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 ‘ignorance’

New ‘gotcha’ politics — making fun of ignorant fellow Americans

Posted by James McPherson on July 7, 2012

We know that politicians say dumb things, some more than others. And one of the more troubling-but-ubiquitous parts of campaign season has long been how much the news media and political campaigns play “gotcha,” blowing out of proportion the occasional inevitable gaffes made by politicians.

Admittedly, a series of gaffes–or the inability to answer even the simplest questions–may signify something important about a candidate’s qualifications, but most slips of the tongue can be attributed to the exhaustion and distraction that naturally come with a campaign. How many of us could be “on” all the time? My students can verify that I get tongue-tied or say something dumb on a fairly regular basis.

But at least politicians know what they’re getting into. I’m becoming increasingly concerned with another apparent trend–that of trying to make our neighbors look stupid

I don’t know if Jay Leno did it first or best, but his “Jaywalking“segment may be what introduced many of us to the phenomenon of using video to point out how stupid Americans can be about their history, politics and current events. I’ve laughed at some of those segments, though they also make me uncomfortable because, like too much other American humor, they strike me as mean-spirited. (I liked Leno better in his early days, anyway, when his humor seemed more thoughtful and less sophomoric. How long is he going to keep telling Bill Clinton sex jokes?)

Not surprisingly, following the apparent popularity of Leno’s segments, others followed. Howard Stern has done it. Of course, Stern has never been one to shy away from the stupid or mean if it would draw and audience–and while I don’t believe in astrology, it is an interesting coincidence that Stern and fellow blowhard Rush Limbaugh share a birthday. Australian news media and others have also joined in the fun.

But it’s not just “professionals”: Now you can find Jaywalking-style videos everywhere on the web, making fun of either conservatives/Republicans or liberals/Democrats. Which you find funniest, if any, probably depends on your own political biases. But we should find all of them depressing–not just because so many Americans wouldn’t be able to pass a citizenship test, but also because one-sided buffoons think making fun of their fellow Americans is all in good fun, and that video of a small group of people, perhaps subjected to Breitbert-style editing, somehow represent what’s typical of an entire group.

Some say that the way we treat our politicians discourages many qualified people from running for office. I don’t think it’s in our best interest, then, to discourage through ridicule the relatively few people actually interested enough in the process to take part. We want more public participation, not less. And we can hope the participants will learn more through the process.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Pogo’s enemy, revisited

Posted by James McPherson on July 15, 2008

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” That’s the best-known line from the long-running comic strip “Pogo” (originally expressed during a series of strips about pollution, before most of us imagined such a thing as global warming) and a sentiment worth revisiting from time to time.

So are we our own worst enemy, so to speak? To be sure, there are a lot of other enemies to be found at home and abroad. A partial list:

  • Lots of nasty dictators, most of whom have been installed or propped up by the United States at one time or another. The brown ones especially provide handy targets when an American president finds his approval ratings sinking.
  • Terrorists of all stripes, who often wreak havoc more because of how we react to them than through what they actually do.
  • OPEC and China, which jerk us around because we need them more than they need us.
  • The Bush administration, and its Congressional and judicial lackeys, which have done about everything imaginable to strengthen the presidency, weaken the economy, and destroy the environment, while enriching themselves and their corporate buddies.
  • The Federal Reserve Bank and the Treasury Department, which seemingly couldn’t manage the money required to beat a 7-year-old at Monopoly. (Not that there are good answers, as my brother points out in his own blog today.)
  • The gutless semi-powerful who might be able to change things, but who hang back because they want to hold on to some tenuous bit of remaining power or respect.  High on this list are members of Congress and various religious leaders.
  • Multinational corporations, which have been given the rights of individuals and which act pretty much like most of us would if given the opportunity–in their own short-term interest, with little regard for others or the world at large.
  • Nonprofit organizations, including the ones I generally agree with, that spend far too much time and money raising money and acquiesce to power too often, so they can appear to have achieved something.
  • Drug-addicted criminals who make us afraid to leave our homes.
  • Political candidates who campaign by trying to befriend us and tearing down their opponents, rather than offering honest and realistic proposed solutions.
  • And of course my primary interest, the mainstream news media, which focus too often on consumerism, the sensational, the trivial, the immediate and the illusionary.

So where is the “us” on the enemies list? We seem a lot smaller than any of those forces already mentioned, right? What can we possible do to change things, in the face of such overwhelming odds?

Ah, but there’s the rub. Or should I say, we can be the rub–an obstacle that diverts something from its seemingly inevitable course. After all, where do those all-powerful politicians come from?

In this country most (except those like Bush, who inherit positions beyond their abilities) start out as state or local politicians. Yet we are far less likely to vote in, or pay attention to, those closer-to-home positions, where fewer votes can swing an election. Ironically, in terms of numbers, the less likely we are to be able to influence an election, the more likely we are to turn out.

Increasing numbers of us hold stock through retirement plans or personal investments, but few of us bother to make our ethical wishes known to boards of directors. Those boards are left to assume (correctly, perhaps?) that our concern is to make as much money as quickly as possible.

Few of us know our neighbors’ names, let alone belong to neighborhood watch programs.

Too many of us talk only to people who think like us–unless we’re arguing. And too many of us think talk, or writing random checks to do-good organizations, is action.

Few of us rely on multiple media. The fact is, virtually every opinion and possible answer to any given problem is being discussed somewhere, but far too many of us rely on single sources of news. Especially troubling is the number who rely on sources with an obvious political bias, despite the Pew Center finding that heavy viewers of Fox News, for example, actually know less about public issues than do most folks, including those who rely on local television. We have to be careful about assuming causation, of course–we don’t know if people are ill-informed because they rely on Fox, if they rely on Fox because they’re ill-informed, or a combination of the two.

Ignorance about issues is inevitable but can be overcome. Apathy is a choice. An old joke asks the question, “What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?” The answer: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” The wit and wisdom of Walt Kelly’s Pogo lives on, but it isn’t delivered to your house every day. You have to go get it. The same might be said of political knowledge, and of a world worth living in.

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »