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 ‘First Amendment’

Comparing Obama to other presidents — and to mermaids

Posted by James McPherson on May 31, 2013

mermaidAfter watching an Animal Planet program about mermaids the other night, I realized that the sea creatures and President Barack Obama have some things in common. Perhaps the comparison is inevitable, considering that the Weekly World News, a “news source” at least as reliable as World Net Daily, assures me that Obama has met with mermaids. Less surprising is that the article tells us that the mermaids are being “kept at an undisclosed aquarium.” Perhaps in Cuba?

And yes, I know the show was fiction, even if many people have apparently been fooled by the “documentary” style and the lengths the network went through to trick viewers. The fact that folks were duped isn’t a big surprise, though one might hope they would check things out before buying into the latest version of “Alien Autopsy.” I am a bit disappointed to find that Animal Planet is apparently now as much about animals as the History Channel is about history and the Arts & Entertainment network is about the arts.

In part, though, people believe in mermaids (check out some of the claims and a bad poem about mermaids and sonar in the comments section here), for some of the same reasons they believed–and in some cases, continue to believe–that Barack Obama is liberal, anti-war, anti-business, Muslim, a gun-grabber, Kenyan-born, a supporter of economic regulation, deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, a socialist, or the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In fact, because both were relatively unknown and perhaps unknowable, mermaids and Obama became defined by how others want to see them. (We often elect “outsiders” for that reason.) But just for fun, here are some other comparisons:

  • Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid was translated into dozens of languages and led to an animated movie; Obama’s Dreams from My Father was translated into dozens of languages and led to an unanimated presidency.
  • Mermaids are famous for melodious singing that mesmerized sailors; Obama is famous for melodious speeches that mesmerized Democratic voters.
  • Mermaids hang out with fish; Obama also has been accused of having some fishy compatriots.
  • In some cultures, mermaids are thought to be seeking souls; Obama brought soul to the White House.
  • Mermaids can be found all over the world; Obama also has made appearances all over the globe.
  • Mermaids never appear on television without the help of CGI; Obama rarely appears without the aid of a teleprompter.
  • And perhaps most significantly, mermaids are thought to be half human, half fish; Obama seems to be half Democrat, half Republican.

In fact, Obama is pretty much like most other presidents, and that’s the problem. He’s certainly no liberal; like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama is a politically practical neo-conservative who relies on a combination of charm and corporate money for his power. Like FDRHarry Truman and Bush, he’ll freely kill civilians abroad to look politically strong while reducing American military casualties (for example, more Americans have been killed by guns in this country just since the Newtown massacre than were killed in the entire Iraq War). Like Bush and Roosevelt, Obama will overlook civil liberties to lock up potential “enemies.” Like Nixon and Bush, he is secretive. Also like Nixon and Bush, Obama is willing to let the government be intrusive, if not abusive.

I’ve noted previously the similarities between Obama and Ronald Reagan, and have become increasingly troubled by some of the current president’s similarities to Richard Nixon. (I agree with Bob Dole’s recent statement that neither Reagan nor Nixon could be elected as Republicans, though I think either might have a shot as a modern-day Democrat. After all, both Reagan and Nixon were more liberal in many respects than Obama.)

Obama is not particularly brave, nor especially effective in accomplishing his goals. He has accomplished some good things while doing some bad ones. He seems to be more reflective than Bush, but who isn’t? The one thing that liberals and conservatives might agree on in regard to Obama is that he has been … a disappointment.

Obama’s new support for a federal shield law and his nomination of James B. Comey as FBI director might seem to be encouraging notes in a presidency that has otherwise been marked by its obstruction and intimidation of the press and a general lack of once-promised transparency. But it’s worth noting that Obama previously helped kill the shield law (which probably would prove largely meaningless, and may actually make things worse for journalists, anyway) and the drone warrior’s latest “transparency” promise lasted all of about a week. And, of course, Comey may have had the gumption to bust Martha Stewart and WorldCom execs, but he also is another demonstration of how the president is continuing the work of George W. Bush, even if Comey proved to be a thorn in Bush’s side.

Obama’s attorney general apologized for the administration’s treatment of the press, but I wonder why he felt the need to offer the apology in an “off-the-record” meeting. (I’m also troubled by the fact that three of the five editors who attended the meeting promptly violated the terms to which they had apparently agreed; they should have done what most media organizations did and boycotted the meeting.)

So while it is true that some of Obama’s recent words sound good, we’ve heard false promises in the past. Until I see more evidence, I’m not putting a lot of faith in either Obama or mermaids.

Sunday follow-up: Slate offers some more perspective on the Animal Planet’s mermaid tales, and five things the channel could better be focusing in regard to the world’s suffering oceans. Related to#4 of the list, today I bought a tie covered with pictures of a dozen kinds of sharks. Maybe they ate the mermaids.

