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 ‘Iran’

Bye, Bye Miss American Spy

Posted by James McPherson on April 18, 2009

American journalist Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota, has been sentenced to eight years in an Iranian prison after she was convicted in a secret court proceeding of being a spy. Saberi was working as a freelancer for National Public Radio at the time, and also has filed reports for Fox News and the BBC, according to one report.

The U.S. State Department, the Committee to Protect Journalists and NPR all have voiced concerns about the case. Saberi’s father said her testimony had been coerced, and that the sentence would be appealed.  Naturally I can’t logically weigh in about Saberi’s guilt or innocence–and neither can anyone else, because of the secrecy and obvious political bias involved.

In other words, a political and legal situation like the one offered in the United States by the Bush administration (including its treatment of foreign journalists such as Sami al-Hajj). And of course Bush did so much to promote good relations with Iran.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 31 Comments »

Walking miles to get to–and then avoid–the best Inauguration of my lifetime

Posted by James McPherson on January 20, 2009

Some students and I left our hostel before 4:30 this morning to join the masses on the National Mall for the Presidential Inauguration. After quite a bit of walking, and getting conflicting information from two police officers (believing the second, who told us more what we hoped to hear–and who turned out to be wrong), we joined a large and rapidly growing crowd of people waiting to get into the mall at Third Street.

After an hour of standing in bitter cold, my lower back was already cursing me, and we knew we had at least another hour before the gates opened to (we hoped) let us go stand for another five hours or so before and during the Inauguration.

I quickly decided on an alternate plan, and as a result had pretty close to a perfect Inauguration Day. I gave the students some advice on how to protect themselves in case of a crowd surge (take up as much space as you can, keep your feet wide, hold onto one another) and fought my way to the back of the crowd.

I walked to 18th street, on the far side of the Washington Monument from the Capitol, where I knew that people without tickets could enter the mall. I also thought I’d make a detour to the Lincoln Memorial, since my brother had once recommended it as a great spot to take in a quiet sunrise.

I didn’t quite make it by sunrise, walking past the Vietnam Memorial in appropriately gray light. Hunched against the cold in my leather jacket, hat and hood, I noticed a woman taking photos of me as I walked past the monument. Perhaps she figured I was a vet (which I’m not), or just someone paying a bit of tribute to those who died in an earlier senseless war (which I was).

From there I went to the Lincoln Memorial, unfortunately still fronted by most of the massive stage that had held the performers for Sunday’s concert. Perhaps a hundred people already sat on the steps. I climbed past them into the Memorial, taking a couple of photos of the impressive seated Lincoln statue, then a couple of shots of the mall from the top of the steps.

I went next to the Korean War Memorial, my favorite of the three in the area that honor war dead. Next was the World War II Memorial, my least favorite of the three, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is as grandiose as the American memories of that war.

I turned into the mall itself, joining throngs of people headed forward–not to anywhere other than to a spot as close as they could get to the Capitol stage on which the Inauguration would take place. By now that was probably three-quarters of a mile away.

I stopped near an area where an NPR reporter was interviewing people about why they were there. I took her picture, and when glancing up toward the jumbotrons I noticed  the portable watchtowers. Tinted windows made it impossible to tell whether they held snipers or just watchers. A helicopter flew overhead, and two armed men stood on a nearby roof. The ceremony itself was still more than two hours away.

The space had quickly filled around me, and I realized that I no longer had any reason to be there. I had already experienced the crowd, and now realized that if I was going to wanted to watch it on television, I would rather do it with my wife (who had decided not to brave the cold and crowds).

After a brief stop at the Washington Monument to watch the area in front of me fill up, I hiked back toward the hostel. For my entire walk back, the streets were filled with an endless sea of people going the opposite direction. I also noted some irony in the fact that K Street–famous for lobbying abuses that helped Republicans lose Congress–was now filled with venders hawking Barack Obama-related merchandise.

After six miles or so of walking, and about five hours after I had rolled out of bed, I grabbed breakfast and plopped in front of the big-screen TV. My wife and I quickly were joined by others, and by the time the ceremony began more than two dozen people filled the room (which has 20 chairs).

At least three countries and several states were represented in the small room. About a third of them were black, and having lived in the South for a couple of years, I wasn’t at all surprised that some of them kept talking to the screen.

The youngest person in the room was a small energetic African American boy who blurted out “Barack Obama!” every time Obama’s image appeared on the screen, making the rest of us chuckle. The oldest may have been “Manny,” who immigrated from Iran 19 years ago and who couldn’t relax until he finally reached his daughter by cell phone to find that she was safe on the mall and hadn’t been crushed by the crowd.

We all watched the Inauguration intently, and several of us cried at various times (when Aretha sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” among others). When the National Anthem began, Manny began softly singing along. My wife and I joined in. And when the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said, “Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen,” most of us said, “Amen.”

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

Blind “love,” blind justice, and Bush’s shoe bomber

Posted by James McPherson on December 14, 2008

As far as we still have to go in this country in terms of equal rights for women and criminal justice, CNN today offers another reminder that things are worse elsewhere.

An Iranian stalker blinded his love object with acid, then “offered” to marry her after he disfigured her. The victim has now convinced an Islamic court that her attacker should face truth “eye-for-an-eye” justice, being blinded with acid himself.

Of all the troubling things about this particular case, perhaps the most disturbing is this line from the victim, recalling her thoughts when she realized that she was about to be attacked: “At that moment, I saw in my mind the face of two sisters who years ago had the same thing happen to them. I thought, ‘Oh, my God–acid.'”

The story also notes that Iran is one of only two countries in the world where “eye-gouging” is considered appropriate punishment. The other is the birthplace of most of the 9/11 World Trade Center attackers, and perhaps the world largest funder of Islamic terrorism–and our biggest ally in the region–Saudi Arabia.

After literally holding hands with the Saudis (some of whom have plenty of reasons for being upset, themselves), George W. Bush is fortunate that people (a journalist, interestingly) are throwing only shoes at him.

Thursday update: Bush obviously isn’t the only one beholden to the Saudis–CNN reports that Bill Clinton is, too, to the tune of perhaps $25 million.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics, Religion, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

More evidence of the conservatism of the American press & politics

Posted by James McPherson on December 10, 2008

This, of course, is the main theme of my recent book–that the mainstream media and American politics have become more conservative over time. Though the book came out before the recent election, I had predicted there and elsewhere that Barack Obama would be a good candidate. Part of the reason for his success, of course, is his own conservative nature, as expressed through his campaign and his appointments–a conservatism almost guaranteed by his educational background.

One of the most troubling expressions of that conservatism for me has been his expressed policy toward Afghanistan. That nation might become for Obama what Iraq became for George Bush and Iran was for Jimmy Carter: a distant nation that Americans care little about but which uses an inordinate amount of U.S. resources in exchange for little perceivable benefit.

Unfortunately, as Fairness and Accuracy in Media’s Gabriel Voiles notes, Obama’s view has become the conventional wisdom in the mainstream media. The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is so often wrong, whether it suggests that Republicans are more patriotic or better for the economy (which has been stronger in virtually every way under Democrats) or that Democrats are more peaceful (until recently we’ve had more wars and longer wars, under Democrats) and better for the environment (Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

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

Favoring a Christian president–or not

Posted by James McPherson on August 19, 2008

Despite criticism leveled at John McCain for saying last year that he would prefer that the United States have a Christian president, most Americans apparently agree. Not that it matters much–despite the loons who still maintain that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, no non-Christian has mounted a serious candidacy for decades, other than perhaps Mormon Mitt Romney (a definitional issue too complicated to get into here, but which may cause interesting problems for social conservatives if McCain tabs Romney as his vice presidential nominee–see the arguments here and here).

The mixed emotions among people of faith about Romney’s candidacy point out a significant problem with the “Christian president” theme. Even those who prefer a Christian leader don’t agree is about what kind of Christian president they want. Should he (or she, assuming we’ll someday get there) be in line with John Hagee, Jeremiah Wright, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, the “Jesus for President” folks, or some other version of Christianity?

Should it be someone who believes that even Christian founding fathers intended for a separation of church and state, or someone who believes that those founders intended to create a “Christian nation” (though as religious scholar Stephen J. Stein points out in a recent article in Historically Speaking, “Virtually all Protestant clergy at the time were persuaded that the Antichrist was the pope”–the leader of the same church that now provides conservatives with much of their support (along with five of the nine members of the Supreme Court)?

How does one decide which candidates–or non-candidates–are Christian enough? Heavy conservative contributor Rev. Sun Myung Moon owns the Washington Times, which has become perhaps the best-known conservative newspaper other than the Wall Street Journal. Yet Moon, who also founded the American Family Coalition and calls himself a Christian, also refers to himself and his wife as “the first couple to have the complete blessing of God, and to be able to bring forth children with no original sin.” Despite Moon’s wacky views, I don’t know of any conservative Christian candidates who refuse his money or who seek to be excluded from the Times.

Like every other regular faculty member at the university in which I teach, I am a Christian. So is one of my best friends, but we disagree on many things. The university president, in his latest quarterly message to alums and friends of the university, lists among 15 things he loves about the school: “An environment in which people who disagree with each other protect each other. I have yet to meet a faculty member on the liberal-conservative continuum who wants to silence his or her counterparts. In fact, faculty and staff members at Whitworth recognize that, ultimately, freedom to disagree provides protection for their ideas.” I can’t think of any faculty member here, though, who would make a good U.S. president.

Many conservatives hated Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, all of whom were “Christian presidents” who expressed their faith more often and more comfortably than conservative heroes Barry Goldwater (who fell short of the presidency, of course) and Ronald Reagan. They generally disliked Roosevelt for his practical application (government intervention) of what he saw as Christian duty, while bashing Carter for failing to apply his own Southern Baptist views strictly enough. The two worst presidents of my lifetime–and the two generally recognized as the most religious–have been Carter and George W. Bush.

One key question is how a president should demonstrate his faith. Jerry Falwell once suggested that preachers should stay out of politics. But one of Bush’s biggest appeals was his willingness to state publicly his belief in Christ. One thing seems certain, however: a president who professes Christian principles and then seriously fails to live up to those principles–to me, Clinton and Bush are obvious examples–ill serves both the nation and his fellow Christians.

In addition, as I suggested yesterday with my discussion of the Saddleback Church forum, the nation also is poorly served when it stresses the faith of its president above all else. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted before the forum that Abraham Lincoln would likely fail to measure up to today’s religious standards for presidential candidates (he might also be viewed as too inexperienced and too homely to be a serious candidate, of course).

All else being equal, I’d prefer a Christian president. But if there’s an honest non-Christian candidate who will do more to reduce the budget deficit, produce a workable national health care plan, and keep us out of foolish illegal wars, I say bring on the heathen.

Added note: Somewhat related to this post (and perhaps slightly more related to yesterday’s), this al-Jazeera column offers an interesting discussion of religion in America and of evil as defined by U.S. presidential candidates. For example:

If religious interviews were done with such fanfare and influence in a Muslim country, democratic or otherwise, western and especially US media would have made mockery of such an imposition of religious fundamentalism on political process. 

For most outsiders, the US is in denial over its own “evil doing” around the world. Obama and McCain could see evil in Darfur but would not admit that the invasion and occupation of Iraq on false premises or for oil is no less an evil act.

THURSDAY UPDATE: Columnist Kathleen Parker, who takes a generally conservative position on most issues, also criticizes the Saddleback forum.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The benefits of Chinese Rolexes, moving pyramids and expandable breasts

Posted by James McPherson on August 12, 2008

Politicians lie, and as long as the falsehoods come from the ones we like, we accept them gladly. If it’s our own candidate spinning the yarn, we adhere to the Fleetwood Mac strategy: “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”

Iran recently used Photoshop to lie about a missile launch. China now admits faking its Olympics fireworks display, which seems a bit odd considering that fireworks would seem to be the last thing China would have to fake. What’s next–we find out the Giant Pandas are really Disney-style animatrons, or that the 360-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir is bulking up its performances with extra taped voices?

Still, even the fireworks deception is not a huge surprise. For one thing, China has long been known as a great place for fakes: Rolexes, designer clothing, DVDs, etc. For another thing, especially when it comes to the media, real just isn’t real enough.

While we overlook political falsehoods, we are more upset (and should be) because we all know the media lie (the problem is, we typically don’t know when). They may be lying now, in a sense, to make the presidential race appear closer than it is. Magazines airbrush every model, deleting acne and often enlarging breasts. National Geographic moved a pyramid, and CBS digitally dovered up an NBC logo with its own. (See a great range of such lies, with photo examples, here and here.) Smut peddlers use the same techniques to create fake pornographic images of movie stars and–more troubling from both ethical and legal perspectives–children.

But with the exception of the last example, one might ask, “so what?” After all, we are a nation of liars. We can’t seem to help ourselves. The biggest problem isn’t that people lie to us, in my view. A more serious problem is that we cannot recognize lying when we encounter it.

An excellent Columbia Journalism Review book review of Farhad Manjoo’s latest book, True Enough: How to Live in a Post-Fact Society, summarizes how Manjoo discovers and points out that thanks to “selective perception” we are largely incapable of distingishing truth from fiction. We all have our own “facts,” and we’re sticking to them.

That inability to discern truth from falsehood is perhaps the best reason for a liberal arts education, or at least a few classes in logic and media literacy. Since most Americans will get none of those, however, perhaps we should be thankful for the obvious prevalence of lying. As we increasingly encounter falsehood, recognizing that it comes from all angles, perhaps health skepticism will increase.

Trusting nothing is a start, better than trusting everything or better than trusting a select few media sources. Learning what to trust, and why, is a goal worth striving toward. No lie.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Using the threat of Iran to bring back the Cold War

Posted by James McPherson on July 8, 2008

Apparently longing for the bad old days when it actually mattered much as a nation in the overall scheme of world politics, the Czech Republic has agreed to let the U.S. deploy part of a disputed, unproven and perhaps unworkable anti-ballistic missile defense shield in former Soviet-held territory.

“Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat,” said Condi “Mushroom Cloud” Rice, an expert on imaginary threats. The Bush administration promotes the shield as it has promoted pretty much everything else it has wanted to do since Saddam Hussein was dug out of a hole, as a defense against Iranian extremism. In this case, the shield would supposedly defend the U.S. and European allies from long-range missiles launched from Iran.

Even if Iran had weapons capable of reaching the U.S. and a reason to risk total annihilation by using them, of course, this would be a ludicrous argument. On the other hand, Bush and his cronies know that most Americans couldn’t use a globe to find Iowa, let alone Iran. If we really worry about missiles from the Middle East hitting the U.S., we should be building defenses in Canada. But then the Canadians aren’t as easily swayed by promises of foreign aid as are the eastern Europeans (and even Poland, another planned shield location, is holding out for a bigger U.S. payoff, which may force a shift to another former Soviet territory, Lithuania).

Iran’s missiles could reach Europe, and so maybe that alone is an argument for the shield, and of course the Bush administration strives to never avoid exaggeration, unless outright lying might work better. But Europeans also have little to fear from Iran, since the European Union is Iran’s biggest trade partner. Eastern Europeans do fear Russia, however, so they’ll appease Bush’s bait-and-switch if the U.S. might protect them from the Russians. And speaking of the Russians, of course they’re protesting the U.S.-Czech plan, with Mad Vlad Putin claiming it could lead to a new Cold War. They were already upset and understandably suspicious because Bush had previously rejected a missile treaty that even Ronald Reagan thought was OK.

And perhaps a new Cold War–which more than anything else helped give various forms of conservatism both the enemy and the credibility they needed to gain power–is Bush’s real aim. After all, just before he ran for office he bought a ranch like Reagan had, fashioned himself as a bumbling cowboy like Reagan did (OK, how much of that was intentional is debatable, but still…), attacked a country he thought would be easy to whip (sorry, Gee-dub, Iraq ain’t no Grenada), and tried to bring back the Gipper’s “Star Wars” defense system.

And still Bush’s approval ratings hover in the 20s. So maybe if he can get Putin (or Putin puppet Dmitri Medvedev) to rebuild the Berlin Wall, then insist that he tear it down, all in the next five months…

We could even lend some wall-building expertise and some undocumented labor.

Next day update: The Bush and news organizations are making a big deal of the fact that Iran just just fired nine missiles–with a maximum range of 1,200 miles. Of course Fox’s headline (for what it made the lead story of the day) was the scariest: “Iran Test-Fires Missiles Capable of Hitting Israeli, U.S. Bases.” Not Europe or the U.S., of course, meaning it took only a day for Condi Rice to be again revealed as a serial exaggerator. But with media attention spans being what they are, if the administration screams loud enough, perhaps people will think today’s story actually supports yesterday’s claims. The least surprising part of today’s story? “Oil prices jumped on news of the missile tests.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »