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 ‘government secrecy’

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 »

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 »

Don’t bother to ask; they won’t bother to tell: FOIA and other Bush-league presidential stats

Posted by James McPherson on December 8, 2008

A lot of people want answers from and about the Bush administration. Most of those question probably will go unanswered.

ProPublica’s Kristen Jones offers some numbers on the George W. Bush presidency, and invites readers to contribute other meaningful stats. One of the most depressing stats for me was that Freedom of Information Act requests increased almost tenfold, from 2.2 million in 2000 to 21.8 million in 2007, thanks largely to a combination of war, corruption and secrecy (my conclusion, not Jones’)–but the number of people available to respond to those requests actually dropped by nine, to 5,367.

Considering it took more than two years and the intervention of a U.S. Senator to get my FOIA request for information from the FBI about an anti-nuclear activist granted several years ago, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that my later request for more information apparently disappeared altegether. (I decided to work on something else, instead–and maybe that was the point of the repeated delays, though I suspect it’s a combination of too much work and too little interest on the part of those in the bureaucracy.)

There are a number of non-surprising statistical lowlights. Bush has been bad for the economy and the environment. The number of federal contracts went up, but the percentage of contracts open to competitive bids dropped from 44 percent to 33 percent. Investigation of white-collar crimes dropped dramatically, as did FDA concerns about pharmaceutical advertising law violations. The number of illegal immigrants deported tripled, however.

In an apparent attempt to look more Reaganesque, Bush bought his Texas ranch just before running for president, so it also may be surprising that Bush has already managed to spend far more time on his ranch than Reagan did as president (483 days to 335). Think how much more damage he might have done if he hadn’t spent more than 15 percent of his presidency in Texas. Barack Obama wouldn’t have time to reverse it all–assuming he wants to do so, of course, which isn’t certain, considering his appointments and apparent war policy thus far.

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

Nothin’ but ‘Net’: Obama, the Web and the White House

Posted by James McPherson on November 10, 2008

Barack Obama won the presidency in part because his campaign used the Internet so well to raise money and connect with supporters. As a senator, he sponsored the law that meant any of us could see online where many of our federal tax dollars are being spent.

Now Obama is taking the presidential transition to the Web, with a new Internet site. A lot of talking heads have been discussing how this presidency could be a tranformational one in the same way that Ronald Reagan’s was, because of its effect on the youth vote. Young people who voted for Reagan tended to continue voting Republican. Democrats obviously hope that young Obama voters will stay with their party.

So far, Obama is doing the right things to keep those voters. How he performs after moving into the White House, of course, will matter most. For my part, after seven years of Bush/Cheney secrecy, I am encouraged by glimmers that Obama favors more openness in public policy. But I also know that Obama ran a tightly controlled campaign, and presidents tend to be bigger fans of secrecy when it’s their own secrets they’re keeping under wraps.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

In search of Sarah, and where Congress spends your money

Posted by James McPherson on September 23, 2008

John McCain and Sarah Palin finally went too far in trying to protect the GOP’s “pretty little lady” from the media today. Faced with a rare journalistic exhibition of backbone, the campaign was forced to back down before its nominees climbed back aboard what journalists are now calling “the no-talk express.”

As far as I can tell, McCain and Palin have done only one thing to counter recent indications that they will be as secretive as Dick Cheney and George Bush. And that one positive act–which applies more to a weakening Congress than to a power-hungry executive branch, anyway–actually served more to show how out of touch Palin is with the government she hopes to help lead.

Palin drew fire for suggesting that she would provide the same kind of oversight for federal spending as she had for spending in Alaska. The criticism came not because of the idea itself, but because she was unaware that such a program already exists–thanks to a law co-sponsored by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Below you can see a video about the bill (which Palin’s buddy, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, and Democrat Robert Byrd tried to secretly block).

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 provides a searchable U.S. government database, USAspending.gov (which I’ve also linked at right under both “Journalism Resources” and “Goverment Resources”). As the Poynter Institute’s Alan Abbey points out, “This resource is a goldmine for journos, particularly local media–especially in an election year–since the data are easily searchable by congressional district.” Abbey also notes: “USAspending.gov is an offshoot of the earlier (and still ongoing) online database FedSpending.org, which crunches the data even further. FedSpending, which was chreated by the watchdog group OMB Watch, also is updated to include partial data for FY 2008.

By the way, particularly interesting in light of the past week’s economic events, is a Sept. 9 OMB Watch story about the Bush Administration’s “last minute rush to dismantle public protections.” OMB Watch executive director Gary D. Bass writes, “Events show the administration is starting to kick things into high gear on regulations, trying to lock the next administration into a Bush legacy.”

Two weeks later, considering the ineptitude and accompanying costs of the Iraq War, disaster relief and economic meltdown, we know that the “Bush legacy” goal has been achieved. At least the next two presidential administrations will be dealing with trying to clean up the Bush/Cheney mess–at least three or four administrations, if the next one is headed by the increasingly comically press-paranoid McCain and Palin.

Note that Palin still has not had even one news conference and has submitted to only two television interviews–one with Fox’s Sean Hannity, who would have not have been able to pass my junior-level reporting class by asking the kind of inane, sycophantic, leading questions he offered. The “interview” demonstrated far more about Hannity’s opinions of Obama (though nothing we didn’t already know) than we learned about Palin. You can see some of it with the second video below.

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