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 ‘Media literacy’

Insurrection, conspiracy theories and truth snippets

Posted by James McPherson on July 7, 2010

Today offers more evidence of why media literacy is so important in this country–and, sadly, why many people who rely on one-sided blogs for information are so politically ignorant.

Some blogs that appeal to right-wingers and conspiracy theorists, such as this one (also here, here, here, here and here) now offer YouTube “evidence” that Barack Obama had admitting he was “born in Kenya.” Watch it quickly, the reader is warned, “before it’s pulled.” (By socialist/communist government agents who monitor the Internet from mosques and black helicopters, no doubt.)

But if you go to the original posted video–and are capable of reading–you see a description from the person who posted it that starts out: “The video starts out with some content from obamasnippets.com, which, of course is contrived. And yet, there seems to be a synthetic truth about what the president says.”

Aside from the question of what is “synthetic” (and therefore by definition, fake) “truth,” the words clearly state that Obama’s “admission” is a creation of whomever created the video. And who is that?  Someone who states that his/her site is “not ‘political,'” not anti- or pro-Obama, and  “just for fun.” One of those who has done most to promote the video, on the other hand, getting more than 200,000 hits on it, does have a clear agenda, listing his favorite “news sources” as “Hannity’s America, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity Radio Show, Roger Hedgecock, Michael Reagan, Gordon Liddy, Sec. Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove…”

Ironically, he also states on the same page, “May the Glory of God be revealed so Truth can prevail.” Perhaps God might have an easier time revealing truth if there weren’t so many supposed Christians working so hard to distort it.

Another conspiracy site unintentionally (I hope) further illustrates the silliness of the whole argument and the futility in trying to convince conspiracy theorists of anything when it states: “Was Obama born in Kenya or America? Kenya….But we will never know the truth!”

Go ahead, read that last quote again. Yep, that’s what it says: “We’ll never know the truth, but here’s the truth.”

One thing many of the conspiracy sites have in common is that they often warn against the “lies” of the mainstream media. One of those linked above also reminds us why there may be good reason to fear some of the Tea Party crowd–or at least there might be if they had the numbers, youth and courage to back up their inane words. One commenter writes:

Someday American’s will realize there are only two options left if the desire for a sane government is the objective.
Number one would be to de-legitimize DC and reform independent States, with State owned Banks, which negates the power of the federal Banksters, and provides a method of political segregation so we would not have people like [a previous commenter] for neighbors.
Number two is civil war! Take your pick.

Insurrection, anyone? Or instead, how about just doing a bit of reading from a history book, a copy of the Constitution, or Snopes.com?

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , | 38 Comments »

How to be a better media user

Posted by James McPherson on March 16, 2010

Today I spoke to three groups of middle school students about media literacy, offering a few tips for becoming more knowledgeable media consumers. At the request of one of their teachers, I’ll post part of it here. Some of it I’ve gleaned from elsewhere over the years, but can’t remember where–let me know and I’ll add it. When I have more time, perhaps I’ll also come back to this and add relevant links and photos.

Four questions to ask yourself when watching/reading/hearing a media message:

1. Who controls the message? A relatively few media conglomerates control most of the media we get. And despite cries about supposed liberal media, News Corp is one of those biggies. All of them exist primarily to make money, not to enlighten, entertain, or provide a “fair and balanced” perspective.

That’s why the people who complain most about sex and violence on television are most likely to be found on Fox News, which uses the same methods to draw an audience–and which also is associated with the Fox Entertainment, the sleaziest major network on television. That’s also why MSNBC, when it couldn’t beat CNN, tried to out-Fox Fox with conservative hosts and commentators. Only after that failed did it become the liberal answer to Fox.

2. Is it real? There are a lot of ways to lie in and with the media. There are more public relations professionals than there are journalists. And everybody has access to Photoshop and a junior high student who can use it.

3. What are the underlying messages? That’s the point of one entire semester-long class that I teach, but in short, every media message offers implicit messages along with explicit messages. The messages about gender alone probably are worthy of a year’s lectures.

4. Why am I watching/reading/listening to this? Uses and gratifications theory points out that we use media for a reason, even if the reason is escapism. Thinking about the “why” can improve one’s motives (and life in general).

Four tips for making better use of the media:

1. Reduce the use of your favorite medium. Turning more often to a different medium–or to friends, family and personal observation–will likely broaden your perspective.

2. Actively watch/listen more often. Watch television with family members, rather than in separate rooms, and then talk about what you saw. Talk back to the screen. But not in a movie theatre, please.

3. Reduce the number of opinions you feel obligated to hold. Like talk show hosts, we often feel we must have an opinion on everything, whether we understand the subject or not, lest we appear either apathetic or dumb. It’s OK–and inevitable–not to be an expert about anything. And you’ll be taken more seriously when you speak about areas in which you do have some level of knowledge/expertise.

4. Consider a personal or family media code of ethics. Put it in writing: If something in the media offends you, what will you do about it? Just whine? Write a letter? Stage a protest? Are there certain kinds of shows, or certain number hours, that you won’t watch? Will you let your kid watch an hour of TV or spend an hour on the Internet if s/he then reads a book for an hour? Will you allow a television or personal computer in your child’s room?

In answer to that last question, by the way, I wouldn’t. I asked more than a hundreds kids today how many of them watch things on TV that they wouldn’t be allowed to watch if their parents knew the content (I didn’t even bother to ask about the Internet). Most of the students–a good group of kids, it seemed to me–raised their hands.

Of course, they might be forgiven for using media irresponsibly; after all, they’re kids. Most people reading this don’t have that excuse.

Posted in Education, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 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 »

Anticipating eruptions: Volcano and Palin prompt redoubt

Posted by James McPherson on January 29, 2009

One definition of the word “redoubt” is “to stand in dread of; to regard with fear; to dread.” That definition might apply to two events facing Alaska: the possible eruption of a volcano named Mount Redoubt, and an increasingly likely presidential run by Gov. Sarah Palin. We keep seeing more meanings  for her phrase, “I’ll get back to ya.”

In fact, Mount Redoubt has erupted a number of times. Despite being located about a hundred miles from Alaska’s largest city, it probably will never cause Alaskans the grief that those of us in the Pacific Northwest experienced with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

A more ominous event for Alaskans and the rest of us may be the establishment of Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC.com, leading to a new eruption of speculation about her viability as a presidential candidate. Incidentally, what is it with leading political women–Hillary Clinton, this includes you–that they can’t get enough support by using their last names, as male candidates do?

The images used for the SarahPAC website are fascinating from a media literacy standpoint. The dominant image is of Palin, pictured from below so as to make her look more powerful, looking slightly upward while holding her hands in what could be a praying position. Behind and beside her is a scenic Alaskan vista–despite the fact that SarahPAC is based in Arlington, Va., a seat of power that hosts numerous other political organizations (including the Leadership Institute, which calls itself “the premier training ground for tomorrow’s conservative leaders,” though it is not above using dishonest means of self-promotion–more on that below.)

Finally on the SarahPAC website, next to letters spelling out “SARAHPAC,” is an image of the continental United States with Alaska superimposed over it. The image lets us see the immense size of the state that Palin governs, yet also manages to place her state literally in the heartland of America (apparently obliterating Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and Nebraska, along with parts of a few other states). The Democratic bastion of Hawaii is nowhere to be seen–perhaps Republicans wish we’d stopped adding states after Alaska became the 49th.

SarahPAC should not be confused with another another PAC, PalinPAC.org based in Washington state, with a website that boasts a photo of cross-shaped sunlight shining through an American flag and prominent links to “Sarah Palin’s Page” and “Todd Palin’s Page.” But both SarahPAC.org and PalinPAC.org also demonstrate the games that politicians play (and perhaps must play, under the current campaign finance system). Despite the names of the organizations, the home pages of both include a line that disingenuously reads, “Not authorized by any candidate or any candidate’s committee.”

Palin says she may not run for president, of course, and says that the establishment of a PAC simply provides “an available source of funds so that we’re not coming close to any ethical line to be crossed in terms of travel or participation in events that will help Alaska, but could be seen perhaps as not worthy of state funding.” I wonder how big the clothing allowance is for “participation in events.”

And despite her protestations, a presidential bid is likely unless significant unexpected problems arise. We’ll see: As Robert Schlesinger writes for U.S. News & World Report, “A sure sign that Palin is gearing up specifically for a presidential run will be SarahPAC making contributions to New Hampshire and Iowa state-level candidates and parties.”

Following up his piece of yesterday, Schlesinger wrote today (in a piece titled, “Yes, Sarah Palin is Running for President, Or Getting Ready to Anyway”): “But politicians—especially rising star pols like Palin—don’t raise money and make national appearances out of the goodness of their hearts; they don’t do it because of unselfish dedication to party; and they don’t do it because they want to raise their state’s profile. She may not be running for president yet (though the FEC seems to think she is), but she’s positioning herself to run in a couple of years.”

Incidentally, other definitions of redoubt are “an entrenched stronghold or refuge” or “a small, often temporary defensive fortification.” In the case of Palin, despite my one-time support of her choice as John McCain’s running mate, I hope her political presence is more temporary than entrenched.

Oh, and as for the dishonesty of the Leadership Institute: As I’ve written elsewhere, a couple of years ago I checked out the membership of its “Bi-Partisan Congressional Advisory Board” and found that the board was comprised of “102 Republicans, all living, and one long-dead Democrat–ultraconservative Georgian Larry McDonald, who … was so conservative that at the time of he death he served as the second-ever national chairman of the John Birch Society, which had long since been rejected even by most conservatives as an extremist organization.”

McDonald died on a Korean airliner that was shot down by the Soviet Union after it apparently accidentally flew into Soviet airspace, prompting Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell to bizarrely state, “There is real question in my mind that the Soviets may have actually murdered 269 passengers and crew on the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 to kill Larry McDonald.”

You may also remember that one of the pithier complaints that popped up about Palin during the 2008 campaign was that she was “Jerry Falwell with a pretty face.” Palin and Falwell also apparently shared a debate coach.

Next day update: The volcano hasn’t blown yet, but remains on CNN’s front page.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 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 »

Clinton, Obama and changing politics

Posted by James McPherson on May 24, 2008

Some now believe that Obama’s inabililty to put away Hillary Clinton–indeed, she blew him out in West Virginia and Kentucky–proves she has a better chance to win in November against John McCain because she attracts voters who just won’t vote for Obama. Some of those voters are women, upset with how the media and the Obama campaign have treated Hillary. Some are racist idiots. Some are essentially conservatives in Democratic donkey clothing who recognize that her politics align more closely to theirs.

As I’ve noted previously, most of the voters who consider themselves to be progressives or liberals likely will vote for the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, come November. Some immature short-sighted idiots won’t (except in the unlikely instance that Clinton becomes Obama’s VP candidate). Still, despite the fact that Clinton has virtually no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, I don’t think she should drop out. She should not try, as some suggest she is doing, to sabotage Obama’s November prospects, but as I’ve said before, I think an extended race helps Democrats more than it hurts. 

Though we cannot know how many of Clinton’s voters will stay home or vote for McCain, the fact remains that we also still cannot know how many Obama supporters will turn out in November. Critics rightfully point out that every election is supposed to be the one in which young people make a difference, but they never do. Some of those critics suggest that Obama’s support is artificially inflated by infatuated youngsters who will vanish in November. I happen to think those critics are wrong for three reasons:

  1. Those voters have already turned out for primaries and caucuses, which always draw far smaller crowds than do general elections.
  2. They’ve been voting with their money. Obama has generated amazing amounts of cash from people who have never before donated to campaigns, and because they’ve invested financially, they’re likely to want to see their investment pay off.
  3. Change. This is Obama’s buzzword, but I mean it in a different sense–not that we need change, but that change has already come. Every pundit recognizes that the Internet and YouTube have had influence, but I think most Americans over 40 still underestimate how dramatic the change has been.

One example comes from Kansas State University’s mediatedcultures.net a class project that has demonstrated in fascinating (and public) ways how young people view the world. Many of the videos have much to teach the rest of us, too. I’ll share another favorite, about modern education, some other day.

Spreading of Ideas on YouTube (Curtis Schwieterman)

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Fixing the media

Posted by James McPherson on May 9, 2008

For the semester’s next-to-last meeting of my media criticism class today, I asked students to each come up with a list of the three most important problems related to the media (after all, we’ve been talking about various problems all semester long). I then put the students in groups, and told each group to identify which of the problems they thought they could help “fix,” and to identify how they might go about it. None of the groups came up with solutions to the problems mentioned in the newest Project for Excellence in Journalism annual report, but then the report points out that even those in the media apparently are wrong about their most significant problems. Here are some of the students’ suggestions (words in parentheses are mine):

  • The news media should find better ways to cover international news and cover it more. An international news story should go on the front page of each day’s newspaper and near the top of each news Web site every day. News organizations might recruit reporters from within other countries–people who know the culture–rather than trying to rely on distant foreign bureaus and “parachute-drop” coverage.
  • Journalism schools and media organizations should do more training about cultural differences (this from a class that is 90 percent white), and about health and science reporting, which even students realize is often inflammatory, incomplete or inept.
  • The media should seek out and provide more contextual background information and critical reporting–that is, reporting the news with a critical eye, rather than looking for ways simply to criticize people–and engage in less speculation and infotainment.
  • Those in the media should look for ways to treat people with more respect, spending less time glorifying and/or sensationalizing what Ariel Levy has termed “raunch culture.” They might consider a new kind of “woman’s beat” (or similar beats about other groups) that focus on positive images and portrayals: more of Sandra Day O’Conner and working mothers, less of Paris Hilton, sex symbols and pretty dead white women.
  • The media should continue to expand the trend among many news organizations toward more transparency about how they work and why they make the choices they do. (Our local newspaper happens to be the Spokesman-Review, which has worked hard at this.)
  • Creators of advertising–not just newsrooms–should have and should provide access to guidelines regarding the use of Photoshop and subtle fakery.
  • News media and journalism schools should give up trying to pursue–and trying to convince others that they adhere to–objectivity. Recognizing that objectivity is a myth, they should follow the lead of Al Jazeera and Fox and make their biases clear, while (unlike Al Jazeera and even more frequently Fox) trying to treat all sides fairly. (Incidentally, I tell my students that I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an objective reporter, an objective teacher or an objective historian–and I don’t trust anyone who claims to be any of those.)
  • Readers and viewers should become more media literate and more discriminate in their media choices, and take responsibility for the news they consume.

They’re smart students. Next week on the last day of class, I’ll share my final thoughts on how they might become better media consumers, and maybe even help change the media.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Women | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Links

Posted by James McPherson on April 24, 2008

Today’s blog time has been primarily allocated to producing the list of links at right. I’ll add to them from time to time, and welcome suggestions. I’ve tried to give a reasonable range of political and media sources, while staying away from the more extreme nutjobs that provide more heat than light. Therefore you will find Air America and Fox News, but you won’t find the individual Web sites for the blowhards who frequent those networks. Frankly I generally recommend the sites produced by print organizations over produced by broadcasters, though there are occasional exceptions. More importantly, read and watch news from a range of perspectives–politically, socially and geographically–rather than relying on one source, especially if that source tends to reinforce your own biases.

Posted in Media literacy | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »