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 ‘Kathleen Parker’

Little trust in government–does it matter?

Posted by James McPherson on April 19, 2010

So apparently record numbers of Americans distrust their government. As someone who still has a “Question Authority” pin in in his office (albeit pinned to a stuffed moose), I don’t think that distrust is necessarily a bad thing, and today NPR offers an excellent historical look (with a timeline that starts in 1775) at the issue.

Of course it is unfortunate and perhaps crippling if our distrust is so deep that it keeps us from even considering that government officials (whom, after all, we elected) and especially folks on the “other side” may have good ideas, and that they generally choose to serve because they want to do what’s best for the country or their community.

It’s even more dangerous for our democracy and our safety–as Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative writer Kathleen Parker and others point out–if at the same time that we seriously distrust government and mainstream media, we also decide to put inordinate trust in inflammatory whackjobs such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and various conspiracy theorists such as the “birthers” and “truthers.”

Domestic terrorism is nothing new in this country. There is little reason to think there isn’t more such terrorism on the horizon, fueled by incendiary rhetoric (often the ranting of anonymous cowards) on the airwaves and the Internet, and by and fearful, intellectually lazy Americans who place their trust in “authorities” even more questionable than those we elect.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Twittering while Rome burns

Posted by James McPherson on April 3, 2009

I’m generally not convinced that the British are smarter than we are, despite their intelligent-sounding accents and even if they happen to think so. After all, England was the one country that mostly strongly went along with the Bush/Cheney War, and which has now pledged to join us in sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Still, one group of UK islanders impressed me with their smarts this week. Those were the folks who chased away a Google camera car that was to photograph their homes for Google Earth. Perhaps those people’s actions will someday keep me from getting a close-up view of a crime scene from my office computer, and the fact that they apparently were more elitist snobs than pitchfork-wielding mob and were acting at least as much to protect their wealth as their privacy takes some of the luster off of my admiration.

But the key fact remains: Even as a near-First Amendment absolutist who almost always thinks more information is better than less information (prompting my regular critiques of the Bush administration’s secrecy and sneakiness) sometimes we’d be better off if more often we just told more people–politely, of course–to please shut the hell up. 

I want information to be available, but that doesn’t mean I want to be buried in that information all the time. I agree with Kathleen Parker, who previously coined the term “Twitterati,” in her column of this week. She writes that information overload makes it difficult for us to put things in context: “It’s a toxic asset that exhausts our cognitive resources while making the nonsensical seem significant.”

In fact, even though Barack Obama has become famous for his use of technology, Parker notes that information overload may in fact be bad for democracy: “TMI [Too Much Information] may indeed be the despot’s friend. Keep citizens so overwhelmed with data that they can’t tell what’s important and eventually become incapable of responding to what is. Our brains simply aren’t wired to receive and process so much information in such a compressed period.”

Too much information distracts us from all sorts of things–prompting the phrase coined by my wife’s that I used as the headline for this post–while making us incapable of focusing on what’s important. It gives us too many reasons not to sleep at night.

Parker mentions a Columbia Journalism Review article that includes some fascinating statistics, and though she probably didn’t have the space for it in her column, one paragraph of the CJR article is worth repeating in full:

“There are more than 70 million blogs and 150 million Web sites today–a number that is expanding at a rate of approximately ten thousand an hour. Two hundred and ten billion e-mails are sent each day. Say goodbye to the gigabyte and hello to the exabyte, five of which are worth 37,000 Libraries of Congress. In 2006 alone, the world produced 161 exabytes of digital data, the equivalent of three million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By 2010, it is estimated that this number will increase to 988. Pick your metaphor: we’re drowning, buried, snowed under.” (emphasis added)

The fear of information overload is why I have an answering machine and caller ID. It’s why I don’t subscribe to any Twitter feeds, including those coming from volcanos or from Obama (and I hope someone else is actually tweeting on behalf of the president; I want him saving the economy, not giving me hourly updates on what he’s doing right this minute). It’s why I typically check my Facebook page three or four times per month, rather than three or four times per hour as some of my students do.

And it’s why even though I now own a cell phone, largely by accident, it’s never turned on unless I want to call someone. That happens about once a month, when I’m in a store and can’t remember what my wife asked me to pick up.

I also assume you don’t want to be buried in trivia. That’s why I don’t Twitter, even after learning that it might prompt Demi Moore to care about me. I’m not surprised to see an apparent Twitter backlash. It’s why I update my Facebook page even less often than I think to check it. And my recognition of the problem is why one of the texts for my media criticism is Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited, and why I advise students to critique media carefully, but also to take breaks from those media.

The combination of too much information coming at me and too much coming from me goes to an important question that I regularly pose to students, and which Parker asks in her column: “What if everybody just took a timeout?” That combination also is one of the reasons that I will stop posting regularly to this blog in about three weeks (other reasons I’ll explain in more detail as the date–April 22–approaches).

I’ve seen the value of taking time away from the media in very real terms. Most notably, once I went from being a newspaper editor and hardcore news junkie to living in a converted school bus on the Oregon Coast for more than a year. I intentionally avoiding watching television, listening to news on the radio, or reading a newspaper during that time (the Internet hadn’t yet arrived, and in those days I did my own writing on a portable manual typewriter).

My wife and I enjoyed the year tremendously. We read a lot, spent more time outside, and made many new friends. Interesting, I missed almost nothing of significance in the world that I otherwise would have known–which didn’t stop me from going back to a news junkie when I ended my media sabbatical.

Another example of the value of escape came several years later. After I had invested significant time and effort in my doctoral dissertation, someone on the other side of the country wrote about the same topic–and did it better than I could. Suddenly my topic was dead, my past year of effort appeared to have been wasted, and I began spending panicky long hours in the school library trying to come up with another workable idea. I spent hours on Web research (the Internet had arrived) and talking to people who might be able to help, burying myself in information for several weeks–to no avail.

And then I went on a backpacking trip with my parents and siblings in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. I didn’t feel I could afford to take the time, but I had promised to go, and my wife–no doubt sick of my self-pity–urged me to get away (or maybe just to get away from her; memory is a funny thing). A couple of days later, as I was standing hip deep in a cold mountain lake trying to entice a rainbow trout to smack a dry fly, a new dissertation idea popped into my head.

Importantly, the new topic had nothing to do with fishing, camping or the outdoors, and in fact incorporated much of the work I had already done. I needed to get away to see how to make it work. Or, as Parker put it this week: “If you’re looking for Eureka–as in the Aha! moment–you probably won’t find it while following David Gregory’s Tweets. Or checking Facebook to see who might be ‘friending’ whom. Or whose status has been updated. George Orwell is . . . More likely, the ideas that save the world will present themselves in the shower or while we’re sweeping the front stoop.”

Or, in the words of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby when we’re, “gone fishin'”:

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

No news is bad news: Read this, and then pick up a newspaper

Posted by James McPherson on March 23, 2009

One sign indicating the seriousness of so many failing newspapers is the number of seeming competitors that are bemoaning the passing of those papers.

CNN is doing it today. Time did it last month, in a story titled “What happens when a town loses its newspaper?” Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker has done it. Chris Matthews did yesterday, recalling his days as a delivery boy and concluding the segment by showing how to fold a newspaper for throwing and then hurling it at the camera.

A site titled “Newspaper Death Watch” keeps track of the metropolitan dailies that fold. Just over a dozen such papers have gone under in since last March, with more to come. One of my students (for whom it matters even more, since she is about to graduate and will need a job) and many others also are keeping track of the morbid and apparently endless decline.

“A century ago, 689 cities in the United States had competing daily newspapers,” Princeton University researchers recently noted. “At the start of this year, only about 15 did, but one of those has already lost its second newspaper and two more will likely become one-paper towns within days.”

Yet frequently when I (or others, with much bigger audiences) complain about the state of the media someone–usually a young person who doesn’t read a newspaper–asks why we should care. After all, there’s lots of news online, right?

This flawed thinking is in itself an obvious sign of the costs, which include, to use a favorite phrase of one of my regular commenters and others, the “dumbing down” of America. (In fact we may not be getting dumber, but despite an explosion of types of available media, neither are we getting smarter). And though I have written about the issue previously here  (including in response to comments) and elsewhere–all the new attention to the problem seems to warrant further discussion.

Actually Time did a good job of discussing some of the problems, citing the Princeton University study that found (as I also have noted) that the loss of a newspaper is bad for democracy. Voter turnout drops. Fewer people run for office. Incumbents, who rarely lose anyway, are re-elected at even higher rates (so perhaps Democrats should be hoping for more newspaper deaths).

The fact that most people got most of their political news before the last election from cable television–the likes of MSNBC and Fox News–also helps indicate why electoral knowledge is weak. At least one study has shown, as I’ve written elsewhere, that increased watching of Fox may actually make people less informed; I suspect the same is now true of MSNBC.

Relying on a single source for news is invariably a bad idea, which is why we should worry even though most of the newspapers now going out of business are in cities with other newspapers. Lack of competition creates complacency, and encourages the remaining survivor to do what’s easy and cheap–as my own local daily has become too accustomed to doing.

Some news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have gone online only, typically making deep staff cuts while shifting to a format that many Americans can’t or won’t use (though newspapers have for some time also neglected to serve wide segments of the population that seem unlikely to appeal to many advertisers).

Besides, those who point out that they can get their news from the Internet often neglect to notice that almost all of their favorite news sites–and by far the most accurate and useful sites–come from mainstream news organizations where web operations are being heavily subsidized (monetarily and in terms of content) by the traditional newspaper or broadcast operations.

In addition, the typical web-only reader tends to neglect local community news–about city hall, local schools, etc.–which happens to be the level of government where most citizens could have the most influence. As I’ve noted before, you have a far greater chance of being struck by lightning than you have of affecting a presidential election with your vote. But you can affect the course of your school district, and therefore the education of your kids.

Because no one has yet figured out a way to adequately “monetize the web” (to use a phrase students and I heard repeatedly in January from media leaders in New York and Washington, D.C.)  when traditional news sources disappear, their web presence also often disappears (or is dramatically reduced) along with them.

Despite the optimism of some (including some former journalists), if that happens then at least some of our ability to govern ourselves will go, too.

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

More conservative disarray: National Review loses founder’s son

Posted by James McPherson on October 14, 2008

After endorsing Barack Obama in a piece titled, “Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama,” Christopher Buckley felt compelled to leave the National Review, perhaps still the best conservative magazine in American despite its unfortunate descent into neoconservatism. Buckley’s endorsement and resulting departure are most noteworthy, of course, because “Dad” in this case founded the National Review at the remarkably tender age of 29.

Indeed, William F. Buckley was one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, and as such gets a fair amount of ink in my new book. As the younger Buckley points out, “The only reason my vote would be of any interest to anyone is that my last name happens to be Buckley—a name I inherited.”

There’s another reason to be interested in Buckley’s vote, however: because he is the latest in a line of conservative intellectuals to jump from the sinking McCain/Palin ship. Much of the blame is directed a Sarah Palin, about whom George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Frum and Ross Douthat all have expressed reservations. David Brooks has called her a “fatal cancer” for the Republicans. Kathleen Parker has called on her to drop out of the race, prompting conservative critics to call her a traitor and an idiot whose “mother should have aborted me and left me in a dumpster, but since she didn’t, I should ‘off’ myself.” Gotta love those family values.

On the other had, though it seems fairly clear that unless something dramatic and unexpected happens McCain will lose by a significant margin, it is worth remembering that many conservatives warned before the nomination that McCain “couldn’t win” the general election. My own suggestion back in June that McCain pick Palin as a running mate now looks a bit silly, though at least I can argue that I only spent a couple of hours on researching the issue and didn’t have a staff or tons of campaign funds to vet her (assuming the McCain camp did so). Still, Palin’s pick did energize the conservative base, and gave McCain a boost that perhaps no one else would have. Had he picked someone else, he might have been this far behind even sooner.

And did you notice that the day after Obama offered his economic plan and the stock market soared, McCain offered his plan this morning and the Dow fell by 302 points to close 76 points lower than where it started the day? Just coincidence, I’m sure. And the one argument that many conservatives have been trying to make, about Obama’s “associations,” may have taken a serious hit with today’s Huffington Post revelation that McCain’s presidential transition chief was a lobbyist for Saddam Hussein.

By the way, unlike some of my liberal friends, I don’t consider the term “conservative intellectual” to be an oxymoron–at least not yet, though Brooks is among those who points out that we may be headed that direction, noting, “What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.” Brooks also notes accurately that the anti-intellectual conservative criticism of virtually all educated groups–journalists, educators, doctors, lawyers–gives young conservatives little incentive to enter those professions.

I would argue that other factors such as more education, a higher regard for public service, and less regard for personal wealth contribute more to the more relative (though far from absolute) scarcity of conservatives in journalism and education, but Brooks’ central point remains valid–if you favor leadership by stupid people, you’re more likely to get stupid policies.

Incidentally, the erudite William F. Buckley–who held relatively little regard for neoconservatives and once suggested that George W. Bush should resign over his inept foreign policy–would have made the same argument. With Buckley’s wit and wisdom, I wouldn’t put it past him to have died earlier this year just to avoid having to endorse Obama himself.

Saturday update: In her Wall Street Journal column, former Reagan staffer Peggy Noonan writes: “In the end, the Palin candidacy is a sympton and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics. It’s no good, not for politics and not for the country. And yes, it is a mark against John McCain, against his judgment and idealism.” Noonan said she expects criticism from the same anti-intellectual conservatives who have attacked Buckley, adding, “At any rate, come and get me, copper.”

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