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 ‘History’

Movies and history: Is there any good history in cinema?

Posted by James McPherson on December 20, 2008

In responsed to my post of a few days ago in which I complained about the historical inaccuracy of “Frost/Nixon,” author David Schleicher (who also happens to be a regular reviewer of movies) asked if there have been any recent films that I considered to be historically accurate.

That’s a great question. Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer, because movies are the medium that I may know least about. I’m so out of touch with cinema that the last two films I saw in theaters were “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille.”

Schleicher also asked about my perspective on HBO’s recent John Adams miniseries. Even though “Freakonomics” author Stephen J. Dubner had a few problems with its history, in fact that miniseries and “The Wire” were two of the most recent reasons for me to wish I had more than expanded basic cable.

Dubner also points out that the miniseries strays from the facts offered in the David McCullough book on which it is based, offering an argument that gets to the heart of my original complaint about “Frost/Nixon”:

I’m not looking for embellishment when it’s not necessary. Sometimes it is necessary. …

When such dramatic license isn’t necessary, however, and it’s used anyway …  it makes me feel that the filmmakers are trying too hard to do something they shouldn’t be trying to do. It makes me feel that they are trying too hard to make the characters richer than they need be, that they are desperate to “get inside the mind of” the characters, as people like to say.

But what makes McCullough, in my opinion, one of our best living writers is that he doesn’t work that way at all. Instead, he accumulates stubborn fact after stubborn fact — an act of accretion that borders on alchemy — and presents such a robust portrait that there is no need for the sort of psychobabble noodgery that fills up lesser books.

I probably watch too much television, especially considering how much of my viewing is skewed toward news-oriented programming. (On the plus side, I generally avoid “reality TV.”) Most of the remainder of my media time is spent reading newspapera, magazines and blogs.

Still, the question about good history in films piqued my interest enough to do a bit more research, in which I came up with a number of commentaries about films with good or bad “history.” Among the films regularly rated as particularly “bad history” are “Gladiator,” “300,” “Titanic,” “The Insider,” “The Last Samarai,” “Braveheart,” “The Patriot,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Elizabeth,” “Dances with Wolves,” “JFK” and “The Alamo.”

I would add almost any film starring one of my childhood heroes, John Wayne–which gets to another point. “Citizen Kane” is considered one of the best films of all time, and is one of my favorites. Yet it, too, takes considerable historical liberties.

That film’s saving grace–other than the fact that it is a cinematic masterpiece–is that the film changes the name of the main character. Part of the reason people considered the portrayal so truthful is that William Randolph Hearst (the model for the fictional Kane) tried to have the movie stopped.

Some of the other films noted above I also liked, “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “Dances with Wolves.” Interestingly, though, I didn’t consider any of them to be particularly historical as I watched them.

As for historically accurate films, almost a decade ago author James Roquemore offered these as his top five: “A Man for All Seasons,” “Apollo 13” (like “Frost/Nixon,” a Ron Howard film and one I liked a lot), “Ulzana’s Raid,” “The Duelists” and “Conagher” (a 1991 film I can’t remember ever hearing of before today).

Other book-length takes on the topic have been offered by Robert Brent Toplin,  Robert RosenstoneMarcia LandyFrank Senello and  Mark C. Carnes. I must admit that I haven’t read any of those books, however–if I had that much time to spare, I’d be more likely to take in a movie or two.

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

Post #200 of a stupid, outdated idea

Posted by James McPherson on December 18, 2008

Blogging apparently is stupid, at least for amateurs like myself (for whom this is my 200th post since I began April 22). We should be wasting our time and distributing our tidbits of wit or wisdom in other ways.

“It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter,”  Paul Bouten writes for Wired. Frankly, I get very few hecklers, and when I do I politely point out the error of their ways and they don’t write back. Of course, I also get relatively few readers (more on the numbers below).

Boutin points out that professionals such as the Huffington Post have taken over the blogging universe, and that “a stand-alone commentator can’t keep up with a team of pro writers cranking out up to 30 posts a day.” Incidentally, I got this bit of news via stand-alone commentator Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.

I’d also argue that some of the professional blogs are doing so well because they provide more meaningful news and commentary than mainstream news sites.

Well, I’m on Facebook, but mostly to keep track of colleagues and former students. I rarely write anything there, or read much of what anyone else has written. My page has a link to my blog–if anyone cares what I think, they can jump over here.

I refuse to Twitter, at least for now (keeping in mind that less than a year ago I said I’d never be a blogger). Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it rips the soul from wisdom.

Few things worth saying or knowing can adequately be expressed in 140 characters, and most of those brief bits should be said more personally: “I love you.” “Drop dead.” “I’m sorry.” “Dear Mom and Dad: Send money.” “You’re fired.” “We’re having a baby.” “It’s time for Fluffy to be put down.” “Would you like fries with that?” “Look at all the freakin’ snow.” (Despite shoveling last night before I went to bed, I woke up to a two-foot snowdrift ON MY PORCH this morning.)

Maybe it’s a result of my experience as an academic, but I disagree with the premise that blogging is primarily a tool for self-promotion. That obviously is the case for some bloggers, but most probably feel they have something meaningful to share. Many of those are correct, and it’s not up to me–or, thank God, the corporate media–to decide which, for all readers.

Though I do get an ego boost on days when readership is up, I certainly don’t write for the attention or the money. If I did, I’d be trying to pen crime novels instead of well-researched books about journalism history and politics.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m doing this primarily for the same reason I do most things outside of my home: my students. And the number of “my students” has expanded as a result I now have regular student readers who have never taken a class from me. Responses from those students and former students are the ones I value most.

This experiment has taught me some interesting things, some more surprising than others. Not surprising is that my most popular post (approximately 1,700 views so far) was a misleadingly titled sociological experiment, sought out by people using terms that have nothing to do with media or politics.

More surprising is that the second-most popular post (about 1,300), and the one still getting a few views pretty much every day is one about the U.S. Flag Code that I wrote back in July, based on one of my favorite classroom lectures about symbols.

Also still among the top eight are my August prediction that Barack Obama would handily win the presidential election and my back-to-back June posts suggesting that the vice presidential nominees should be Joe Biden and Sarah Palin–though because a link to to it appears at the bottom of a popular CNN story, yesterday’s post (about to pass 500) about the Bush administration, science and endangered species may blow past those two. Maybe it’s because of the YouTube clip from “Them.”

Aside from the flag post, generally speaking the two best topics for generating traffic have been Palin and sex. On a typical day I get between 100 and 200 page views. The most for a single day was 876, coming mostly from one of those Palin stories (also with help from CNN).

Not surprisingly, that same Palin story generated the most comments. Many posts draw no response. Others get an occasional comment even weeks later, which strikes me as a bit odd.

Admittedly, there may be a bit of egotistical lunacy behind generating an average of about 25 posts per month in addition to teaching four classes, advising a student newspaper, remodeling my kitchen (yes, I did it myself–some academics can use a hammer and saw), helping organize and host a national journalism history convention in October, and organizing a Jan Term study trip to two dozen sites in New York and Washington, D.C.

Insomnia helps. And besides, writing is one of the fun parts of my job, and a big part of why I became a reporter and then an editor. In addition, writing these things here may keep me from verbally torturing my wife and others with my reactions to the news items that intrigue me.

Another obvious reason that I would engage in such an archaic form of communication as blogging is that I’m a media historian. I live for soon-to-be-extinct technologies. I don’t own an ipod or a Kindle, but my office holds a 1953 television set; probably a hundred pounds of newspapers, magazines and photos; hundreds of books; phonograph “records” of various sizes; a VCR and dozens of videotapes; some old film cameras; a cassette tape deck and dozens of cassette tapes; numerous CD’s, a couple of reel-to-reel tapes; and even an 8-track tape or two.

Also related to history: The American flag on my office wall, a flag that was in use when I was born, has 48 stars. At that time there was no state of Alaska for the future Sarah Palin to govern. Perhaps you think of that time as “the good ol’ days.”

Dec. 28 update: CNN names “the ascendance of Twitter” its top tech trend of 2008. Sigh. The story concludes, “One thing Twitter is lacking, though, is a profitable business plan.” In that respect, it’s like the newspapers I love so much.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Nixon ‘Frosted’: more bad history from Hollywood

Posted by James McPherson on December 15, 2008

Not having seen the play “Frost/Nixon,” I was much looking forward to Ron Howard’s critically acclaimed new film version. Now, based on reviews such as those from Tom Charity and Elizabeth Drew, not so much.

Richard Nixon and David Frost were both fascinating characters (and both a bit slippery as well as more than a bit self-aggrandizing), and apparently the film is riveting. But like so much else in Hollywood, it’s also a lie. Aren’t we stupid enough about our history without fictionalizing it?

Ignorance of history leads to a world in which actors,  liars,  crooks, blowhards, political losers and overrated buffoons become leaders, television hosts and respected commentators. Yet our only hope as a nation may come from leaders who understand the real lessons of history.

For some real Frost/Nixon, see the clips below.

Nixon: “If I had intended to cover up, believe me I’d have done it.”

Nixon:”When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Vice presidential debate strategies for Biden and Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 27, 2008

During the past week, Joe Biden managed to demonstrate that, whatever foreign policy credentials he may have, his apparent knowledge about radio, television and the Great Depression would cause him serious problems if he were in the mass media history class that I teach. 

On the other hand, Sarah Palin’s inability to answer even straightforward (and, one would presume, expected) questions, coupled with her apparent and unexpected insecurity, has even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker calling on her to step aside for the good of the Republican Party. The Democratic line from today that she is “a terrific debater” seems to me a clear attempt to counter the ankle-level expectations created by Palin herself.

So here’s my recommended debate strategy for both candidates: Try to let your opponent do most of the talking. On Thursday night the best defense may prove to be a look of stunned amazement while your opponent rambles on. Of course my strategy might be much tougher to follow for the loquacious Biden than for the not-ready-for-prime-time Palin (whom the GOP apparently wouldn’t even trust to speak after the presidential debate, while Biden has appeared seemingly everywhere):

Oh, and parents–You may want to keep your kids away from the TV during Thursday’s debate. Chances are they already lack much knowledge about either history or the electoral process; you don’t want them sliding further.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 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 »

Bill O’Reilly: liar, bully and buffoon

Posted by James McPherson on June 11, 2008

Father Charles Coughlin often serves as the historical prototype for on-air fanaticism and bullying. As it turns out, statistically the good father was a slacker compared to Bill O’Reilly.

Below are some of Bill’s “best”–helped in the first case by the laughably inane Ann Coulter-wannabe Michelle Malkin. Malkin, you’ll remember, managed to turn right-wing Dunkin’ Donuts (which she previously had promoted over Starbucks) into an Islamic terrorist front, forcing the company to pull some of its advertising. She is noted for lying and distortion. (By the way, Michelle, Dunkin is now promoting “going green.”)

And you gotta love when O’Reilly says (late in the first video),  “We stayed in the parameters… of what was true.” Oh, and just for fun if you want to get a real sense of what it must be like to work for Bill, play all three videos at once.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Religion, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Presidential debates

Posted by James McPherson on June 4, 2008

In what would be a positive move for the American political process, Barack Obama and John McCain both suggest they are open to a series of debates different from (and in addition to) the traditional three pseudo-debates offered by the Presidential Debate Commission. Though additional debates are unlikely to match the drama of the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 (see a short history clip below, or the debate itself can be found via YouTube), perhaps we can avoid the traditional recitation of prepared soundbites that we get during most elections.

Or perhaps not. McCain says he’d like to see a series of town hall-style debates, but in a press conference this morning refused to consider the more freewheeling Lincoln-Douglas style proposed by Obama. Admittedly, McCain is in a tough spot. He is low on money, and needs all the free coverage he can get. Yet when it comes to public appearances, McCain looks old, he has difficulty remembering facts or reading a teleprompter, his diction is flat except when he’s angry, and he doesn’t draw the rock-star crowds of his younger opponent.

Neither candidate is likely to highlight policy initiatives. But probably the only chance McCain has to compete rhetorically is to find a setting that will downplay his negatives while enhancing his folksy ability to chat informally with people unaccustomed to asking tough questions about his recent history as a flip-flopper. Still, he has used his current ongoing town hall forums in much the same way that most candidates use the debates–as an opportunity to answer any question with a regurgitated well-used talking point–suggesting that the current proposal is more about TV face time than about a real desire to expand the amount of meaningful information available to the electorate.

Obviously prospective voters could spend time online to find more useful information than will be offered via the debates or anything else offered on television. But few will, and in general more information should be considered a positive–though Fox News might disagree. “America’s Election HQ” seems to be bored with the actual electoral process, judging by today’s comments from E.D. Hill.

Hill responded to the idea of expanded debates as something that would “put me to sleep,” and also indicated she had no desire to see more debates. (Her Wikipedia bio claims she is working on a master’s degree in government, again demonstrating the negligible value of Wikipedia as a reference–surely that uncited reference must be a joke inserted by a viewer familiar with Hill’s political intellect and level of curiosity.) Hill often serves as one of Fox’s living blonde jokes and key distortionists, though admittedly she is one of the few attractive women in America brave enough to co-host the radio show of sexual harrasser Bill O’Reilly’s (Fox paid, though O’Reilly never apologized). Having accumulated eight kids during her three marriages, perhaps the self-appointed child-rearing expert needs the money.

Perhaps someone should point out to E.D. (named Edith Ann at birth; one can imagine all sorts of appropriate “D” words as descriptors) that no one is requiring her to watch the debates–not that she’d understand the discussion of policy even if she did manage to stay awake for it. After all, this is a woman who produced a book with a title referring to “America’s Best and Brightest,” then included Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Albanian “dog trainer of the stars” Bashkim Dibra, and Fox morning nimrod Steve Doocy (recently slammed on the air by Fox’s Chris Wallace for his anti-Obama distortions)

As for the presidential debates, if they happen, Fox has plenty of other spinners who will watch the debates and then tell viewers what they heard, why McCain performed better than Obama, how Obama lied, and perhaps where Jeremiah Wright watched the debate.

A brief Kennedy-Nixon debate history

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

Animalistic homosexual behavior

Posted by James McPherson on June 1, 2008

A fairly common argument used to browbeat homosexuals is this version offered by a blogger who felt compelled to share his views (along with poor spelling and punctuation) on allphilosophy.com: “Homosexuality is unnatural, simply look at nature, when did you ever see a male animal sexualy pleasuring a male animal or a female animal sexualy pleasuring a female animal?” Perhaps those folks need to get outside more, as Fox News and MSNBC both report.

Though I’ve never understood how my own marriage of more than 27 years is “threatened” by gays getting married, a new round of fear and rage has erupted because of the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. Of course, as a recent Nation editorial points out, gay Californians already had most of the rights of married couples, anyway–and the tide is moving against those who oppose gay unions just as it drowned out legal barriers to interracial marriage.

It’s worth pointing out that civil unions are far from new–and that John McCain deserves some credit for discussing the issue (however uncomfortably) with Ellen (clip below), even if his (and the Democratic candidates’) stance is outdated and silly.

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

Journalists & historians: dueling irrelevancies?

Posted by James McPherson on May 23, 2008

As a journalist I regularly was frustrated with the lack of historical context in most political writing, including my own. Despite the arrival of more cable news stations and the Internet, for most media users the situation has not improved. Partly that’s because most people focus on too few media sources in generally, and especially on television, for news. In addition, time constraints or ignorance often make journalists neglect context, and journalists spend far too much time and energy chasing three C’s: controversy, crashes and celebrities. That’s old news. Yet I think it worth noting that journalism–supposedly “the first draft of history”–and history itself have become increasingly similar in their lack of usefulness to the public.

Journalists and historians have much in common, some of which I discussed in a bibliographic essay that concludes my first book (a book so expensive that it will likely never be owned by anyone other than libraries and people related to me). I sometimes tell people I became a historian after leaving the newsroom because historical research was a lot like journalism, except that most of your sources are dead so they don’t complain about being misquoted.

Actually few of the complaints about my journalism involved misquotes, and in most of those cases I remained convinced that I had quoted the person accurately. People sometimes say things they shouldn’t, or that prompt readers to react in ways a source didn’t expect. Far more common in my case than inaccurate or misleading quotes were cases of confusing grammar, typos, misspelled names or misplaced decimals. Despite good editors–and the biggest problem with blogs, including this one, may be the lack of editors–mistakes are far too common in both journalism and history. A page that looks perfect on a computer screen and a proof sheet can seem to inexplicably develop errors as it is being printed. Even the aforementioned very pricy book has at least one error in it, so if you happen to be one of the few hundred people or libraries who own a copy, let me know and I’ll tell you the mistake.

Another thing journalism and history have in common is that both have undergone massive changes in recent years. Though critics may disagree, both have improved significantly in many respects. Technology, changing politics, shifting audiences and the inclusion of a much wider range of people (both as subjects and as researchers) have brought dramatic shifts. My students now take it for granted that journalism and history alike include women and people of color. Some of my undergraduate professors apparently did not take that for granted, though by then (the 1970s) the shift was well underway.

Increasing complexity–or more accurately, the increasing recognition that the world is complex–caused new problems, especially as storytellers felt more obligated to interpret the meaning of events for readers or listeners. “Faced with complex issues when researching and telling their stories, both historians and journalists sometimes fall back on customary articifical structures such as story ‘frames’ or academic theories,” I noted previously.

At the same time, both journalists and historians often tend to focus on small, narrow, and ultimately relatively unimportant stories. Too many historians research minor events or personalities that virtually no one cares about. They then share their findings in conference presentations that few people (and no non-academics) hear and through journal articles that few read. The historians adds a line to his or her vita, then engages in another round of what my wife calls mental masturbation, secure in the knowledge that s/he is going historically where no one has gone before. Far too often, however, there’s a good reason no one else has bothered to go. Yet few of the most skilled historians actually produce work designed for a mass audience (most of the rare exceptions pop up fairly regularly on PBS), the people who have the most to gain–a knowledge of and appreciation for how we got to where we are, and an enhanced knowledge of how self-government might work.

Those people also don’t learn much about the most important events from history’s first-drafters, the news media. Journalists cannot share what they don’t know. As I noted in in my more recent book, throughout most of the second half of the 20th century the mainstream media were largely unaware of a huge political shift taking place in America, the shift toward conservatism, in part because they focus on fairly obvious day-to-day events. Chances are, they’re missing something equally important today. Unfortunately, we likely won’t know what until after the next election or later. Maybe someday a historian will tell us what it was.

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