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 ‘liberal media’

Death and dancing, faith and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on April 6, 2009

I am glad to see the policy on pictures of American’s returning war dead overturned. I believe that covering those dead is both a sign of respect for those who died, and one of many areas in which the media have fallen short. Still, I also have to admit that journalism isn’t all about grim news, even if far less of it should be about celebrity journalism (or, God help us, celebrity journalists). Sometimes, journalism ought to be about life.

Even the most hard-bitten, caffeine-addicted journalist who got into the business to chase down dirty politicians and corporate misdeeds while aiding the democratic process–the major point of the First Amendment, and something that if practiced might actually improve Americans’ opinions about the new media–would do well to remember that to reach people in a meaningful way, you have to appeal to their better nature.

That’s why I started out my reporting class today asking students, “What is–or should be–the relationship between faith and journalism?” I happen to teach at a Christian university, where “faith” is generally taken to mean religious faith, but I would argue that the question is relevant regardless of the institution or faith(s) of those involved.

In response I got the expected (and important) answers about faith providing an ethical framework for one’s work. After a follow-up question–“Why do many conservative Christians hate the news media?”–and then a bit of probing to get beyond the usual (and wrong, in my view) answer about liberal media bias, they came to a couple of key points:

First, the news is typically “bad.” Even if it’s not about problems, it often focuses on negative aspects of humanity. Second, because of the nature of “news,” religion and other aspects of day-to-day life tend to be ignored or poorly covered. As I’ve noted elsewhere, journalists typically are neither anti-Christian nor anti-religious (like other Americans, many happen to be people of faith), it’s just that they don’t pay much attention to it except in cases involving culture wars or Muslim or Christian religious extremists who force their way into the news.

After showing the class an excellent positive example regarding religion from one “liberal media” icon, the New York Times, I let them hear an example from another common target, National Public Radio. NPR has a long-running series, called “This I Believe,”  based on a 1950s radio program by the same name. I have a book of the earlier essays, “written for, and with a forward by Edward R. Murrow,” on my shelf.

Not surprisingly, the book and the online collection are full of references to faith. Interestingly, for this week, the third-most-popular essay is by 7-year-old Tarak McLain, the second line of which reads, “I believe God is in everything,” while just above it is an essay by Penn Gillette that starts out, “I believe there is no God.” The well-deserved top spot, however, goes to world traveler and self-proclaimed “terrible dancer” Matt Harding.

Harding has his own Web site, titled “Where the Hell is Matt?” Among the “frequently asked questions” on the site is, “Are you religious?” It’s a dumb question, in my view, because Harding has managed to do something that journalists and Christians alike should be striving to do, and which they too often forget: reaching out to people, and sharing stories.

My friends who teach interpersonal and intercultural communication regularly point out that the most important communication skill is that of listening. I’d argue that the same may be true of journalism. If you don’t listen, you can’t understand. If you don’t understand, you can’t share.

As I told today’s class, I’d argue that Harding (who, incidentally, happens to call himself a humanist) has done far more to touch people and make the world a better place than most Christians or journalists (or Christian journalists) ever will. If you doubt it, watch the video below, and see what happens to your own emotions. If you don’t feel better about human condition–and if your faith, whatever that faith may be hasn’t been reaffirmed–you must be dead, yourself.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Music, Religion, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Conservative media endorsing Obama; McCain’s options dwindle

Posted by James McPherson on October 18, 2008

I wrote earlier this month, a couple of times (here and here) last month, and even back in May about how the John McCain campaign has managed to turn off conservatives. The trend continues, as a number of newspapers and at least one conservative talk show host (who actually worked for George H.W. Bush) that traditionally support Republicans have come out in support of Barack Obama.

I’ve noted elsewhere how most of the newspapers that make up much of the so-called “liberal media” have endorsed Republican presidential candidates in every election this century except three: 1964 (when Barry Goldwater was viewed as too extremist; incidentally, now he’d be a moderate Republican); 1992 (when then-candidate George H.W. Bush was known to be involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and had shifted attention away from discussion of that issue by bashing the media); and very narrowly in 2004 (after George W. Bush and a Republican Congress had brought us the Iraq War, a spiraling deficit and the Patriot Act).

This clearly will be the first time this century that in back-to-back elections the majority of newspapers will endorse the Democratic candidate. Arguing that “McCain put his campaign before his country” and comparing Obama to Abraham Lincoln (making previously cited comparisons to Ronald Reagan, FDR and Goldwater and seem small), the Chicago Tribune is endorsing a Democrat for the first time in its long history (endorsing Lincoln, for example) as a proud conservative newspaper. Another nod came from from the Los Angeles Times, which last endorsed a candidate–Richard Nixon–in 1972.

Other key endorsements received by Obama include those from the Denver Post, the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Boston Globe, El Diario, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle (at least the last two of those would be expected in virtually any election year, of course) and newspapers in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

Some Republicans and media talking heads now are atwitter because the national polls seem to have tightened a bit. But as I’ve pointed out previously, national polls mean little–and Obama continues, at least for now, to control the national electoral map. As expected, most Hillary Clinton voters recognize that Obama better represents their interests than McCain. And both campaigns are hitting traditionally Republican states, Obama to try to expand his lead and McCain as a last-ditch strategy to try to eke out a narrow win.

There still is time for the election to swing toward McCain, of course. Perhaps Sarah Palin will be so impressive tonight on “Saturday Night Live” that she’ll trigger a wave of GOP support. Maybe she’ll start answering questions from the media, and manage to do so in a coherent fashion.

Maybe the don’t-look-at-the-economy-please negative attacks on Obama or on the media by the McCain camp and various nutball supporters like Michelle Bachman will start to take hold–or maybe the McCain folks will figure out that those attacks aren’t likely to depress the turnout enough to help their candidate win, so they’ll go back and dust off the kindler, gentler McCain.

Maybe Colin Powell will endorse McCain instead of Obama tomorrow morning on “Meet the Press,” and maybe he retains enough credibility despite helping lie us into the Iraq War to have an influence. Perhaps a new “terrorist attack” will occur just in time to chase fearful ignoramuses toward McCain. Perhaps Republicans will manage to simply steal another election, though their voter suppression tactics probably are more likely to prevent a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate than to keep Obama out of the White House.

Still, even if some of those factors come into play, it’s probably too late for a McCain victory–and, sadly, perhaps too late to save his reputation.

Next day update: Powell did endorse Obama this morning (prompting Pat Buchanan to question Powell’s loyalty just minutes ago on “Hardball“–saying the endorsement smacked of “opportunism”–while suggesting that Powell was basing his decision on race and that the most-respected military man in America was not a real Republican, anyway). Perhaps less importantly, Fareed Zakaria, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer (the biggest newspaper in Ohio, the state that gave the 2004 presidential election to Bush), and the Houston Chronicle also endorsed Obama this weekend.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“W” and “An American Carol”: losers left and right

Posted by James McPherson on October 11, 2008

Two politically oriented films have been released just before the election. One has an obvious liberal bias, the other an obvious conservative bias. Interestingly, these are entertainment films, not documentaries along the lines of “Farenheit 9/11” or the equally slanted ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11“–which means their success will be determined as much by box office dollars as by political influence.

Oliver Stone, who has done some very good films (“Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Wall Street,” “World Trade Center“) and some bad history (“JFK” and “Nixon“), tells Maxim that his latest film, “W,” is being released this month not to influence the election but “because Bush is still around.” He also questions his potential influence: “I did three Vietnam movies, and what good did they do? People still lined up in support of the Iraq War. People don’t remember. It shows you the futility of what we do.”

The other film is largely an attack on Michael Moore, the creator of “Farenheit 9/11” and “Sicko.” The new film, “An American Carol,” is produced by another well-known filmmaker, David Zucker (“Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun,” from back in the day when we thought O.J. Simpson was funny). Zucker, who in 2004 produced anti-John Kerry ads, and who in an interview with the neoconservative Weekly Standard compares Barack Obama to “a really clever virus who adapts”–says he hopes his film will persuade people to vote against Obama.

That seems unlikely. In fact, neither film is doing particularly well, despite the unpopularity of President George W. Bush or the heavy promotion on Fox News for “An American Carol.”

Early reviews of “W” from Variety (an “unusual and inescapably interesting” movie that “feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years”) and Hollywood Reporter (“a bold but imperfect film about an imperfect man”) are obviously mixed. And it seems to me late-night TV hosts have skewered the president pretty thoroughly. Besides, watching the real Bush flounder is bad enough–and no longer particularly funny, considering the state of the nation thanks to the Iraq War and the economy.

Of course conservatives quickly and ludicrously complained that liberal bias and “ticket fraud” (?!) were keeping “An American Carol” from doing well, but judging by the preview, I suspect that the primary problem is the combination of unsubtle political commentary combined with even less subtle juvenile slapstick humor. It is notable that the filmmakers refused to release the film for critics, usually a sure sign that the filmmakers know they have a dud on their hands (though in this case they spun it as a defense against liberally biased critics).

It’s difficult to imagine whom “An American Carol” is trying to reach. After all, most of the college-age males that the preview seems to want to engage likely will turn to something equally goofy, but which also offers the prospect of nudity.

Young people look for Adam Sandler and David Spade, not Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper, and for Angelina Jolie rather than her father, Jon Voight. And even moviegoers who like Kevin Farley, the film’s star, want to laugh with their lovable losers, not at those losers, and they want to see their heroes win in the end. That doesn’t happen here. Instead–ironic spoiler alert–the end of the film apparently has the character intending to do a new, more accurate version of “JFK.”

Older audiences need a stronger reason to go watch a film than do older audiences, and I can’t see Farley being such a reason. The film is broadly obvious–and therefore uninspiring–in its intent, and apparently lazy in execution. And anyone who wants to see Bill O’Reilly acting stupid can do so five nights a week on television; there is little reason to pay 8 or 10 bucks to do so.

This won’t be an election turned by film fiction, or even by based-on-a-true-story depictions offered in movies (or in political ads, for that matter). The fact that soon perhaps no one will be able to afford to go the movies, anyway (though escapist entertainment films were popular during Depression), will play a much bigger role in the probably election of Barack Obama. By then you’ll probably be able to check out both of these films on video.

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

MSNBC can’t out-Fox Fox, makes another course correction

Posted by James McPherson on September 8, 2008

Though it may be hard to believe for someone with a typical American attention span, not long ago MSNBC tried to be as conservative as Fox News. That strategy became particularly obvious when the network dumped Phil Donahue, blaming poor ratings despite the fact that his program was the most popular show on MSNBC, after he was deemed too liberal during the early stages of the Iraq War.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, MSNBC did have the popular Keith Olbermann as a token liberal but bracketed his show with programs hosted by conservatives Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson. Laura Ingraham once hosted an MSNBC program. So did conservative flamethrower Michael Savage, though he was fired for telling a gay caller: “Oh, you’re one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig.” Chris Matthews had a program, but was still in his kiss-up-to-anyone-in-power mode rather than the liberal stance he has since adopted.

After flailing along for period that unfortunately included the early part of the Iraq War, trying to out-Fox Fox, the network then decided to steer hard left, becoming the equally annoying liberal counterpoint to the ironically sloganed “fair and balanced” network. Ingraham was long gone, later to move to Fox. Carlson’s show was dropped. Scarborough was relegated to the early morning hours and election commentary, where he could be insulted by Olbermann.

Now MSNBC seems to be recognizing that its best news people are the ones who stay in the middle, and has demoted Olbermann and Matthews during election coverage. It’s probably too little too late. As for me, I’ll continue to watch them all at times, checking in on the zoos at MSNBC and Fox while putting the most faith in the coverage and commentary of PBS’s Jim Lehrer, Mark Shields and David Brooks.

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

GOP VP nominee not Palin’ by comparison to Biden

Posted by James McPherson on September 3, 2008

From “bullshit” to bull moose: In her speech earlier tonight, Sarah Palin showed that she can not only shoot down and field dress the meat, but she can also pitch that red meat to the Republican base. She has no apparent qualms about doing what good VP candidates are supposed to do, attack the other side. Joe Biden won’t be the only VP pit bull–with or without lipstick–in this campaign.

Palin gave a good speech, with the usual convention-sized helpings of exaggeration and mischaracterization sprinkled with lie or two (she should quit repeating her false-but-appealing “bridge to nowhere” story, or that’s where it the bridge may help take her campaign). Palin did well what she had to do, though now that she’s “out there” without days to prepare for each appearance things may get tougher. On the other hand, Jay Rosen offers this somewhat depressing quote in considering the apparent McCain-Palin strategy:

Strategy: Comes from Bush, the younger. When realities uncovered are directly in conflict with prior claims, consider the option of keeping the claims and breaking with reality. Done the right way, it’s a demonstration of strength. It dismays and weakens the press. And it can be great theatre.

Rosen discusses how the GOP might reignite the culture war (it’s best strategy in the past couple of presidential elections), and elements of that war could be seen tonight. There wasn’t much on abortion–after all, Palin’s warmup act was pro-abortion, pro-gay civil unions, pro-gun control Rudy “9/11” Giuliani (I would like to see Rudy try to wrestle a rifle from Palin). But there has been plenty in recent days from the GOP (and its Fox News mouthpieces) about “elites” (a funny term for a ticket with at least 10 houses between them) and about that old Republican favorite, “the liberal media.”

It also was interesting to hear Palin and other speakers during the evening talk about the need for “change” from Washington politics. They obviously hope that a fair number of Americans will forget that it’s their president–the one McCain votes with most of the time–who has occupied the White House for the past eight years, and that their party controlled Congress for almost that entire time (while holding enough seats to sustain George W. Bush’s vetoes for the last two years, after the electorate kicked many–but not quite enough–of them out of office).

McCain himself was a Senator for all of that time, though he hasn’t showed up for the past five months. Giuliani made fun of Obama for voting “present,” but it has been quite a while since McCain could even say that much.

One media problem the McCain camp is trying to head off, fresh on the heels of the Bristol Palin pregnancy: the latest National Enquirer story about an alleged Sarah Palin affair. This is the sort of story that many of us would consider to be unlikely and irrelevant trash–but the exact thing that many conservatives recently criticized the mainstream media for not following up after the Enquirer reported similar allegations about John Edwards.

Unfortunately, as long as the major media let bloggers and tabloids dictate news selection, the GOP will have a case against the press–but it’s not a case of bias, as Republicans now pretend, as much as it is a case of laziness and sensationalism. And the Democrats can made the same case.

A even more ludicrous complaint from the McCain folks is that criticism of Palin’s obvious lack of experience is somehow sexist. That’s just stupid, especially since the GOP has been citing Obama’s lack of experience for months. Using their own reasoning, one would be forced to assume their criticisms stem from racism.

Tomorrow night is McCain’s turn. Any bets on how many times his years as a POW will come up?

Thursday elitist note: Vanity Fair estimates that Cindy McCain’s outfit from the other night cost approximately $300,000. Most of those “small town Americans” that the Republicans keep talking about that didn’t pay that much for their houses. And most of them only have one house.

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