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 ‘Bush administration’

WikiLeaking probably little cause for alarm

Posted by James McPherson on November 29, 2010

I understand why world leaders and some dishonest brokers of information might be upset, but, try as I might, I’m having trouble worrying about whatever “secrets” might be revealed via WikiLeaks, for at least five reasons:

First, most people are getting most of the information not via the WikiLeaks website but from established news organizations such as the New York Times and the BBC.

Second, if the Pentagon Papers and the Progressive magazine “H-Bomb” case (a framed copy of which hangs on my office wall) of the 1970s taught us anything, it’s that governments lie, and then exaggerate the nature of threats posed by the release of information.

Third, that same Progressive case and the current Iraq War demonstrated that news organizations–at least those not privy to the “secret” information–tend to buy whatever the government is selling, and to criticize the leakers.

Fourth, previous cases demonstrate that historically leakers have done relatively little harm–while governments acting secretly have done a great deal of harm.

And fifth, the idea that media organizations reveal “secret” information is largely a myth. They publish information that someone with a beef inside of government wants revealed. In the process, they show where security may need to be tightened.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

More Bush-league antics: Did administration knowingly lock up innocents to play politics?

Posted by James McPherson on April 9, 2010

New revelations about the ongoing international embarrassment that is Guantanamo:  The Times of London today reports, “George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up that hundreds of innocent men were sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp because they feared that releasing them would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror.”

The claim is made by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and because Wilkerson has been a regular critic of the Bush administration his account will (and should) be questioned. Still, according to the newspaper, Wilkerson maintains that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld “knew that the majority of the initial 742 detainees sent to Guantánamo in 2002 were innocent but believed that it was ‘politically impossible to release them.'”

Once again we’re left to wonder if the most dangerous post-9/11 war criminals were those who had offices in the White House.

Sadly, if Bush administration abuses are ever considered by the same Supreme Court that put Bush in office in the first place, the sole remaining real liberal on the court–Justice John Paul Stevens–will be gone.

It is a sad reflection of how far federal politics has shifted to the right, despite the fantasies of Glenn Beck and assorted Tea Party Mad Hatters, that the most liberal member of the court is someone who was appointed by Republican Gerald Ford. Sadder still is that a president whom loonies now claim to be a “socialist,” despite the fact that Barack Obama is more probably conservative than Richard Nixon, is the “liberal” who will get to try to replace Stevens.

At least the conservatives who will reflexively fight the nomination (and if Obama were to nominate Rush Limbaugh, those conservatives would suddenly be screaming that Limbaugh was “too liberal”) cannot hope to credibly claim that they don’t want “activist judges,” if they’ve paid any attention to Supreme Court decisions of the past few years.

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

Bye, Bye Miss American Spy

Posted by James McPherson on April 18, 2009

American journalist Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota, has been sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison after she was convicted in a secret court proceeding of being a spy. Saberi was working as a freelancer for National Public Radio at the time, and also has filed reports for Fox News and the BBC, according to one report.

The U.S. State Department, the Committee to Protect Journalists and NPR all have voiced concerns about the case. Saberi’s father said her testimony had been coerced, and that the sentence would be appealed.  Naturally I can’t logically weigh in about Saberi’s guilt or innocence–and neither can anyone else, because of the secrecy and obvious political bias involved.

In other words, a political and legal situation like the one offered in the United States by the Bush administration (including its treatment of foreign journalists such as Sami al-Hajj). And of course Bush did so much to promote good relations with Iran.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 31 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 »

Foreign worm and snakes slither through Web

Posted by James McPherson on April 9, 2009

Apparently the Conficker worm has “woken up” and done something. We’re not sure what, or if it matters, but once we identify and start following a scary threat or trend–however inconsequential it may be–we have to stay on its slimy trail. Unless it’s Osama bin Laden, of course.

And speaking of bin Laden and similar snakes, the Washington Post reports today that Taliban extremists are getting out their message via American Web hosts–including one in George W. Bush’s one-time hometown of Houston (while “serving” in the Air National Guard). Considering how much the Bush administration did to promote worldwide terrorism, I suppose that’s appropriate, in a twisted down-the-rabbit-hole (or snake hole) sort of way.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Twittering while Rome burns

Posted by James McPherson on April 3, 2009

I’m generally not convinced that the British are smarter than we are, despite their intelligent-sounding accents and even if they happen to think so. After all, England was the one country that mostly strongly went along with the Bush/Cheney War, and which has now pledged to join us in sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Still, one group of UK islanders impressed me with their smarts this week. Those were the folks who chased away a Google camera car that was to photograph their homes for Google Earth. Perhaps those people’s actions will someday keep me from getting a close-up view of a crime scene from my office computer, and the fact that they apparently were more elitist snobs than pitchfork-wielding mob and were acting at least as much to protect their wealth as their privacy takes some of the luster off of my admiration.

But the key fact remains: Even as a near-First Amendment absolutist who almost always thinks more information is better than less information (prompting my regular critiques of the Bush administration’s secrecy and sneakiness) sometimes we’d be better off if more often we just told more people–politely, of course–to please shut the hell up. 

I want information to be available, but that doesn’t mean I want to be buried in that information all the time. I agree with Kathleen Parker, who previously coined the term “Twitterati,” in her column of this week. She writes that information overload makes it difficult for us to put things in context: “It’s a toxic asset that exhausts our cognitive resources while making the nonsensical seem significant.”

In fact, even though Barack Obama has become famous for his use of technology, Parker notes that information overload may in fact be bad for democracy: “TMI [Too Much Information] may indeed be the despot’s friend. Keep citizens so overwhelmed with data that they can’t tell what’s important and eventually become incapable of responding to what is. Our brains simply aren’t wired to receive and process so much information in such a compressed period.”

Too much information distracts us from all sorts of things–prompting the phrase coined by my wife’s that I used as the headline for this post–while making us incapable of focusing on what’s important. It gives us too many reasons not to sleep at night.

Parker mentions a Columbia Journalism Review article that includes some fascinating statistics, and though she probably didn’t have the space for it in her column, one paragraph of the CJR article is worth repeating in full:

“There are more than 70 million blogs and 150 million Web sites today–a number that is expanding at a rate of approximately ten thousand an hour. Two hundred and ten billion e-mails are sent each day. Say goodbye to the gigabyte and hello to the exabyte, five of which are worth 37,000 Libraries of Congress. In 2006 alone, the world produced 161 exabytes of digital data, the equivalent of three million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By 2010, it is estimated that this number will increase to 988. Pick your metaphor: we’re drowning, buried, snowed under.” (emphasis added)

The fear of information overload is why I have an answering machine and caller ID. It’s why I don’t subscribe to any Twitter feeds, including those coming from volcanos or from Obama (and I hope someone else is actually tweeting on behalf of the president; I want him saving the economy, not giving me hourly updates on what he’s doing right this minute). It’s why I typically check my Facebook page three or four times per month, rather than three or four times per hour as some of my students do.

And it’s why even though I now own a cell phone, largely by accident, it’s never turned on unless I want to call someone. That happens about once a month, when I’m in a store and can’t remember what my wife asked me to pick up.

I also assume you don’t want to be buried in trivia. That’s why I don’t Twitter, even after learning that it might prompt Demi Moore to care about me. I’m not surprised to see an apparent Twitter backlash. It’s why I update my Facebook page even less often than I think to check it. And my recognition of the problem is why one of the texts for my media criticism is Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited, and why I advise students to critique media carefully, but also to take breaks from those media.

The combination of too much information coming at me and too much coming from me goes to an important question that I regularly pose to students, and which Parker asks in her column: “What if everybody just took a timeout?” That combination also is one of the reasons that I will stop posting regularly to this blog in about three weeks (other reasons I’ll explain in more detail as the date–April 22–approaches).

I’ve seen the value of taking time away from the media in very real terms. Most notably, once I went from being a newspaper editor and hardcore news junkie to living in a converted school bus on the Oregon Coast for more than a year. I intentionally avoiding watching television, listening to news on the radio, or reading a newspaper during that time (the Internet hadn’t yet arrived, and in those days I did my own writing on a portable manual typewriter).

My wife and I enjoyed the year tremendously. We read a lot, spent more time outside, and made many new friends. Interesting, I missed almost nothing of significance in the world that I otherwise would have known–which didn’t stop me from going back to a news junkie when I ended my media sabbatical.

Another example of the value of escape came several years later. After I had invested significant time and effort in my doctoral dissertation, someone on the other side of the country wrote about the same topic–and did it better than I could. Suddenly my topic was dead, my past year of effort appeared to have been wasted, and I began spending panicky long hours in the school library trying to come up with another workable idea. I spent hours on Web research (the Internet had arrived) and talking to people who might be able to help, burying myself in information for several weeks–to no avail.

And then I went on a backpacking trip with my parents and siblings in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. I didn’t feel I could afford to take the time, but I had promised to go, and my wife–no doubt sick of my self-pity–urged me to get away (or maybe just to get away from her; memory is a funny thing). A couple of days later, as I was standing hip deep in a cold mountain lake trying to entice a rainbow trout to smack a dry fly, a new dissertation idea popped into my head.

Importantly, the new topic had nothing to do with fishing, camping or the outdoors, and in fact incorporated much of the work I had already done. I needed to get away to see how to make it work. Or, as Parker put it this week: “If you’re looking for Eureka–as in the Aha! moment–you probably won’t find it while following David Gregory’s Tweets. Or checking Facebook to see who might be ‘friending’ whom. Or whose status has been updated. George Orwell is . . . More likely, the ideas that save the world will present themselves in the shower or while we’re sweeping the front stoop.”

Or, in the words of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby when we’re, “gone fishin'”:

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Beating the Bushies to investigate war crimes

Posted by James McPherson on March 29, 2009

Those of us who believe that the Bush administration should be convicted of war crimes might be heartened by a Spanish judge’s order to investigate whether Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and others should face charges, especially since the judge in question is the same one who issued an arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet more than a decade ago.

Unfortunately, though Pinochet was arrested, he died without being convicted of any crimes, still a millionaire from the proceeds of his evildoing. I suspect the same–though without the arrests–will be true of senior Bush administration officials. After all, I can’t see Barack Obama–who has already been following too much of the Bush strategy (including the use of independent contractors to supplement American troops) in international affairs–endorsing the Spanish judge’s actions.

Obama likely will ignore the issue, just as he has been creatively ignoring tough press questions while pretending to provide unprecedenced access, even if an investigation finds what already seems to be obvious–that actions at Guantanamo and much of the rest of the Bush administration “war on terrorism” violated international laws.

Since as a nation we selectively concern ourselves with human rights abuses in countries that we see some reason to demonize or invade (Iraq, perhaps Iran, sometimes Libya), but ignore those abuses elsewhere (Saudi Arabia, China, Darfur, sometimes Libya), I doubt that the Bush/Cheney underlings will be called to account.

Even less likely is that Bush and Cheney themselves will be held accountable for their crimes. Congress, mindful of how the Clinton impeachment circus went over–while forgetting that important investigations such as Watergate and the Church Committee actually increased respect for Congress–remains largely gutless and clueless.

The one hope for justice might be if a declining press suddenly figured out that a way to save themselves might be to somehow make themselves relevant again by serving as a voice and guardian for the American people (and people elsewhere, for that matter). By bringing enough attention to the issue, and investigating the Bush administration’s false claims in a way that they failed to do before the Iraq War began, the media might bring enough pressure to prompt the sort of  investigation that would send the weasels to jail–or at least scurrying to countries from which they couldn’t be retrieved.

In other words,  if those in charge of news media–along with those of us who care about democracy–would do more in the words of Poynter’s Roy Peter Clarke to “feed the watchdog, euthenize the lapdog.” But I suspect the media will continue to mostly roll over and play dead–until they’re no longer playing.

The one bright potential bright spot: As mainstream media continue to abdicate their watchdog role until most of them finally sink largely unnoticed beneath the waves, perhaps more people will find their way to sources such as the Nation and Mother Jones.

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

Freedom Tower goes way of freedom, making room for Chinese

Posted by James McPherson on March 28, 2009

Remember that “Freedom Tower” being built in New York where the World Trade Center once stood? It’s still going up, but don’t call it that. You wouldn’t want to confuse the Chinese tenants.

After a slow start, the building is now about one-eleventh of the way toward its eventual 108-story height. But the Port Authority, which owns the land, has announced that the name of the structure will be “One World Trade Center.” Is that to remind us that there will be “one” tall building where there used to be two?

Also announced was the first tenant of the tower: a Chinese corporation that will occupy more than five floors of the new building after it is completed in 2013. Somehow that seems appropriate.

After all, the Bush/Cheney administration lied us into an unending war in Iraq, and kept warning us about Iran, but continued warm relations with the equally nasty Saudi kingdom–where most of the 9/11 hijackers and money actually originated.

Then, to “get back” at the terrorists even as the economy was headed toward a cliff, Bush told us to “go shopping.” That was a great boost for the Chinese, who produce most of the stuff we buy. In the meantime, the administration (aided, of course, by gutless and clueless of Congress) spent the next few years doing all it could to strip us of freedom at home.

Now Barack Obama tells us the fate of the world rests in Afghanistan, and maybe we ought to worry about those crazy drug lords on our southern border. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first overseas trip was to China, the nation that will be–if it hasn’t already–the one that replaces us at the top of the heap in terms of world power.

Clinton went to plead with the Chinese to please, please, please don’t let us go bankrupt. Hey, soon perhaps freedom will return: After all, in the words written by Kris Kristofferson and famously sung by another Texan, Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

You can hear the full song below, by both artists:

Posted in History, Music, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Can a Christian lesbian Latina superhero save us?

Posted by James McPherson on March 18, 2009

An interesting report today discusses the value of comic book superheroes for the American psyche in dealing with tough times such as economic depression and war. “In our own times, the public is turning to costumed heroes again in record numbers,” CNN reports. “Movies based on comic books are box office leaders; comic books themselves remain a strong and growing industry.”

Well, maybe. But you may have noticed that just a week after a big opening, “Watchmen” dropped by a somewhat remarkable 67 percent, falling faster than Superman if he’d smacked into a plane full of Kryptonite.

“Watchmen” was bumped from the top spot in the ranking by a Disney remake of “Race to Witch Mountain.” Considering that film, and the fact that the comic book characters who have been popular in recent movies are old favorites, it seems to me that moviegoers are seeking comfortable nostalgia more than reassurance from superheroes.

I have to admit that I haven’t read a comic book since I was a kid. I don’t read graphic novels, and know next to nothing about Manga. But if we really need superheroes, perhaps its time to update them. Maybe they should be multi-racial, not just multi-colored. Maybe more women (though Congress and the superhero community seem to have the same shortcomings in that regard). Maybe crime-fighting Christians. Or lesbians. Or, considering the state of the economy, accountants. Or all of the above.

Since inordinate numbers of old superheroes seem to have derived their powers from nuclear accidents or scientific experiments gone awry, perhaps the return to science by the federal government–and the effort to reduce reliance on oil–also provides new hero-creation possibilities. Somehow I don’t see a superhero being created from wind or solar technology, however, or even “clean coal.” But maybe I just lack comic imagination.

On the other hand, maybe the misadventures of the Bush administration should have taught us that traditional superheroes can’t always save us, that might can’t always make right, and that it’s time for us to put away the comic books and grow up.

Friday update: Come to find out, a Christian lesbian Latina superhero already exists in comics: Renee Montoya, aka “The Question.”

Posted in History, Media literacy, Science, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Why Dick Cheney should be tortured

Posted by James McPherson on March 15, 2009

Dick Cheney, perhaps the most evil chief executive in our nation’s history (yeah, I know–technically the president is the chief executive, but I’m talking about the person really in charge of policy), told CNN today that Barack Obama’s policies increase our risk of being attacked by terrorists.

Aside from the fact that it seems our risk might decrease from having a president who values diplomacy over bluster and who actually reads threat memos more closely than he reads The Pet Goat, Cheney’s argument is typically inane self-defense, perhaps offered as a means of trying to avoid justified prosecution of George W. Bush, Cheney and others for war crimes.

“Cheney said the harsh interrogations of suspects and the use of warrantless electronic surveillance were ‘absolutely essential’ to get information to prevent more attacks like the 2001 suicide hijackings that targeted New York and Washington,” according to the report.

In other words, it’s the old fascist argument, offered at a time when the American public is sick of the whole Bush/Cheney-caused mess, that “we have to strip your civil rights away to save them.” Not the sort of thing that conservatives once stood for, but then these weren’t your grandfather’s conservatives. Thank God they’re not ours, anymore, either.

Apparently CNN didn’t ask Cheney about recent  revelations by one of the nation’s top investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh, that the former vice president personally oversaw a military  “assassination ring” that bypassed the CIA and carried out clandestine murders in other countries.

“It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on,” Hersh reportedly stated. “Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.”

I have no idea whether Hersh’s report is accurate. If so, the illegal death squads clearly pose an international threat. I suggest we torture Cheney until he confesses.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »