that as an American I’m part of something that’s meant to be bigger and better and nobler than what we have now.

I love the “bigger and nobler” line, which captures the essence of Clinton’s speech. And I am again reminded that seeing people strongly disagree–often with considerable justification–but still manage to come together for the greater good when the chips are on the line is one of the things that makes me most proud to be an American.

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

Literary journalism follow-up

Posted by James McPherson on August 17, 2008

In response to my posts of Thursday and Friday, I received an e-mail from Norman Sims–who may know more about literary journalism than anyone else alive, saying I got it “pretty right” with my discussion (thanks, Norm).

Sims did note, however: “The only thing I would add is that books and magazines have the ability to pay literary journalists for the months and years of reporting that they put into a project.  Blogs and the Web so far do not have the financial power to reward the writers.”

He’s right, of course. That’s why I think that existing magazines (such as Time or Newsweek) have the best chance of engaging in the kind of literary journalism I recommended, spreading a lengthy in-depth story over several sections or chapters for a period of several days or weeks. One problem potential problem is that too many news organizations still treat their Web operations like abused stepchildren, separate and inferior to the printed product, and allocate resources accordingly.

Readers do the same, to some degree, which is part of the reason that books (even those written by the likes of Jerome Corsi) have more credibility than other media for many folks. The fact that anyone can create a blog, and because so many Internet sources are blatantly false and/or partisan, adds to the problem.

But it seems to me that a news organization with established credibility–and with enough money to back the experiment–might use a new literary journalism format to further enhance its own journalistic reputation and the reputation of Web journalism, while providing a great service to readers in terms of both style and substance.

Posted in Journalism, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part II)

Posted by James McPherson on August 15, 2008

As I noted with yesterday’s post, one of the most interesting things I got out of a conversation at last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention, combined with some other tidbits of information, was the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read.

Literary journalism isn’t dead, of course, and may be doing better overseas than in the U.S. Just this week I got an e-mail promoting a new international academic journal titled Literary Journalism Studies, sponsored by the sponsored by the two-year-old International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. But this style of journalism (in-depth journalism with a point of view, in which the author is obviously involved) seems today to often be a result of an individual (perhaps not a “journalist,” but instead someone like a political insider) becoming involved incidentally, though his/her work rather than the result of an avowed journalist plunging into the issue. The result may be informative, but it typically isn’t “literary.” Those of us who appreciate good writing know that sometimes poetry offers more truth than statistics can hope to convey. The best literary journalism feels more like the former, while encompassing both.

Back to my conversation, which was with Norman Sims, the author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism and the editor of a couple of literary journalism anthologies. He noted that most of today’s good literary journalism came from books, though after I complained about the lack of such fiction in magazines he commented that some good work could still be found in magazines, citing Esquire as an example.

While I don’t disagree with Sims’ assessment, to me his example is the exception that proves the rule, demonstrating a problem with modern literary journalism. Most people (including me) typically won’t wade through the male equivalent of Vogue in search of journalistic enlightenment. The problem is similar to one I noted several years ago with magazine fiction: Some of the best short stories could be found in Redbook and Playboy, but as a male faculty member at a Christian university (and a rare member of a women’s studies program who has moral qualms about both of those publications) I am unlikely to find and read those stories.

When I asked Sims what he thought of the prospect of the Web enhancing literary journalism options, he expressed doubt. Most magazines and newspapers, he pointed out, are too often unwilling to go beyond two or three Internet screens, “and that’s too short,” he said.

True enough. But the very next day I happened to attend a luncheon intended in part to promote J-Lab, which just moved to American University and calls itself “the Institute for Interactive Journalism.” Its mission is to help “news organizations and citizens use new information ideas and innovative computer technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in critical public policy issues.” For many people at the luncheon, the means of engagement seems to begin (and perhaps end) with blogging. But as I’ve noted previously, everybody seems to be blogging, while most blogs are exercises in vanity and self-delusion.

Unrelated to blogs, but very relevant to modern journalism, was the recommendation (from Howard Owens of “content provider” GateHouse Media) to “print what you know, when you know it.” He was talking about breaking news, of course, and some of us who recognize how often journalists get the first reports wrong cringed a bit (though Owens cautioned about speculation on the part of reporters). Still, the comment reminded me that modern media users don’t “read” media–especially online–the way they once did.

Muckraking magazines once ran thorough investigative series over many issues. For example, Ida Tarbell (one of my heros) wrote am 18-part expose’ of Standard Oil–based on more than FOUR YEARS of research–for McClure’s. Lincoln Steffens wrote separate articles for the same magazine about corruption in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Will Irwin produced a scathing critique of journalism, titled “The American Newspaper,” spread over 14 or 15 articles, for Collier’s magazine.

Presenting information in small pieces may be what the Web does best. Not coincidentally, gathering small pieces from here and there is how modern news junkies “read” the news. Sims and newspaper publishers may be right that most readers won’t go beyond two or three screens. But why should they, given their current options?

It seems to me that a savvy producer of literary journalism might produce a site in which the story is spread out over many pieces. That would let readers read the story in bits, as if reading chapters, reflecting on the pieces, rather than trying to gorge on the whole thing (or, more typically, ignoring it and looking for a book review summary or two). Good writing–the kind that is the hallmark of literary journalism–would bring them back for the next segment, and the next, and the next. An existing popular magazine might use the strategy only on its Web site, bringing visitors back more often, while running a summary in the magazine itself.

Done right, such a site might produce a “new journalism” that would combine meaningful in-depth information with more interesting writing than most Americans typically encounter–a kind of journalism that might even make Ida Tarbell proud.

Posted in History, Journalism, Poetry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part I)

Posted by James McPherson on August 14, 2008

The print version of a recent Columbia Journalism Review article is subtitled, “A new kind of journalism takes root in a struggling Detroit neighborhood.” An interesting aside is the fact that the online version is titled “Crossing Lines” while the print version uses “Drawing Lines,” but the key point remains: that a Detroit News blog is going beyond tradition journalism to improve an impoverished Detroit neighborhood. In the words of CJR’s writer: They “aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.” (emphasis in original)

The activism draws criticism from even among others at the News, who worry that it compromises the newspaper’s credibility. The concern is worth consideration, complicated by the proliferation of blogs coming from news organizations throughout the country. But the fact is, for most of those organizations, credibility in a traditional sense is pretty much a lost cause for a couple of reasons. First, if “credibility” is code for “objectivity,” there’s no such thing as an objective reporter (or historian, or teacher). Second, Americans like the news media in general just a bit more than they like George W. Bush or Congress.

Journalism is changing, as it always has. The term “New Journalism” has been used most prominently with the journalism of the 1880s and 1890s and then again with the literary journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but has also been applied to the Penny Press of the 1830s and the civic journalism movement of the late 20th century. “New” just keeps happening.

Besides, campaigns by newspapers are far from new. Newspapers have always advocated for issues they saw as being for the civic good (even if far too often their biases corresponded with the desires of the Chamber of Commerce). My own local daily, the Spokesman-Review, recently devoted an entire month of front-page attention to the issue of child abuse, and its own annual Christmas fund is front-page news every day from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas.

We know that bloggers are changing news, even if–as recently reported by a Poynter Institute columnist and others–the most popular blogs tend to look and act much like mainstream news organizations. That shift worries people on both sides, though a careful reader could be much better informed about issues by relying only on blogs than on a local newspaper or–God forbid–television news.

One of the most interesting things I got out of last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention was a discussion that–combined with the CJR article (which I read on the train on the way home from AEJMC) and some other tidbits of information–prompted the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read. More on that in an upcoming post.

Posted in History, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Blog “power”: exercises in self-delusion

Posted by James McPherson on August 3, 2008

There are all sorts of good reasons to blog, such as blowing off steam, exploring ideas, checking assumptions, sharing cool videos, correcting the mainstream media, communicating with a small group of like-minded individuals, and providing a bit of context on issues about which the blogger happens to be knowledgeable.

One apparent problem, however, is that too many bloggers believe that other people actually much care what they think. Political bloggers seem to be especially susceptible to such delusions of grandeur. The fact is, in most cases, we bloggers just don’t matter very much (and anonymous respondents to blogs matter even less).

A few blogs have become significant (inspiring hope among many others) but the vast majority of blogs and Web pages have limited appeal, limited range, and, most importantly, a very limited audience. Look closely (if you can stand to do so) at the comments of even blog posts with hundreds of responses and you’ll tend to see three to six people using the forum to talk to–are argue with–each other. The same three to six people, some of whom choose to stay happily misinformed about most issues, will be the ones most likely to comment on the next day’s post at the same site.

Mainstream media sometimes pay a bit of attention to a topic or organization that seems odd or out of the mainstream, occasionally giving issues or groups more credibility than they’re probably due, before skipping blithely on to something else. Pro-Hillary Clinton PUMAs are a recent example. Unfortunately, some of the PUMAs seem to be buying their own hype, regularly pointing out that there are more than 230 pro-PUMA sites.

I don’t dispute that number, but I also don’t find it particularly impressive. Consider this: If each of 240 sites has a hundred unique fans (that is, counting only folks not counted on similar like-thinking sites)–and based on my perusal of several such sites, I doubt there are that many unique visitors–that makes for a total of 24,000 total PUMAs committed enough to the cause to regularly participate in the process. For context, that’s a couple thousand fewer than live in Marshalltown, Iowa, or about the same as the number of people who work in the Pentagon.

Even if I’m way off, and each of those 240 sites has a thousand unique and committed fans, that adds up to 240,000 PUMAs. That number is probably lower than the number of people who this year will cast ballots for John McCain in and around three or four counties surrounding Spokane, Washington, the city in which I happen to live–and to the chagrin of many on the east side of this state, those McCain voters here won’t keep all of the state’s electoral votes from going for Obama.