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Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

George W. Bush: We don’t need no stinking Constitution; GOP rushes to public trough

Posted by James McPherson on March 3, 2009

As Republicans try to figure out whether they fear Rush Limbaugh more than they dislike him, and as the media fall all over themselves to cover the largely irrelevant GOP circus, we keep learning new depths of disturbing information about the Bush administration, information that makes some of us hope that circus never comes back to town.

We’ve known for years that George W. Bush was a liar, a criminal, a fool and an egomaniac, a combination that made him probably the most dangerous president in our history (Richard Nixon may have been as bad, but that was during a time when Republicans still elected members of Congress who put country over party).

Thanks to documents that Barack Obama has ordered released and the efforts of some good reporters, we’re learning more about just how dangerous Bush was. Now Newsweek reports that the Bush administration even considered trying to overturn the First Amendment. The idea came via a memo co-written by the scariest lawyer in America, John Yoo (scarier than Alberto Gonzales only because he’s a lot smarter).

Newsweek’s Michael Isakoff writes: “The Oct. 23, 2001, memo suggested the president could even suspend press freedoms if he concluded it was necessary to wage the war on terror. ‘First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully,’ Yoo wrote in the memo entitled “Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activity Within the United States.”

Somebody in the administration (maybe a leftover “limited government” conservative who somehow snuck in) apparently questioned the memo (or realized that most of the media had pretty much ignored their First Amendment rights to question the government, anyway, so it would be silly to stir them out of their slumber). Finally the idea apparently was considered “so extreme that it was essentially (and secretly) revoked–but not until October of last year, seven years after the memo was written and with barely three and a half months left in the Bush administration. (emphasis added)

I have many mixed emotions about Barack Obama, but at least there’s no such problem with George W. Bush–unless a combination of disgust, revulsion and curiosity about why that war criminal isn’t facing charges would be considered “mixed emotions.”

Fortunately, Bush and most of his ilk have moved on, even if they don’t know where they’re headed. Anyplace they can get us to pay for the trip, perhaps–maybe you noticed who benefits most from the new stimulus bill that virtually all Republicans voted against. Yep, red states.

Conservatives do love their earmarks (just as they also apparently subscribe to the most online pornography). And as the Huffington Post reports, the new stimulus bill, like the tax system in general, rewards red state porkers the most. As I’ve noted previously, one way to fix the economy might be to enforce a sort of Golden Rule by just treating Republicans as they would treat others: Cut off the tap, and let the piggies fend for themselves.

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

If you’re going to write anything stupid in the future, don’t come to my class

Posted by James McPherson on December 21, 2008

Though the event boasted about as much security as Barack Obama’s inauguration will (and probably was even more expensive), Iraq’s public Christmas celebration yesterday was a good sign. Despite the security, chances are good that Bill O’Reilly or some other right-wing self-appointed “protector of Christmas”  will make some ludicrous comment tomorrow about it supposedly being easier to celebrate Christmas publicly in Baghdad than in Washington.

I expect that O’Reilly will overlook the fact that it may be more dangerous to be a Christian in Iraq today than at any time in history, and that millions of Christians have fled the country or been killed for their religious beliefs. Still, I was struck by a quote from an Iraq Interior Ministry official at the Christmas party, attended by many Muslims, that “All Iraqis are Christian today!”

The quote and the party are nice symbols of unity (though I didn’t see anything about the event on al-Jazeera today). Unfortunately, here at home, George “I’m a Uniter, not a Divider” Bush has again gone the divisive route by apparently deciding that conservative Christians should be allowed to dictate health policy for America as a whole.

That might explain why among his various lame-duck actions–which so far include attempts to ease offshore drilling, weakening the Endangered Species Act, trying to rewrite the history of his administration while dodging shoes (and perhaps other objects to come), and perhaps wondering whether to pardon Dick Cheney or just shoot him in the face–George W. Bush on Thursday announced its new “conscious protection” rule to keep health care workers from doing jobs they find “morally objectionable.”

The regulation is set to take effect the day before Bush leaves office (I guess he thinks there’s no real hurry), giving Obama’s administration one more thing to work on overturning one day later. Of course assorted feministes, rape victims, those in favor of legalized abortion, those concerned about teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and other assorted people concerned about women’s health in general hate the new regulation.

My immediate reaction was similar to those in opposition–that this is yet another stupid, petty Bushian effort to impose the Religious Right’s beliefs on everyone else–but then I realized that, taken to its natural conclusion, this decision could make my own job as a college professor teaching journalism classes a lot easier.

See, I normally ask students at the beginning of a semester to write a short paper telling me why they’re in my class, what they hope it will teach them, and how they hope to use it in the future. I do the assignment mostly so that I can tailor the class to students’ needs, where appropriate. If I have several students in my media writing class who plan to enter public relations, for example, I’ll spend a little more time on that topic than if I have a class full of future broadcast journalists.

My obvious mistake is that I’ve made the assignment about them, instead of about me. In the past I’ve thought that it was my job to teach them the necessary skills to succeed in their chosen profession, and, if possible, to get them to look at things from a variety of perspectives. Since they’re adults, albeit young ones, I assumed that they might be capable of making the decisions that were right for them.

Yet many of those students eventually go on to write conservative columns, work for conservative politicians, or do public relations for conservative organizations. Despite the wailings of David Horowitz and similar fear-based donor-funded nuts, and to the probable dismay of some egotistical academics, we liberal professors just don’t have all that much political influence on our students (neither do the conservative profs, which, though outnumbered, still are relatively common).

So now when when I ask my opening questions I’ll be on the lookout for students who might plan to someday use any writing or editing skills picked up in my classes for evil purposes. Since I teach at a Christian university and most of my students are political conservatives, if we can get the latest Bush doctrine expanded, this might greatly reduce my workload.

A Christian myself, of course I’ll continue to teach journalism basics to the “right kind” of believers–those opposed to war and torture and in favor of tolerance, telling the truth, and helping the poor.

But as soon as a student suggests (as many have, over the years) that she hopes to go on to work in government or church activities, maybe even in a way that will help promote her own conservative views, I’m obviously going to have to know a lot more before I agree to share the wonders of the summary lead or the inverted pyramid.

Christmas Day update: Chrismas has been named a national holiday in Iraq for the first time, though there are far fewer Christians left in the country to celebrate it.

Posted in Education, Legal issues, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Newseum and the First Amendment

Posted by James McPherson on June 23, 2008

The greatly expanded Newseum, which calls itself the “world’s most interactive museum” has finally re-opened. The museum about journalism has moved from an out-of-the way location in Arlington, Va., to Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Symbolically, that’s a good place for journalists to be, or at least it was when Congress actually performed its oversight function of the White House and the press served as a watchdog over both.

You’ve seen the $450 million project if you watch “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on ABC on Sunday mornings. It is drawing mix reviews, drawing some complaints about its pricing ($20 a head) and its failure to be current enough. In an American Prospect article titled “This Old Medium,” Anabel Lee (listed as an intern, so I’m guessing she’s young) complains that the Newseum devotes too little attention to the Internet. Frankly I have little problem with that perceived neglect of a not-very-historical medium (and I write that as someone whose latest chapter in a journalism history text actually is about the Internet age). No, I’m more concerned about Lee’s other main point, when she writes:

But it fails to tell us how we got from point A to point B, from the country’s first partisan newspapers to the World Wide Web. It fails to show how journalism has evolved. And by fetishizing newspaper relics and touching on major developments like new media in only a cursory manner, the Newseum unwittingly declares the death of the newspaper. It is at best a poorly executed history museum and at worst a news mausoleum that will, at the very least, provide a beautiful resting place for that final newspaper 35 years from now.

She’s right, of course, but perhaps such a shortcoming is appropriate since journalists themselves also fail far too often “to tell us how we got from point A to point B.” Historical context usually goes lacking, a situation seemingly bound to worsen as journalism schools more and more emphasize the “tools and toys” of journalism over its history. When I was seeking academic jobs, positions that included the teaching of media history–while never as common as I’d have liked–could be found throughout the country. Now virtually every journalism opening seeks someone who can teach media technology and/or public relations (an areas that in itself would have been kept away from most journalism programs, but those programs have long since become “mass communication” departments

Even the old Newseum was a great place to take journalism students, and I’ll take a group to the new version in January. I did geta kick out of it in 1999 when one of my my students noticed that an exhibit repeated a common myth that I had previously discussed in class, and I found the facility helped students better understand the business they hoped to enter. I also bought one of my favorite neckties there.

I am a bit troubled that almost every exhibit is sponsored by a major media corporation, including News Corp, NBC, Comcast, Bloomberg, Cox, Time Warner and the New York Times. With 250,000 square feet and 6,000 journalism artifacts inside, one of the highlights of the new version is actually etched onto the outside: a 74-foot-high engraving of the First Amendment.

Too bad the media themselves don’t spend more time discussing the reasons for a free press. Back when I did my master’s thesis, I found that throughout key points in recent decades, the press has virtually ignored the First Amendment except as a feeble expression of self-defense.

Like many journalism historians, I fear the demise of newspapers. But as an American, I fear even more the demise of the First Amendment. At least we’ll be able to read it in granite, as we walk by on our way to the Drudge exhibit.

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