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 ‘John F. Kennedy’

Obama to get a new ride–but can he trust the service plan?

Posted by James McPherson on January 6, 2009

Like every president since John F. Kennedy’s assassinaton, “car guy” Barack Obama will get a brand new bulletproof limo when he takes office. The car is so quiet he’ll be able to block out even the press, and even without a Blackberry (and with a compromised Twitter account) he’ll have plenty of ways to keep in touch.

General Motors, the maker of the car, has announced that it will avoid bankruptcy, for now. But with its profits in freefall and new restrictions on ways the company can make money, the Secret Service might be hoping that the government bailout for GM is enough to cover to production of special Cadillac parts for at least four more years.

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

Obama ready for prime time: half-hour infomercial airs tonight

Posted by James McPherson on October 29, 2008

Next day update: Reader Luis Lopez pointed out in the comments that you can already find the infomercial on YouTube. Thanks, Luis. For convenience, I’ll post the video here. Yesterday’s post continues immediately after the video.

Tonight Barack Obama will be on almost every television network that matters, talking to Americans for 30 minutes less than a week before the election. I suspect the message will be mostly positive and optimistic, with just enough policy ideas to demonstrate that he has some. I’d like to see him announce some cabinet appointments, but that would be viewed as too risky for someone with the lead he holds.

The New York Times announced this morning that, based on a one-minute preview “heavy with strings, flags, presidential imagery, and some Americana filmed by Davis Guggenheim,” the address will be “a closing argument to the everyman.” (So much for John McCain’s ongoing “Joe the Plumber Tour.”)

Unless Obama decides to use the opportunity to announce that he and Joe Biden plan to leave their wives and marry one another, or that he and Osama bin Laden once smoked dope together while plotting the overthrow of the U.S., I can’t imagine that in this particular race–shaping up to be a possible landslide–the half hour will make much difference.

The commercial may reassure some prospective Obama voters (and may look to others as if he’s trying to run up the score), though because of rain the mostly white male audience tuning into Fox for the World Series won’t be there as a lead-in. And by the way, despite the myth that John McCain has repeated on the stump, Obama’s ad was never going to delay any World Series game.

I think the address is a good idea. Recognizing how little meaningful information can be shared via political ads, modern pseudo-debates, or interviews with newspeople who tend too often to be either cowed or too interested in furthering their own careers, I’ve been a proponent of political infomercials for some time. I even wrote letters recommending them to the Democratic National Committee and other groups before the 2004 election, and suggested them again via this blog in early June of this year.

Other presidential candidates have tried similar commercials in the past. Those candidates include losers Adlai Stevenson and Ross Perot (who did well for a third-party candidate), and the successful John F. Kennedy (also the last successful young presidential nominee, and the last to hold his Democratic Convention speech outdoors). If tonight’s program goes well, and offers information that voters can use, I suspect we’ll see more such infomercials in the future.

Regardless of the effect, Obama’s message will provide media scholars and political pundits with analytical fodder for years to come.

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

Managing the message

Posted by James McPherson on July 24, 2008

Barack Obama is drawing some criticism for “posing” and “message management” on his ongoing world tour, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell quoted as saying “We’ve not seen a presidential candidate do this, in my recollection, ever before.” Obama obviously is using the media well, but Mitchell’s statement is absurd.

As the wife of Alan Greenspan, who bears a substantial part of the responsibility for the the current economic mess in the U.S., Mitchell can hardly be considered impartial, and an anti-Obama bias on her part seems apparent to many (yet another part of the so-called “liberal media”?). More importantly, however, her recollection demonstrates the lack of political and historical context for which television journalism has become famous.

One need only look back four years to the most recent Bush campaign. As I noted in my recent book:

Bush, who defined himself as a “war president” and who held fewer news conferences than any other president of the television age, also largely managed to bypass negative publicity during his campaign. Those who refused to voice support for the president were blocked from Bush campaign appearances, and sometimes arrested if they managed to get in, despite the fact that the rallies typically were held in public settings. As a result, when each network news program produced a short nightly news segment on each candidate’s activities, viewers saw the president—who almost never spoke directly to the news media—addressing crowds of cheering followers. Few stories in the mainstream media pointed out or questioned the remoteness of the president.

Or Mitchell could have looked to the campaign and presidency of Ronald Reagan–the guy who first hired her husband as Federal Reserve chairman–who was famous for developing the modern television campaign. About Reagan, I’ve previously written:

Reagan’s key staffers, especially aide Michael Deaver, were masters at presenting presidential politics through the media, with their techniques adopted by every successful candidate and president since. Reagan and his people tried to adhere to a “theme of the day,” and the press mostly went along. Reagan demonstrated mastery of what became known as the “pseudo-event” and the “photo op”—staged events that attracted news photographers, who were directed where to stand as if they were playing a part in a film.

Others have written much more about Reagan’s press management. Of course Bill Clinton did the same thing, though not as well as Reagan or perhaps even Bush. Even John F. Kennedy was criticized for similar attempts–and probably should have been criticized for more. But if Mitchell doesn’t remember any of that, perhaps it’s time for her to join her husband in retirement.

Friday update: Glenn Greenwald reminds us that it’s not just Bush folks who arrest people at rallies; McCain’s people do the same.

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