I’m glad the PUMAs and various political sites are out there, providing the opportunity for those of us who care to learn some new things and giving the bloggers and their respondents an outlet for expression. But let’s not get carried away with thinking that more than a handful of bloggers–if any–will even remotely influence how most of us vote or live our lives.

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

PUMAs stalk political relevance–and irony

Posted by James McPherson on July 25, 2008

The PUMA is an interesting species. Some critics might view PUMAs in the way many wrongly characterized Hillary Clinton, as bitter harpies. Others might see them as the type of women that misogynists typically prefer: silly, irrelevant, perhaps even cute.

Either characterization is mistaken (PUMA, by the way, generally stands for “Party Unity My Ass,” though one group has claimed “People United Means Action.”). PUMAs obviously are wrong and misguided, in my view, but passionate. And now they’re getting what many of them want most, some media attention.

PUMAs are angry people, mostly women, many of whom now say they’ll support John McCain over Barack Obama. There’s no denying that there are quite a few of them (though how many are GOP fronts can’t be determined) or that many are bitter. A quick scan of some of their blogs comes across such charming comments as, “Whenever I see one of those stupid “O”s on the back of someone else’s care [sic] I just want to RAM THEM!!!” and “Isn’t ‘barack’ that noise people make when they puke?” and “Do obama supporters still get headaches after they had their lobomy? [sic]” and “Even if Hillary should publicly–in person–denounce all 527s who are trying to get her nominated and elected, we can’t give throw [sic] in the towel. Clearly, the Chicago political mafia is strong-arming her to disown us.”

One blog post is titled, “If we’re PUMAs, then Obamaphiles are CHEATahs.” Cute, huh? Of course the difference is that PUMAs proundly claim the title before going on to disparage those who would prefer a different candidate. (This might be an appropriate time to remind readers that I was not an Obama supporter in the primaries, though I can’t imagine not voting for him over McCain in the general election.)

The CHEATah post comes from a blog that in its “About Us” section states: “We will start with the Democratic party and then work to bring together the rest of the country. We will come together at our common goals and go forward together, strengthened and mighty.” Its “credo,” in part: “We will all need to come together before the fall. Let’s craft a message that even wingers will envy. … Some of us have lost our minds lately. We are putting conditions and litmus tests on our candidates. We are getting lost in the trees while failing to see the forest.”

All of that may sound good, but the blog actually devotes much of its attention to PUMA promotion and Obama bashing, and also has a heading titled “PUMA Power” that states: “There will be a lot of calls for ‘Unity!’. But let us acknowledge what this really is. ‘Unity’ is a weapon that the party is going to use against us.” Perhaps it’s time to update one or two of the above categories.

Despite their real or manufactured fury PUMAs probably will have no meaningful effect on the Democratic Convention as far as preventing Obama from claiming the nomination, especially since Clinton likely will speak on his behalf at the convention. Still, in a tight general election (the kind we typically have) they might conceivably make a difference. Sadly and ironically, it would be a difference that goes against most of their own primary interests (at least those who aren’t secretly McCain supporters to begin with–like perhaps Fox’s favorite PUMA spokeswoman and 2000 McCain donor Darragh Murphy).

PUMAs might make a difference in the same way that Ralph Nader did against Al Gore in 2000, Ross Perot did against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Ronald Reagan did against Gerald Ford in 1976–drawing just enough attention and votes to help put the candidate their supporters disliked most in the White House. The difference in each of those cases was that the candidate’s supporters actually had a candidate who obviously still sought the position, while Clinton likely will–as she has repeatedly on previous occasions–exhort her supporters to do what they can to avoid a continuation of the Bush policies. A McCain presidency would have a good chance of turning those 5-4 Supreme Court votes against progressives into 7-2 votes against them.

Thus far, consistency, except in avoid-Obama-at-all-costs rhetoric, has not been a key part of PUMA power. Even Fox News, which would undoubtedly love to see PUMAs help swing the election for McCain and which has aired more about the group than any other network, can’t help but point out the contradictions. For example, see the YouTube videos below. The last one starts out much the same as the first, but adds some interesting context (though it doesn’t explore the disconnect between, “I don’t think it’s just to prove a point; I think it’s a very important point we’re making.”).

It’s difficult to tell how much influence the PUMAs will have, especially since many of those now complaining will swallow hard, hold their noses and vote for Obama in the general election, perhaps without telling their fellow PUMAs. The influence of blogs on elections also is unknown, though I don’t believe the vast majority of blogs are very representative of much of anything since most tend to have a limited following of serious but somewhat cowardly anonymous supporters who talk mostly to each other–a sort of ooh-look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever form of text messaging with less emotional commitment and no added wireless fees.

PUMAs do have cause to be unhappy, though not nearly as much cause as many of them claim. The Democratic primary system was a mess, but it was a mess that Clinton helped create. Interestingly, some of her supposed staunchest supporters now hope to make a bigger one.

Note: The organization name is corrected above–thanks to the respondents who noted that I had it wrong.

Follow-up: Somewhat ironically for a group that complains about being heard, PUMA sites seem to be among those most likely to delete the responses of those who disagree with them.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »