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 ‘CNN’

Juan gone: NPR, Fox and ‘news analysis’

Posted by James McPherson on October 21, 2010

National Public Radio has fired Juan Williams for making a remark that sounded too much like the only Jesse Jackson quote that conservatives like (well, maybe except this one).

I have mixed emotions about the firing, similar to those expressed by writers Glenn Greenwald and  Greg Sargent. But I also think it should never have come to this: NPR should have pushed Williams out long ago. After all, it’s not the first time he has been in trouble for comments on O’Reilly’s show.

Mostly, though, I’d have eased him out because I think his overall tone has changed over time to be more in line with Fox News/MSNBC-style “discussion” than with what his job was with NPR. After all, probably most people couldn’t name a regular commentator with NPR, while I think Williams likes being a celebrity.

Williams’ commentary in this case (and others) with Fox relied on personal feelings, rather than on political expertise. That made him inappropriate as a news commentator for NPR.

The Williams case also shows the difficulty of trying to be a rational and consistent commentator who works for markedly different audiences. One of my favorite conservatives, David Brooks, has the same problem.

By the way, I think CNN may have been trying to reclaim some NPR-style credibility with the firing of Rick Sanchez. But for the network that brought us Lou Dobbs and (via CNN Headline News) Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace, it’s probably too late.

Next day update: Williams defends his comments on Fox. His essay doesn’t change my mind, but it does illustrate some other key diversity-related problem similar to what I’ve discussed previously.

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

How to be a better media user

Posted by James McPherson on March 16, 2010

Today I spoke to three groups of middle school students about media literacy, offering a few tips for becoming more knowledgeable media consumers. At the request of one of their teachers, I’ll post part of it here. Some of it I’ve gleaned from elsewhere over the years, but can’t remember where–let me know and I’ll add it. When I have more time, perhaps I’ll also come back to this and add relevant links and photos.

Four questions to ask yourself when watching/reading/hearing a media message:

1. Who controls the message? A relatively few media conglomerates control most of the media we get. And despite cries about supposed liberal media, News Corp is one of those biggies. All of them exist primarily to make money, not to enlighten, entertain, or provide a “fair and balanced” perspective.

That’s why the people who complain most about sex and violence on television are most likely to be found on Fox News, which uses the same methods to draw an audience–and which also is associated with the Fox Entertainment, the sleaziest major network on television. That’s also why MSNBC, when it couldn’t beat CNN, tried to out-Fox Fox with conservative hosts and commentators. Only after that failed did it become the liberal answer to Fox.

2. Is it real? There are a lot of ways to lie in and with the media. There are more public relations professionals than there are journalists. And everybody has access to Photoshop and a junior high student who can use it.

3. What are the underlying messages? That’s the point of one entire semester-long class that I teach, but in short, every media message offers implicit messages along with explicit messages. The messages about gender alone probably are worthy of a year’s lectures.

4. Why am I watching/reading/listening to this? Uses and gratifications theory points out that we use media for a reason, even if the reason is escapism. Thinking about the “why” can improve one’s motives (and life in general).

Four tips for making better use of the media:

1. Reduce the use of your favorite medium. Turning more often to a different medium–or to friends, family and personal observation–will likely broaden your perspective.

2. Actively watch/listen more often. Watch television with family members, rather than in separate rooms, and then talk about what you saw. Talk back to the screen. But not in a movie theatre, please.

3. Reduce the number of opinions you feel obligated to hold. Like talk show hosts, we often feel we must have an opinion on everything, whether we understand the subject or not, lest we appear either apathetic or dumb. It’s OK–and inevitable–not to be an expert about anything. And you’ll be taken more seriously when you speak about areas in which you do have some level of knowledge/expertise.

4. Consider a personal or family media code of ethics. Put it in writing: If something in the media offends you, what will you do about it? Just whine? Write a letter? Stage a protest? Are there certain kinds of shows, or certain number hours, that you won’t watch? Will you let your kid watch an hour of TV or spend an hour on the Internet if s/he then reads a book for an hour? Will you allow a television or personal computer in your child’s room?

In answer to that last question, by the way, I wouldn’t. I asked more than a hundreds kids today how many of them watch things on TV that they wouldn’t be allowed to watch if their parents knew the content (I didn’t even bother to ask about the Internet). Most of the students–a good group of kids, it seemed to me–raised their hands.

Of course, they might be forgiven for using media irresponsibly; after all, they’re kids. Most people reading this don’t have that excuse.

Posted in Education, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

It’s only money: Another reminder of how little your voice matters

Posted by James McPherson on January 25, 2010

CNN reports that about $600 million–“enough to pay the annual insurance tab for $45,000 families”–has been spent on lobbying, advertising and campaign contributions to try to influence the health care debate. It has become the single most expensive legislative issue ever.

