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 ‘Europe’

Managing the message

Posted by James McPherson on July 24, 2008

Barack Obama is drawing some criticism for “posing” and “message management” on his ongoing world tour, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell quoted as saying “We’ve not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before.” Obama obviously is using the media well, but Mitchell’s statement is absurd.

As the wife of Alan Greenspan, who bears a substantial part of the responsibility for the the current economic mess in the U.S., Mitchell can hardly be considered impartial, and an anti-Obama bias on her part seems apparent to many (yet another part of the so-called “liberal media”?). More importantly, however, her recollection demonstrates the lack of political and historical context for which television journalism has become famous.

One need only look back four years to the most recent Bush campaign. As I noted in my recent book:

Bush, who defined himself as a “war president” and who held fewer news conferences than any other president of the television age, also largely managed to bypass negative publicity during his campaign. Those who refused to voice support for the president were blocked from Bush campaign appearances, and sometimes arrested if they managed to get in, despite the fact that the rallies typically were held in public settings. As a result, when each network news program produced a short nightly news segment on each candidate’s activities, viewers saw the president—who almost never spoke directly to the news media—addressing crowds of cheering followers. Few stories in the mainstream media pointed out or questioned the remoteness of the president.

Or Mitchell could have looked to the campaign and presidency of Ronald Reagan–the guy who first hired her husband as Federal Reserve chairman–who was famous for developing the modern television campaign. About Reagan, I’ve previously written:

Reagan’s key staffers, especially aide Michael Deaver, were masters at presenting presidential politics through the media, with their techniques adopted by every successful candidate and president since. Reagan and his people tried to adhere to a “theme of the day,” and the press mostly went along. Reagan demonstrated mastery of what became known as the “pseudo-event” and the “photo op”—staged events that attracted news photographers, who were directed where to stand as if they were playing a part in a film.

Others have written much more about Reagan’s press management. Of course Bill Clinton did the same thing, though not as well as Reagan or perhaps even Bush. Even John F. Kennedy was criticized for similar attempts–and probably should have been criticized for more. But if Mitchell doesn’t remember any of that, perhaps it’s time for her to join her husband in retirement.

Friday update: Glenn Greenwald reminds us that it’s not just Bush folks who arrest people at rallies; McCain’s people do the same.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

What McCain might say to news media: “Who do you think you’re foolin’? Love me like Barack”

Posted by James McPherson on July 21, 2008

I said a couple of days ago that the primary benefit of Barack Obama’s ongoing tour of the Middle East and Europe would be the media attention he would get. Even I have been surprised at the extent of that coverage, however, and how much easier it has been for Obama to get positive coverage than long-time media darling John McCain.

McCain, used to winning adoration from the media with semi-coherent “straight talk,” has to be shocked. Even Lou “illegal-aliens-are-out-to-kill-us-all” Dobbs paused from his nightly xenophobia for a few moments to complain about how uneven the coverage of the two candidates has become, and has a poll on his Web site asking, “Do you believe the national media is biased in favor of Sen. Barack Obama?” Of 7,879 respondents when I checked, 74 percent said yes. Obviously the poll has problems, both in the language of the question (Why not ask, “Do you believe the national media is biased in favor of Sen. Barack Obama?”), and in the fact that the only people who will see the poll likely are already mostly Dobbs fans (though it’s tough for me to believe that he has almost 8,000 fans), but Obama clearly is getting most of the attention.

All three network anchors are on the Barack-and-roll world tour, and all three networks are boasting about having “exclusive interviews” with the candidate. One wonders at the value of exclusivity when all three will likely ask the same kinds of questions–and the same questions they could ask Obama at home–but the Obama campaign is so far mostly hitting the right media notes.

Meanwhile, all McCain and his surrogates can do is to try to avoid attention-getting gaffes while taking potshots from afar and hoping something sticks. “If Barack Obama’s policy in Iraq had been implemented, he couldn’t be in Iraq today,” Joe Lieberman says. That may be true, of course. It’s definitely true that if Obama’s opposition to the war had been heeded, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis wouldn’t have died there during the past five years.

McCain’s people have gone so far as to float the possibility that he will name his running mate this week. That would be a mistake, in my view, but it wouldn’t be the first poorly timed McCain event during this campaign. Still, I think such an announcement is unlikely.

One warning for the networks: Part of the reason the Democratic primary race may have lasted as long as it did was because many people who otherwise would not have been Hillary Clinton fans grew disgusted with how poorly the news media treated her while fawning over Obama. In coming weeks, McCain may benefit from the same kind of backlash.

Posted in Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »