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 ‘economy’

Thank God It’s (almost) Christmas

Posted by James McPherson on December 10, 2009

We’ve had bitter cold temperatures here, and the weather has been even rougher in much of the nation. Shopping remains to be done and vacation plans made, at a time when many Americans suffer from economic hardships they’ve never known before. Meanwhile, people in other parts of the world have it even worse, and I’ve been thinking lately of the verse from Queen that goes,

Oh my love we’ve lived in troubled days
Oh my friend we have the strangest ways
All my friends on this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas

With that in mind, I offer the following along a few days early, with the brief heartfelt wish from the same song to “let it be Christmas ev’ry day”

Queen: Thank God It’s Christmas

Posted in Music, Personal, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Uneasy riders: Yen and the lack of motorcycle company maintenance

Posted by James McPherson on March 22, 2009

Another sign of the faltering U.S. economy: The New York Times today offers a story about the serious problems affecting Harley Davidson, producer of the nation’s iconic motorcycle.

Among the problems are that the age of the average rider has climbed to 49–a year shy of the requirement for AARP membership–and the average income of those riders is $87,000. In the meantime, as with cars, Japanese companies have been more efficient, producing better, cheaper and more varied products. And as with cars, those competitive problems began in the 1970s.

I spent my last summer before college working for a small-town newspaper and pitching for a softball team sponsored by a bar; the team and the bar’s clientele were made of largely of Harley riders. We were the only team in the league virtually guaranteed to have a police presence at all of our games, but in fact most of the guys were working blue-collar jobs and, though perhaps engaging in a bit too much drinking and recreational drug use, were essentially harmless.

Assuming those guys are still around, unless their lives have changed dramatically, most of them wouldn’t be able to afford to own and maintain their preferred band of motorcycle today. If they had bikes at all, they’d probably be riding what my teammates of 30 years ago denigrated as “rice burners.”

So the venerable Harley, once a sign of the kind of rebellion that Americans pretend to appreciate but generally try to crush, has largely become just another rich person’s toy. And unlike a yacht or private plane, you can’t sleep on your motorcycle or easily use it to pack your bonus off to another country.

The Associated Press and the latest issue of consumer-porn magazine Town & Country are among those at home and abroad that recently have reminded us that this isn’t the best time for the rich to be flaunting their wealth–even if humorist Joe Queenan (writing for Fortunesays they should.

“The one unquestioned moral responsibility of the wealthy is to act as role models for the less fortunate,” Queenan writes, satirically (I hope) bemoaning what he calls “the crisis afflicting self-effacing rich people, a class best described as the wallflower wealthy.”

In reality, perhaps at least a few of those wallflowers, typically old enough to remember the film “Easy Rider,” recognize that some poor guy driving an old pickup to pick up his unemployment check may still own a shotgun powerful enough to blast you off your bike.

Posted in History, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

More than a little sick of warmongers? Get on board the Sick Train

Posted by James McPherson on March 13, 2009

As much debate has there has been about the stimulus bill and the economy (debate spilling over into primetime television), it’s good to remember that the single biggest long-term drag on our economy for most of our lifetimes probably will be the Iraq War–which, we hear today, that the public is “a little sick” of hearing about, talking about, etc. If you want a better picture of what the war will cost you, and for how long, check out NationalPriorities.org.

And for those of you who have recently joined our ranks aboard the sick train (now there’s a song I can’t imagine Cat Stevens singing, even under the name Yusuf Islam): welcome aboard–but what took you so long? Some of us were more than a little sick of this war, and equally sick of the Bush/Cheney cabal that foisted it upon a generally clueless and revenge-seeking public, years ago.

As I’ve noted previously (in a book and repeatedly here), a gutless Democratic Party and a Bush-kissing mainstream press constributed to the problem in the first place. Both now seem largely determined to forget it, but it will be with us for decades to come.

It remains to see whether the “anti-war” Barack Obama will be any better than Bush in terms of war and related spending, and judging by his first steps into the quagmire of Afghanistan, I have my doubts. In the meantime, war also rages much closer, on our southern border. Though I’m not sure we should be helping out there, either, it may not matter–we can’t spare the troops, even if we wanted to help.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

‘Dead’ beats: Vampire-like bill collectors collect from concientious kin

Posted by James McPherson on March 4, 2009

Worried about the economy because of the falling stock market?  Afraid you won’t get anything from the stimulus bill? (If so, maybe should should move to a red state.) Concerned that you might lose your job and not be able to pay your bills? Just wait ’til you get your dead grandmother’s cell phone bill.

As the New York Times reports today, by taking advantage of technology and the fact that most people don’t know they are not responsible for the bills left behind by deceased relatives, credit agencies are going wherever they might be able to get someone–perhaps by using deceit or by playing on survivors’ guilt–to pay off unpaid balances. The Times notes: “Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs deceased collections, says that if family members ask, ‘we definitely tell them’ they have no legal obligation to pay. ‘But is it disclosed upfront–“Mr. Smith, you definitely don’t owe the money”? It’s not that blunt.'”

Not surprisingly, collecting from poor widows is stressful for the people who happen to be scummy or desperate enough to take the job. It’s even more stressful for the grieving poor, of course, and there will be more folks on both ends of those calls in months to come.

On the plus side, if someone has to sell the big screen TV to pay off someone else’s debts, at least their own children may be less likely to grow up stupid from watching reality television (and in case you’re lucky enough not to know what I’m talking about, and for whatever perverse reason happen to care, the clip below will fill you in):

Posted in Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Optimistic groundhogs, governors and economists: Jindal’s losing presidential campaign to begin after Obama address

Posted by James McPherson on February 24, 2009

CNN reports that President Barack Obama will try to “mix sober talk with an upbeat bottom line” in an address to a joint session of Congress tonight. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been tapped to provide the GOP answer to Obama’s and thereby take another step toward launching his own losing 2012 presidential bid–assuming his speech tonight doesn’t kill his hopes by falling as flat as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’s Democratic response to George Bush’s State of the Union Address back in January 2008 (a speech the dropped her from serious vice presidential hopeful to possible second or third choice for secretary of Health and Human Services).

Though it’s too early for presidential predictions, I don’t see how Jindal can win. He’ll either be seen as a GOP attempt to “copy” a successful Obama, and will therefore lose the general election to Obama, or, if Obama falters, Jindal will be rejected in the Republican primary because he reminds voters too much of Obama. We can’t know what Obama’s future will look like four years from now, but we can guess that Jindal’s doesn’t look good for 2012.

However positive Obama’s tone, the news he delivers tonight likely will make Punxsutawney Phil look like an raging optimist. After all, the groundhog predicted “only” six more weeks of winter. The economic winter will continue much longer (despite some optimistic predictions by economists), with the Dow yesterday falling to about half of its high point. All in all, Phil might have some good advice to Jindal: Keep your head down.

Incidentally, if you want to see where the stimulus money is scheduled to go, and when, the government has launched a new website, www.recovery.gov with a timeline. You can also read the entire bill for yourself, if you have the time and determination to get through it. One weird thing about Recovery.gov–after you click on a link to exit the site and read the bill, you’re greeted with a message saying, “Thank you for visiting our site. … We hope your visit was informative and enjoyable.”

Two things bug me about that message. First, it’s not “their” site; it’s ours. They work for us. Second, the visit is unlikely to be “enjoyable,” at least for anyone who isn’t getting a bunch of money in a hurry. For the record, I’m not. And probably you aren’t, either.

Next-day update: Maybe Jindal won’t be a candidate in 2012 after all, after last night’s dismal speech. But American attention spans are short, and he does have plenty of time to recover.

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

Past-cool Facebook turns 5, but offers little financial guidance to media

Posted by James McPherson on February 4, 2009

Another reminder of how fast time flies: The social networking site Facebook celebrates its fifth birthday today. Started by a Harvard student Mark Zuckerman (soon making him the youngest billionaire on the planet, CNN reports) and once primarily the domain of other college students, now it seems almost everyone who wants to connect with others or sell something is on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook,” or “We’re on Facebook,” several media leaders told the students in my recent Jan Term class visit to New York and Washington, D.C. As a further indication that social networking is way past cool, even I joined a couple of months ago. I remember to check in about once a week, and rarely update my status (using primarily as a way to direct people here), but CNN reports that according to Facebook, some 15 million users update statuses every day, adding more than 850 million photos per month. The average user has 120 “friends,” many of whom they’ll be soon able to follow even more closely and creepily.

The story credits social networking with making Zuckerman rich and helping make Barack Obama the president of the United States. Yet even Facebook does not demonstrate a workable “business model”–a term my students also heard repeatedly, as virtually all of the mainstream media struggle to make an acceptable profit in the Internet world. Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine reportedly told CNN that Facebook “is selling advertising, it is bringing in revenue but it’s not wildly profitable even if it is profitable at all.”

And that’s the problem all of today’s media face–the need for money from advertising, or something to replace that income stream, via a medium via which people are accustomed to getting content for free. If Facebook, now on the downside of cool, can’t do that, the prospects aren’t promising for mainstream news media sites.

Of course, more people may be looking to the Web for news after their TV service disappears with a shift to digital (a shift likely to be postponed later today), but in fact people continue to value news. Getting people to a news site isn’t a significant problem. Getting those people to pay for anything is the problem.

Same-day update: Congress approved the digital television extension today.

Next day update: Time disses a new Facebook trend.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

A ‘stimulating’ Limbaugh lesson, and battles in Afghanistan and Tampa

Posted by James McPherson on February 1, 2009

Normally I have about the same respect for James Carville that I do for Rush Limbaugh. But sometimes it is interesting to watch a contest in which you wish both sides could lose, such as when a skinny bald blowhard gives the pompous drug-addicted blowhard a lesson about history and government.

Carville is making fun of Limbaugh’s supposed call for bipartisanship regarding the stimulus bill being considered by Congress. In the meantime, in a true show of Senate bipartisanship, Maine Republican Susan Collins (whom some Republicans think should be a Democrat) and Colorado Democrat Ben Nelson (whom some Dems think should join the GOP) are working to create a stimulus package that majorities in both parties could support. Mostly what they’re trying to do is “slash what they call wasteful spending from the bill.”

Republicans, many of whom consider almost any spending not related to killing someone to be wasteful, continue to call for the least effective means of stimulus (tax breaks) while rejecting the most effective (programs for poor people). Regardless of the outcome, a big stimulus package will be passed and much will be spent on infrastructure–a good thing except for the fact that too much of it will go to reinforcing a car-centric culture and not enough to mass transit (the benefits of which I greatly enjoyed last month in New York and Washington, D.C.).

Related to the economy, the stupidist spending under the George W. Bush adminstration was, and continues to be, expensed related to the Iraq War. While I am encouraged that President Barack Obama will likely reduce our presence there, I am troubled that he may be aiming toward creating his own Vietnam/Iraq-style quagmire in Afghanistan.

Obama probably will double the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which might have been a good idea seven years ago. But keeping in mind that the current U.S. presence is smaller than the number of police deemed necessary to patrol friendly, celebratory crowds without guns in our nation’s capital on Inauguration Day, Obama’s plan seems mostly like a way to temporarily look semi-strong on defense while accomplishing no clear goals. Among those continuing to pay the price will be American soldiers and their orphaned children, and American taxpayers and their bewildered grandchildren.

Incidentally, Senators Collins and Nelson and I do have something in common, if the two really are working through the weekend to fix the stimulus package–we’ll be among that distinct minority of Americans not watching today’s Super Bowl. I’ve skipped viewing most Super Bowls, often other matchups in which I hope both sides lose, though I did hang on every second of the Seattle Seahawks’ 2005 loss to the Steelers (part of why today I’m rooting for the Cardinals–another area in which I disagree with Obama).

While I like football (I played in college, and still prefer the college game), with a few obvious exceptions the Super Bowl generally is not a particularly good game. With every key play to be shown endlessly in coming days, the halftime show a watered-down performance by a popular star provided with poor sound, and (thanks to YouTube) every commercial worth watching available anytime after the game, there is little reason to tune in.

I also don’t think the game will be close. My prediction: 34-13, Steelers. I figure today might be the perfect time to finally brave the mall and exchange the shirts I got for Christmas, since there will be few other guys there.

Same day update: So much for my career as a sports prognosticator. I walked into the house and flipped on the TV just in time to see the last play of the first half–the longest play in Super Bowl history. I then watched Bruce Springsteen in a halftime show that was every bit as weak as I expected, and then turned the TV back off until just before the Steelers gave up a safety to let the Cardinals get within four points.

To my credit, I did then have enough sense to watch the rest of the game, which the Steelers probably deserved to lose–after all, how do you NOT cover Larry Fitzgerald closely enough to prevent the last Cardinal touchdown? On the other hand, can you cover Santonio Holmes any better than he was covered on Pittburgh’s last TD? Who knows, after the last couple of years, I may have to start watching Super Bowls again.

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

Obama’s selective openness a bad sign for him and us

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2009

Barack Obama has been justifiably praised for his efforts to use technology to talk directly to the American people, and, since his election, for his orders to increase the transparency of government. 

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama promised on his first day in office. And as a former journalist and a citizen concerned about the workings of government, I’m happy about the promises of increased openness.

Unfortunately those promises may go largely unfulfilled, as indicated by Columbia Journalism Review writer David Cay Johnston’s  experience. Not only is the press staff difficult to reach and sometimes apparently ignorant about how the media work, Johnston reports that the administration is also editing briefing transcripts before posting them–a practice used by the Bush administration to “polish the record.”

 “Politicians make choices and have to live with them,” Johnston notes. “How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.”

Obama’s decisions likely will keep getting tougher, not easier, and with each he’ll have to decide anew his commitment to open government. Will he open the windows on U.S. torture policy? Will he keep the Bush administration’s secrets, even if it means that war crimes go unpunished? Worse, might he continue some of the abuses? How will he protect us from the end of the world less than two months after his 2012 re-election? OK, I’m kidding about that one: I’m not at all convinced he’ll be re-elected, even if we happen to survive that long.

Though Obama has been talking a lot about the economy and the need to spend lots of money to forestall total economic collapse, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wonders if the president is giving any consideration to a central theme of his campaign–how health care, perhaps the biggest draw on the economy, might be fixed? Obama and his people aren’t saying, so we don’t know.

There’s a lot they aren’t saying, despite the fact that Obama now seems to be on television constantly. As can be seen nightly on the Vegas strip or with the Three-card Monte games of New York City, the most effective magicians work not by openly hiding things but by using charm, patter, and perhaps a pretty girl or two to keep us from looking where we should. And it is worth remembering that Obama drew kudos for the “discipline” of his button-down presidential campaign, from which leaks did not escape.

Naturally politicians hate it when everyone knows what they’re doing, sometimes for good reasons. For one thing, if ideas are revealed too early, critics can jump in before plans can be given thorough consideration or a fair hearing. For another thing, leaks make a course change tougher if people know you originally intended something else. You might even become known as a flip-flopper. And sometimes information can simply be embarrassing.

But the Bush administration convincingly reminded us why we can’t simply trust officials to tell us what we need to know (even an official with his own Blackberry and YouTube channel), and why we need journalists to dig for us, to follow up on statements, to explore alternatives. After the press and government failures of the Iraq War, domestic spying and the economy, we can hope that even journalists have learned the same thing.

Incidentally, Johnston’s article also reminds us of why CJR (where editor Mike Holt graciously met with a dozen of my students in New York earlier this month) is such a valuable source both for and about journalism. I renewed my subscription this week.

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

Congress approving digital delay that few want?

Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2009

After last night’s unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives will take “emergency action” to vote on a bill to delay the switch to digital television from Feb. 17 until June 12. The House vote may come as early as later today, though I suspect ongoing stimulus talks and other issues (which fortunately included passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) will delay it until tomorrow or later this week. So much for the idea that interest groups and lobbyists have all the power in Washington, since students and I learned first-hand last week that representatives for several powerful groups actually oppose the delay to digital.

The “emergency” aspect of the House action is somewhat humorous, since the switch to digital has been scheduled for more than a decade and those of use with cable or satellite hookups probably won’t be seriously affected (though even we may need an extra cable box or experience a slight  increase in the number of neighbors who want to watch football games at our houses). A January startup date previously had been moved to Feb. 17 after legislators realized what might happen if the switch screwed up people’s Super Bowl viewing or messed with the plans of advertisers, who will pay up to $3 million for 30 seconds of advertising during the game. No, that’s not a joke–at least three experts we spoke with in New York and Washington, D.C., verified the Super Bowl-related reasoning behind the February date.

I don’t know the significance of the June 12 date, which among other things happens to be George H.W. Bush’s 85th birthday, the 70th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the 22nd anniversary of the date Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the 15th anniversary of when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered (an event that came 27 years to the day after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriages, suggesting that O.J. may have an odd way of celebrating key anniversaries).

Regardless of the date, the Nielsen ratings folks are concerned about the switch to digital, as Dave Thomas, president of Global Media Client Services of the company, noted when we met him two weeks ago. He estimated that 5 to 6 percent of viewers are “completely unprepared” for the switch (despite the fact that as National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Marcellus Alexander told us last week, more than $1 billion has been spent on industry advertising warning viewers that “you may need a converter box” if your TV is too old and you don’t have cable or satellite television).

“What’s troubling is that it’s not going to fall evenly,” Thomas noted about the people who will be left without television. Young people, the elderly and poor people will be most likely to suffer problems, and not nearly enough cost-reducing coupons have been set aside for people who need converter boxes. I don’t know how much the problem might be aggravated by people like me who got converter boxes despite already having cable, just in case a natural disaster or the desire to watch a baseball game while camping forces me to rely on older, non-digital technology.

A bigger problem will be that some people won’t have signals even with their new converter boxes, as we were reminded last week by Seth Morrison, senior VP of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. On the digital transition issue, members of CTAM–who naturally (but not “officially”) want everyone to switch to cable, anyway–find themselves in rare agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters in opposing the delay, in large part because in the meantime broadcasters and cable companies are paying to transmit both digital and traditional analog signals.

Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, told our group last Friday (and apparently told the Associated Press a few days later) that a four-month extension would cost PBS stations more than $22 million in extra transmission costs. Coincidentally, just a few minutes into our meeting, she had to leave the room to take a call from Senator Jay Rockefeller, the sponsor of the bill (favored by Barack Obama) to delay the transition to digital.

“It sounds like they won’t extend the date,” Kerger said when she returned, indicating that there didn’t seem to be enough Senate votes to force the extension. Assuming that Rockefeller wasn’t intentionally misleading Kerger, just three days later the tide shifted dramatically to make the vote for the extension unanimous, while illustrating another Kerger point: “The conversion has not been well managed.”

On the other hand, as more and more Americans find themselves without work, at least the delay will let more of those people spend their suddenly free time watching the antics of politicians and thieving financial fat cats, so viewers can better understand just how screwed they really are.

Incidentally, for tonight’s viewing I recommend FRONTLINE/World on PBS, which starts a new season with stories about Guantanamo prisoners, the Italian Mafia and Barack Obama’s Brazilian appeal.

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