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 ‘Internet’

Winter Olympics & Hollywood suggest why politicians lie–or lose

Posted by James McPherson on February 24, 2010

“Remember when the Internet was supposed to kill off television?” asks a front-page story in today’s New York Times, before going on to point out that for at least some kinds of television, the Web actually boosts TV ratings. In an era in which families now no longer watch television together, the Internet lets people “talk” to each other about what they’re watching.

Also this morning, in a typically excellent commentary for NPR, Frank Deford marveled about the fact that NBC’s Olympic coverage one night last week beat even “American Idol” (a show I must admit that I can’t stand, and have never watched in its entirety, despite its huge following).

NBC won the night despite the fact that its “coverage” of Lindsey Vonn’s gold medal downhill run appeared hours after she had won and presumably after almost anyone who cared knew she had won. (Incidentally, I also find it interesting that the Olympics are a big TV hit, despite the fact that most Americans wouldn’t watch a non-Olympic ski race on a dare.) In fact, many people probably watched because they knew she had won. Or because they knew she had won.

“Perhaps this suggests that at this time when there is so little good news in America, when we do not enjoy the everyday success we used to rather expect, when we are so at loggerheads as a people, that there is something comforting about us coming together to watch a beautiful young woman, struggling with injury, secure in our knowledge that she will raise Old Glory on high,” said Deford. More important, I think (though perhaps too obvious), was his preceding statement: “Evidently, we would now rather revel in an assured triumph than suffer through a live competition with a problematic outcome.”

Well, yeah. Americans hate bad news. That’s why most American films–focus-group tested into homogenity–come with tidy, happy endings, usually (as I heard the great Roger Ebert note years ago) with a crowd of onscreen people cheering the heroes so that we might know to cheer along with them.

Now some DVDs come with alternate endings, and I asked students today to share examples they had seen. Apparently the main characters ended up dead in “The Butterfly Effect” and struck by lightning (though, unfortunately, not fatally) in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Many films now offer alternate endings, typically darker than the originals.

Unfortunately the “happy ending” syndrome extends to American public policy. We all know the economy, the environment and health care have serious problems. But we certainly won’t stand for some politician telling us bad news that really means anything–as in, we need to sacrifice something to fix the problem–and in fact would vote him out of office if he did. So they all promise wonderful things that we won’t let them deliver, and then blame the lack of resolution on the folks on the other side of the aisle.

After all, every American has also been conditioned to know that for every hero there must be a villian, whether that villian is a scheming movie girlfriend, a Russian ice skater, a Democrat or a Republican.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Foreign worm and snakes slither through Web

Posted by James McPherson on April 9, 2009

Apparently the Conficker worm has “woken up” and done something. We’re not sure what, or if it matters, but once we identify and start following a scary threat or trend–however inconsequential it may be–we have to stay on its slimy trail. Unless it’s Osama bin Laden, of course.

And speaking of bin Laden and similar snakes, the Washington Post reports today that Taliban extremists are getting out their message via American Web hosts–including one in George W. Bush’s one-time hometown of Houston (while “serving” in the Air National Guard). Considering how much the Bush administration did to promote worldwide terrorism, I suppose that’s appropriate, in a twisted down-the-rabbit-hole (or snake hole) sort of way.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Democrats panicky: read all about it (while you still can)

Posted by James McPherson on March 11, 2009

Apparently some Democrats want Barack Obama, in the words of a CNN headline, to “Hurry up and fix the economy.” Put another way, members of the party without guts are joining members of the party without ideas in begging the new president–now in office for more than a month and a half, after all–to undo all that they have done (or failed to do) through greed and  partisanship for the past decade. Perhaps they wanted him to reject the funding bill they just passed, rather than offering threats about future such bills?

And speaking of a part of the economy near and dear to me, my home state legislature is about to approve a tax cut for newspapers (which may not be enough to keep one of the two newspapers in our biggest city from shutting down next week). Even politicians who proclaim to hate the media recognize the importance of newspapers for getting out their messages, and for citizens to be able to govern themselves.

Citizens themselves don’t get that, though–as demonstrated by a Time article listing 10 more newspapers about to fail, and a Wired article saying that even a New York Times employee thinks newspapers don’t matter. He’s wrong, of course. But more and more newspapers are disappearing, and all of us suffer as a result. Face it; even Obama can’t save us from ourselves.

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

Kill your TV–or at least put it in a coma–before the government kills it for you

Posted by James McPherson on February 5, 2009

Congress has again delayed the required switch to digital, giving many of the elderly, the young, the poor and the clueless a few more months to switch to cable or to get the converter boxes that they hope will let them get a signal after the switch is made. The delay, unwanted by many, also will continue to burden broadcasters with the costs of transmitting both digital and analog signals–while to some degree reaffirming the generally positive news that traditional Democratic constituencies have gained some power while traditional Republican constituencies have lost some.

I am troubled by the fact that articles keep reassuring us that “People who pay for cable or satellite TV service will be unaffected by the change,” a claim that may be untrue. At the same time, the issue reminds us that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for more of us to kill our televisions for a while. killtv

In the days before the wonders of the Internet or the curse of talk radio, I once went from being a newspaper editor who read three or four newspapers every day and watched a lot of television news to living in a bus and consciously trying to avoid the news media. for The experiment lasted for just over a year, and proved enlightening. I read a lot more, and enjoyed a wider variety of reading. I spent more time outside, played more with my dog, and got more exercise. My wife and I talked more (and yes, after more than a year in a bus we’re still married–28 years next week). I thought more. And I missed almost nothing of consequence.

As a lover and scholar of media and a former media professional, it pains me a bit to note that when I went back to being a news junkie at the end of my media hiatus, the news was pretty much the same as it had been before. The Middle East was still screwed up, and Israel and its neighbors were fighting. Thousands were dying in Africa and elsewhere of things we could prevent. And an excessive amount of news coverage was devoted to entertainment news and random violence, especially violence against pretty dead white women.

Yesterday I asked students in my meda criticism class to try to go eight consecutive waking hours without radio, television, texting, print media or the Internet. Judging by the gasps and groans, I suspect that most won’t last two hours. Yet I have highly intelligent friends who rely very little on technology (they do tend to read more than most of us). My brother once went three years without watching television or a movie. A writer friend says watching the chickens in his backyard is more interesting than most of what’s on television. I understand, having seen for myself that a goldfish pond in the summer is more mesmerizing than almost anything on “American Idol.”

Still, I can’t see totally cutting myself off from media, at least before I have to. But I do think taking breaks from the barrage of media messages from time to time is valuable. Besides my bus sabbatical, I’ve spent a year or so without television a couple of other times. Even a few days in the mountains or by the ocean offers a sense of renewel and a reaffirmation of one’s own existence–an affirmation that doesn’t have to be generated by Facebook friends“–that is good for the brain and the soul.

I’ll conclude by letting Ned’s Atomic Dustbin say it in a different way:

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Past-cool Facebook turns 5, but offers little financial guidance to media

Posted by James McPherson on February 4, 2009

Another reminder of how fast time flies: The social networking site Facebook celebrates its fifth birthday today. Started by a Harvard student Mark Zuckerman (soon making him the youngest billionaire on the planet, CNN reports) and once primarily the domain of other college students, now it seems almost everyone who wants to connect with others or sell something is on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook,” or “We’re on Facebook,” several media leaders told the students in my recent Jan Term class visit to New York and Washington, D.C. As a further indication that social networking is way past cool, even I joined a couple of months ago. I remember to check in about once a week, and rarely update my status (using primarily as a way to direct people here), but CNN reports that according to Facebook, some 15 million users update statuses every day, adding more than 850 million photos per month. The average user has 120 “friends,” many of whom they’ll be soon able to follow even more closely and creepily.

The story credits social networking with making Zuckerman rich and helping make Barack Obama the president of the United States. Yet even Facebook does not demonstrate a workable “business model”–a term my students also heard repeatedly, as virtually all of the mainstream media struggle to make an acceptable profit in the Internet world. Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine reportedly told CNN that Facebook “is selling advertising, it is bringing in revenue but it’s not wildly profitable even if it is profitable at all.”

And that’s the problem all of today’s media face–the need for money from advertising, or something to replace that income stream, via a medium via which people are accustomed to getting content for free. If Facebook, now on the downside of cool, can’t do that, the prospects aren’t promising for mainstream news media sites.

Of course, more people may be looking to the Web for news after their TV service disappears with a shift to digital (a shift likely to be postponed later today), but in fact people continue to value news. Getting people to a news site isn’t a significant problem. Getting those people to pay for anything is the problem.

Same-day update: Congress approved the digital television extension today.

Next day update: Time disses a new Facebook trend.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Web vs. bed: choosing surfing over sex

Posted by James McPherson on December 16, 2008

A story this week suggests that, according to a Harris poll commissioned by Intel, many people would forgo  sex before they’d give up the  Internet.

The story, based on an Intel news release, says most people find the Internet to be essential to daily lives. A CNET poll cited in the same CNN story offers this odd note: “Results as of Monday from CNET’s related online poll showed that 30.5 percent of respondents would give up sex for one year, while 26.1 percent would do without Internet access for a year. Almost 40 percent of voters didn’t want to sacrifice either.” Given no restrictions as a choice, it’s less than half?

Does this mean–despite Fox News content on any given day–that we are less sex-crazed than Web-crazed (after all, another Harris poll shows that 80 percent of us now use the Internet)? Or that Internet porn has displaced real-life sex? Would this explain how an avatar affair can lead to divorce?

Probably none of the above. Though the titillating story made CNN’s front page and probably will get a lot of attention–and generate lots of discussion about Internet addiction, American priorities, etc.–the two surveys have  several obvious flaws. The most obvious is that that both were conducted online.

In other words, those answering the questions were using the Internet at the time they answered. Probably none were having sex at the time they answered. We also don’t know how those  people are using the Internet. As anyone with an inadequate pop-up blocker can testify, many are apparently going online for sexual content.

And we can’t tell how many of those who answered are already going long periods of time without sex. Those most involved with technology may be least inclined toward human interaction of all sorts, though it may be impossible to determine which leads to which.

Regardless, most of us with Internet access are plugging in multiple times per day, while even a good good sexual experience, according to yet another study, takes less time than does a meaningful Web search.

According to the CNN story, a fourth survey does suggest that giving away big-screen televisions could promote abstinance, at least in the short term. Perhaps not surprisingly, that was more true for men than for women. No word on whether that survey was conduct during football season.

Posted in Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Four reasons newspapers won’t soon disappear

Posted by James McPherson on November 30, 2008

A friend recently reduced his subscription to the local daily, to get it only Wednesdays and Sundays (so he gets the most important ads), while reading online the rest of the week. As much as I love newspapers, I still couldn’t offer him a good reason not to do make the change.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the decline of print media, and I suspect that my political science professor who predicted in 1993 that print newspapers would disappear “within 10 years” is still making the same prediction. Still, I expect that newspapers will be with us for some time to come, for the following reasons:

  1. Big events. People still turn to print newspapers for coverage of events ranging from elections to mass disasters. Print media provide more depth of coverage than broadcast media, and they also provide a physical reminder of the event. Internet newspapers might provide the former, but I can’t see most people wanting to print out a Web page to save in their family mementos.
  2. Supermarkets and department stores. This weekend provides a big reminder that there is no good alternative for some types of newspaper ads.
  3. Sundays. Too many of us like to peruse the newspaper in a leisurely fashion on Sundays, laughing at the funnies, and trading sections and observations with others whom we care about.
  4. Mass transit, which is necessary in some American cities (and more widespread overseas) and may become increasingly important in the United States if Barack Obama is serious about rebuilding infrastructure while reducing our dependence on oil. Some of the massive subsidies now used to prop up our highway-centric lifestyle might be diverted to more logical transit alternatives. And until handheld devices become as cheap, simple and portable as the New York Post or USA Today, subway riders will turn to print.

Newspapers will continue to change, in many ways not for the better, and the staff cuts at most publications are alarming to those of us who care about journalism and journalists. Some papers will publish less frequently in the future than they do now. Newspapers and other media will increasingly go online, and will figure out new ways to make a profit.

Student Jasmine Linabary, the Pew Research Center and various folks at the Poynter Institute are among those tracking the changes, some of which make the future of media look at least as exciting as it is scary. As for me, you’ll have to excuse me: It’s time to grab a bite and finish the Sunday paper.

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

Yes we can steal: We are the ones we’ve been plagiarizing

Posted by James McPherson on November 18, 2008

One of the drawbacks of an Internet world for teachers and historians like myself is how easy plagiarism is to commit–even accidentally, for someone who gathers lots of information and fails to adequately keep track of it all, thanks to the easy of copying and pasting.

Even more troubling is how little theft seems to matter to many of those who commit it, and the difficulty in explaining to students why it is wrong. Check out PlagiarismToday for some great insights on the subject.

Plagiarism scandals have embarrassed reporters (costing some their jobs) and historians and once helped end Joe Biden’s presidential bid. During his campaign, Barack Obama drew fire for using the words of Deval Patrick. Yet Obama’s two favorite phrases: “Yes we can” and “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” both orginated with others. Writing a Washington Post blog back in February, Garance Franke-Ruta traced at least part of the lineage of both phrases.

For me, the blog post also raises another question: At what point does something become “common knowledge”? “A penny saved is a penny earned” is a phrase that Congress and Americans in general seem to have forgotten, but no one using it would be expected to know where it came from. Nor did most folks question the origin of “lipstick on a pig,” even if they questioned its use.

And while I knew that evangelical Sojourners leader Jim Wallis used the phrase in his book God’s Politics and in speeches (attributing the phrase to a young activist), until I read Franke-Ruta’s article I had no idea how common it had become–or its connection to a 2004 Jane Fonda speech. The Internet continues to make my job both easier and more difficult.

Just for fun, here’s will.i.am’s pro-Obama anthem version of “We are the Ones,” with lots of celebrity faces:

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

Obamatech: the presidential radio address & the presidential ride

Posted by James McPherson on November 14, 2008

A few days ago I noted that Barack Obama had used the Internet better than any candidate before him. In the comments section, reporter and fellow blogger Jeremy Styron wrote that Obama might take his weekly presidential radio address to the Web (thanks, Jeremy). I noted then that the address also could be posted on YouTube.

That is indeed the case, according to a Washington Post story by Jose Antonio Vargas, who also points out: “President Bush, too, has updated WhiteHouse.gov, which offers RSS feeds, podcasts and videos of press briefings. The site’s Ask the White House page has featured regular online chats dating back to 2003, and President Bush hosted one in January after a Middle Eastern trip.” Who knew?

Regardless of the Bush technology advances, Obama is likely to use the Internet to help govern in ways never seen before, even if it doesn’t reach the level of “the Internet-era version of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous ‘fireside chats’ between 1933 and 1944.” On the other hand, with a new Great Depression perhaps starting, those who can still afford high-speed Internet connections may get some of the same reassurance from Obama that FDR gave people gathered around their radios.

Maybe Obama will even be able to broadcast from the new presidential limo–especially if it’s parked next to the White House because there’s no fuel to run it. I wonder if he’ll get the new car if Congressal Democrats fail next week to bail out General Motors.

Posted in History, Journalism, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 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 »