And as I noted the other day, the Supreme Court has guaranteed that things will get worse in terms of you having a voice. It almost enough to make you want to cheer for the Tea Party crowd, if they had a clue about where their money really goes, or which parts of society system are the most screwed up.

Also on the money front, Barack Obama apparently will call for a freeze on “non-security federal discretionary spending.” And Fox News reports that no-bid contracts for friends of the administration, the norm under George W. Bush, apparently continue under the Obama administration.

It’s a worthwhile story, and would be more so if Fox hadn’t predictably downplayed the Bush/Cheney contracts–citing dollar figures for such contracts under Bill Clinton and Obama but simply stating about the Bush Leaguers, “The OMB Watch figures show that the practice appears to have accelerated sharply during the Bush administration, but the figures are not adjusted for inflation.” Uh, guys–what were those figures?

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Poll puts Obama lower than Oslo’s temperature

Posted by James McPherson on December 9, 2009

Though often I wish that CNN would avoid editorializing and the sort of programming that I most disdain about Fox News and MSNBC (the departure of Lou Dobbs was a good step; if Nancy Grace and perhaps Jack Cafferty would follow Dobbs out the door I’d be even happier), I admit that I still appreciated the irony of this CNN lead today: “President Obama–fighting wars in two countries–will arrive in Norway on Thursday to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.”

The story also reminds us, “Nominations for the prize had to be postmarked by February 1, only 12 days after Obama took office. The committee sent out its solicitation for nominations last September, two months before Obama was elected president.” After last week, and especially since the number of Americans who think Obama deserves the prize has dropped below 20 percent, I wonder if the Nobel Committee would like a recount.

By the way, the expected low temperature for tomorrow in Oslo, where Obama will pick up the prize, is 26 degrees. The expected high is 32 degrees (right at freezing, though not as chilly as the reception he might get from former supporters when he campaigns for re-election). Come to think of it, many Americans may be thinking of traveling to Norway to warm up.

On the other hand, another 35 percent of those surveyed think it likely that Obama will eventually do enough to deserve the prize. Based on that thinking, with this semester nearing an end, perhaps I should assign final grades based on what I think students will someday achieve. But I can’t, since I keep telling them that actual performance matters and that actions have consequences.

Obama and the Democrats who let us think that poor Americans wouldn’t have to risk getting shot in Afghanistan to get a job or decent health care may find out in 2010 and 2012 just how much their actions matter.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

‘G’ whiz: judging Obama’s summit performance

Posted by James McPherson on April 4, 2009

Writing for CNN, James Carvell called the final day of the G-20 Summit, “Barack Obama’s single best day since inauguration,” while Fareed Zakariah suggested, “President Obama is failing in his role as leader of the free world.”

Over on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly “asked” if Obama was “selling out America” (part of Fox’s ongoing “We distort, you decide” marketing strategy).  Former Democratic whoremonger and current Fox News whore Dick Morris lied about it (now there’s a surprise), saying the summit, which in truth achieved almost nothing of substance, “was a disaster, but it’s probably a disaster he [Obama] likes … in which, essentially, all of the U.S. regulatory bodies and all U.S. companies are put under international regulation, international supervision. It really amounts to a global economic government. … Just when Obama is accused of socialism, he’s essentially creating world economic governance.”

The blatant misrepresention (unless it’s just stupidity) by Morris would be bad enough, of course, but Fox still has his appearance (and O’Reilly’s question) on the front of its Web site–though of course both are posted below its daily “Pop Tarts” section and headlines about the “top 10 beach bodies” and a show starring Hugh Hefner’s ex-girlfriend.

Of course, on the most obnoxious network from the opposing perspective, MSNBC highlighted “Obama’s charm offensive” while its various hosts did their usual pro-bama fawning. So maybe for a better sense of the summit, we should look to what they’re saying in other countries. After all, the group is called the G-20, not the “Gee, the U.S. and 19 other countries Americans don’t care about.”

Zakaria quoted a column in the Guardian stating that Obama “looks neither like JFK nor FDR but rather JEC–that’s James Earl Carter–better known here as Jimmy Carter.” But the Guardian also considers Gordon Brown a big winner, while “fat cats” and world climate were losers. As long as even fired fat cats are collecting millions of dollars while millions of people worry about paying for groceries I can’t consider them “losers.,” at least not in the sense that the newspaper means.

As it turns, out, looking at media from around the world, the reviews are mixed. Media in those countries tend to be as ethnocentric as ours are, focusing on their own situations and how the summit might affect them. And the fact is, the effects–if any–of what happened in London likely won’t be know for some time.

Leave it to al-Jazeera to provide the best interpretation of the summit and Obama’s performance there: “It’s a start.”

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

Where the dead white girls are

Posted by James McPherson on April 1, 2009

There are five things you can almost guarantee about a missing person who becomes a lead story in the news, with Sandra Cantu providing the latest example.

First, unless it’s an extremely bizarre case, the victim will be female. We worry a lot more about women and girls than we do about men and boys, and we are more “entertained” by crime against females. Watch a few episodes of almost any fictional crime show on television, and it will quickly become obvious that our crime coverage mirrors far too much of our fictional entertainment.

Second, the victim will be young: perhap a girl, perhaps a young woman, but not middle-aged or elderly. By the way, this makes Nancy Grace an even bigger freak than she would be anyway, because she so widely publicizing the antics of her own twins at the same time that she’s scaring people all over America about what might happen to their own kids.

Third, the victim will be white.

Fourth, the she’ll be attractive in a traditional white-American sense–the type who makes grandmothers say she was “so cute” or “so pretty.”

Fifth, when the victim’s body turns up–and, sadly, they rarely seem to come back alive–she’ll be no more dead than 25,000 or so other children who died the same day.

Of course, almost none of us will ever know the names of all those other children, and Grace won’t be screeching for justice on their behalf. Another difference is that almost all of those other deaths were more preventable by society as a whole than are the random killings of pretty white girls that the media glorify so much.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | 20 Comments »

Newspaper sales, media credibility skyrocket

Posted by James McPherson on April 1, 2009

While other economic news continues to be bad, CNN reports today that a survey shows that newspaper sales–and news media credibility in general–have soared in recent weeks. Sadly, the news apparently came just a little too late for the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and employees of my local newspaper, which today announced wage cuts of up to 10 percent for newsroom employees in its print edition (but apparently not online).

“Apparently the fine job the media did of covering issues instead of the horse race during the election had an impact,” said a media expert who, ironically, lost his job just last month. “The fact that cable news outlets such as Fox and MSNBC have focused so much on meaningful issues instead of on personalities apparently had a transference effect, making people hunger for more in-depth news in all formats.

By the way, it’s April Fools Day. One thing the CNN story did say that I agree with totally, however: “Geoffrey Davies, the head of the journalism department at London’s University of Westminster, said such pranks do not particularly affect the credibility of a news organization.”

The credibility of the media being what it is, how could those pranks have a negative effect?

Same-day addendum: Apparently lots of people are concerned about the Conficker worm.  I normally get between 100 and 150 hits on my blog in a day. So far today I’m over 1,460, putting me at #26 right now on the WordPress “growing blogs” list and at #70 on the WordPress “top posts” list. Gee, and it came on the same day I was interviewed by C-SPAN about my latest book. As if I didn’t have enough trouble keeping my ego in check.

Most of the blog traffic has come from a CNN link to my Conficker post of yesterday. It has already drawn more than 1,200 hits, making it the third-most-popular post of my 11 months of blogging. Maybe it’s because I mentioned my media criticism class in the post–that’s what I told them in class today, anyway. Each of the two posts ahead of yesterday’s entry has taken months to reach their current numbers of just over 2,200 and just under 2,000 hits.

Addendum #2: By the end of the “day” (which on the “stats” page ends at 5 p.m. my time), I’d had 1,612 hits for the day, and had reached at least as high as #29 on the WordPress “top posts” list (and #26 on “growing blogs“). Thanks to all who visited, and especially those who commented.

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

Saving the world in Afghanistan, killing the media at home

Posted by James McPherson on March 27, 2009

Barack Obama apparently can’t decide if he’s George W. Bush or one of several former leaders of the former Soviet Union, declaring that we must win in Afghanistan to “save the world.”

Despite worries about those other dangerous folks on our southern border, apparently Afghanistan seems small enough to win (chances are Obama won’t be the first leader to be wrong about that) and far enough away that we can be inspired to worry enough to fund operations there and think Democrats are strong on defense–but not be too scared to pour money into other things.

Americans know they should worry about Obama-the-Conservative’s plan when Fox News and David Brooks both are quick to approve. In the meantime, of course, there’s less reason to believe even fewer Americans will be informed about that issue or any other, as news media continue to die.

Interestingly, CNN highlighted financial costs in the headline and lead of a story about job cuts at the New York Times and Washington Post yesterday–at the same time it was featuring a clueless “iReport” feature titled “Let newspapers go”–holding the fact that the Times cut 100 jobs and would slash the salaries of other workers until the second paragraph. The third paragraph mentions that buyouts will be offered at the Post, which “could not rule out laying off staff.”

Contrast that with a story the same day about Google, for which both the headline and the lead highlight almost 200 lost jobs–leaving the company with 20,000 employees–or about five times as many people as we’ll add to our “world saving” force in Afghanistan.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »