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’

Lies left and right: Kos, Drudge and Little Green Footballs

Posted by James McPherson on September 1, 2008

While I try to give people a variety of perspectives through my links at right, the Drudge Report and Little Green Footballs–two of the most popular conservative sites–have never been among them. That’s because I consider those two sites, while sometimes insightful, to be overly hateful and to have too little regard for truth. In short, they have carried blatant lies, either through intent or through a reckless disregard for fact. Both have unveiled big stories, but if you’re willing to print anything you’re more likely to occasionally stumble on a titillating bit of truth.

As of today, the Daily Kos–perhaps the most popular liberal blog on the Web–is gone for the same reason. A Kos writer with the name ArcXIX (another gutless wonder of the kind common to cyberspace, hiding behind a fake name) claimed that Sarah Palin’s youngest child is, in fact, her grandson, and the child of her daughter. The original link and yesterday’s followup from the same writer seem to be disappearing from many places (perhaps indicating how faulty the claims were), but the writer states unequivocally: “I’ve known liars in my life. … Well, Sarah, I’m calling you a liar. And not even a good one. Trig Paxson Van Palin is not your son. He is your grandson. The sooner you come forward with this revelation to the public, the better.” [bold type in original]

The writer goes on to offer a combination of highly questionable logic and photographic “evidence” that is obviously faulty to almost reasonable person who has had either a teenage daughter or a pregnant wife, or anyone who has worked in or around politicians (I once was a political reporter, and had two teenage daughters). Even granting the remote chance that the writer’s claim is true, there is absolutely no strong (let alone conclusive) evidence to support it.

As a result, even though I’ve never met ArxXIX or Palin (despite the fact that she and I were born less than a hundred miles apart), I have no trouble saying this: “I’ve known liars in my life. Well, ArcXIX, I’m calling you a liar. Or an idiot. Or probably both, since you’re not even a good liar. Based on the best “evidence” you’ve offered, you do not ‘know’ that Palin is a liar. You may suspect it, and you certainly hope so, but you don’t ‘know.’ The sooner you come forward with this revelation to the public, the better.”

That hasn’t kept the rumor from whirling around the world, of course, picked up by other liberal bloggers too stupid to realize that such garbage–like the rumors that claim Barack Obama is a Muslim–harm the credibility of those who spread it, while detracting from the multitude of meaningful reasons that a progressive should vote against McCain/Palin.

Unfortunately, the fact that the girl is now pregnant may add even more fuel to the rumor. But I would still argue that the girl’s unfortunate pregancy, despite what her status as an unwed mother-to-be might say about conservatives and birth control, is largely irrelevant to her mother’s somewhat limited qualifications to be vice president. And totally irrelevant to the Kos report.

I do not blame bloggers for heated rhetoric, literary exaggeration, or unintentionally getting things wrong on occasion. I certainly have made mistakes (and tried to correct them as soon as they were pointed out). Nor do I blame bloggers for the assortment of nutcases both liberal and conservative who contribute comments in response to posts. But operations with the scope and reputation of the three mentioned above should be able to do better than most with their posts, rather than seemingly seeking ways to be worse.

There are other sites that I read from time to time but avoid linking to because I am turned off by their constant whining or exaggeration. And of course I have deleted other sites in the past. Some bloggers stop writing after a while. Others just become monotonous. For example, one site that started out with the expressed interest of bringing people together, and which once offered meaningful commentary on a variety of political issues, became a tedious and often irrational all-PUMA-all-the-time site.

Worse, that site and some others engage in the practice of commonly deleting comments from those who disagree with them, regardless of how politely or logically those comments are offered. One bragged yesterday: “The Confluence is a refuge and a haven. And any comment that threatens our identity will be modified or deleted.” As I’ve noted repeatedly, I’m a believer in open discussion, not in paranoid conspiracy theories.

None of the sites mentioned here will miss having me offer direct connections to them; all have far larger readerships than this blog, in large part because they have chosen to appeal so strongly to their perceived political bases. Still, I will continue to add or delete links as they seem to meet the primary goal of this blog–to serve the needs of my students. And I hope you enjoy the variety.

Afternoon note: Today Kos himself starts out a post about the pregnancy with the words, “I don’t think the evidence is there to claim Trig is Bristol’s son, as some have speculated…” So I’d ask why, Kos, has your site done more than any other to promote the claim? After all, the most quoted of the “some” you refer to is in your own stable of writers.

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

McCain’s VP choice

Posted by James McPherson on August 30, 2008

So Sarah Palin it is. And even though I recommended her back in June, I’m surprised by the selection, in part because of some of the things that have happened in the past couple of months to cut into her approval ratings even in Alaska and in part because John McCain had spent so much time with better-known candidates while apparently having met Palin only once before her selection.

To me, her selection at this point is tinged with a bit of desperation, like the timing of Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden (whom I also had recommended). 

We’ll see how Palin holds up to national scrutiny, and whether the national media can focus on meaningful issues such as what she favors (including guns, teaching creationism in schools, and drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) and what she opposes (including abortion, stem cell research, the Endangered Species Act and state health benefits for same-sex couples), rather than on her physical appearance (she has already repeatedly been termed “America’s hottest governor”) or her voice (two irrelevancies for which Hillary Clinton was regularly criticized).

We’ll see Palin speak on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. It will be tough for Republicans to draw the number of viewers that the Democrats did at their convention, for reasons I’ve discussed previously, but her address is bound to draw the curious. Republicans are no doubt hoping that McCain can draw as many viewers as his VP nominee the following night.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Another Clinton triumph; can GOP compete?

Posted by James McPherson on August 28, 2008

Like Hillary Clinton the night before, last night Bill Clinton did what I predicted he would at the Democratic National Convention, coming out strongly in support of Barack Obama. Bill Clinton gave a maybe the best speech of the convention so far, after getting an opening ovation even longer than that for Ted Kennedy two nights earlier (more cheers, fewer tears).

In other convention activities, the roll call vote offered some interesting drama, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden gave a sometimes touching, sometimes tough (but less effective than Clinton’s) address, and Obama made a surprise appearance at the end. All in all the night was a positive one for the Democrats. Still, the promise of drama outweighed the actuality, partly because the nervous Dems had both the roll call and Clinton’s speech early, not during prime time.

Maybe it was just me being tired and sometimes bored myself, but even the talking heads seemed a bit off after the night’s activities were over–less eager to compete for airtime, less enthused about making pro- or anti-Clinton points. An interesting thought occurred to me as a result. It could be that they’re all getting tired. If so, that might be a negative for John McCain.

Until yesterday, I thought the Republicans had an advantage in terms of potential post-convention “bounce,” because their convention comes just days after the Democratic Convention. In addition, McCain apparently will name his running mate today or tomorrow, in a further attempt to blunt the impact of Obama’s mile-high stadium extravaganza tonight (a reminder: CNN has paid for the best camera angles for the stadium coverage).

Now, however, I’m not sure that I’d want to be in the Republicans’ shoes. After two weeks of the Olympics and this week’s convention, and with summer coming to an end, it may be that most Americans are tired of made-for-TV specials and ready for regular programming to begin. Watching a four-day miniseries that revolves around an old white guy whom everyone thinks they know (and that’s one line the GOP has been pushing heavily, that you “know” McCain but not Obama) may turn viewers away in droves, especially if he selects another fairly dull white guy as his running mate.

Another potential problem for the McCain camp is the fact that a hurricane named Gustav may be bigger news than the convention next week, especially in places like Florida and Louisiana. If Gustav happens to hit near New Orleans on Monday or Tuesday, it might be a “perfect storm” for destroying Republican hopes of getting much positive coverage out of their convention.

Face it, people aren’t likely to spend much time watching a bunch of speeches from mostly white folks in Minnesota, especially if they’re looking to see if black people will again be stranded on rooftops in Louisiana–and how the Bush administration, which McCain hopes to continue in many ways, will respond this time around.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part II)

Posted by James McPherson on August 15, 2008

As I noted with yesterday’s post, one of the most interesting things I got out of a conversation at last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention, combined with some other tidbits of information, was the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read.

Literary journalism isn’t dead, of course, and may be doing better overseas than in the U.S. Just this week I got an e-mail promoting a new international academic journal titled Literary Journalism Studies, sponsored by the sponsored by the two-year-old International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. But this style of journalism (in-depth journalism with a point of view, in which the author is obviously involved) seems today to often be a result of an individual (perhaps not a “journalist,” but instead someone like a political insider) becoming involved incidentally, though his/her work rather than the result of an avowed journalist plunging into the issue. The result may be informative, but it typically isn’t “literary.” Those of us who appreciate good writing know that sometimes poetry offers more truth than statistics can hope to convey. The best literary journalism feels more like the former, while encompassing both.

Back to my conversation, which was with Norman Sims, the author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism and the editor of a couple of literary journalism anthologies. He noted that most of today’s good literary journalism came from books, though after I complained about the lack of such fiction in magazines he commented that some good work could still be found in magazines, citing Esquire as an example.

While I don’t disagree with Sims’ assessment, to me his example is the exception that proves the rule, demonstrating a problem with modern literary journalism. Most people (including me) typically won’t wade through the male equivalent of Vogue in search of journalistic enlightenment. The problem is similar to one I noted several years ago with magazine fiction: Some of the best short stories could be found in Redbook and Playboy, but as a male faculty member at a Christian university (and a rare member of a women’s studies program who has moral qualms about both of those publications) I am unlikely to find and read those stories.

When I asked Sims what he thought of the prospect of the Web enhancing literary journalism options, he expressed doubt. Most magazines and newspapers, he pointed out, are too often unwilling to go beyond two or three Internet screens, “and that’s too short,” he said.

True enough. But the very next day I happened to attend a luncheon intended in part to promote J-Lab, which just moved to American University and calls itself “the Institute for Interactive Journalism.” Its mission is to help “news organizations and citizens use new information ideas and innovative computer technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in critical public policy issues.” For many people at the luncheon, the means of engagement seems to begin (and perhaps end) with blogging. But as I’ve noted previously, everybody seems to be blogging, while most blogs are exercises in vanity and self-delusion.

Unrelated to blogs, but very relevant to modern journalism, was the recommendation (from Howard Owens of “content provider” GateHouse Media) to “print what you know, when you know it.” He was talking about breaking news, of course, and some of us who recognize how often journalists get the first reports wrong cringed a bit (though Owens cautioned about speculation on the part of reporters). Still, the comment reminded me that modern media users don’t “read” media–especially online–the way they once did.

Muckraking magazines once ran thorough investigative series over many issues. For example, Ida Tarbell (one of my heros) wrote am 18-part expose’ of Standard Oil–based on more than FOUR YEARS of research–for McClure’s. Lincoln Steffens wrote separate articles for the same magazine about corruption in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Will Irwin produced a scathing critique of journalism, titled “The American Newspaper,” spread over 14 or 15 articles, for Collier’s magazine.

Presenting information in small pieces may be what the Web does best. Not coincidentally, gathering small pieces from here and there is how modern news junkies “read” the news. Sims and newspaper publishers may be right that most readers won’t go beyond two or three screens. But why should they, given their current options?

It seems to me that a savvy producer of literary journalism might produce a site in which the story is spread out over many pieces. That would let readers read the story in bits, as if reading chapters, reflecting on the pieces, rather than trying to gorge on the whole thing (or, more typically, ignoring it and looking for a book review summary or two). Good writing–the kind that is the hallmark of literary journalism–would bring them back for the next segment, and the next, and the next. An existing popular magazine might use the strategy only on its Web site, bringing visitors back more often, while running a summary in the magazine itself.

Done right, such a site might produce a “new journalism” that would combine meaningful in-depth information with more interesting writing than most Americans typically encounter–a kind of journalism that might even make Ida Tarbell proud.

Posted in History, Journalism, Poetry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 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 »

Academics, journalism, politics and getting away

Posted by James McPherson on August 11, 2008

As of 3 a.m. today, I’m back from Chicago, where I attended the national convention for the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication.  I also spent a week away from the Internet, checking my e-mail only once during that time (meaning most of my day until now has been devoted to catching up). I read a newspaper only once during the week (taking a day-old New York Times on the train) and caught only brief hotel lobby snatches of television news. Occasional breaks from the media and technology are among the most precious gifts we can give ourselves, part of why I don’t carry a cell phone.

For a political junkie, I picked a good week to be disconnected. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain picked a VP nominee and I’m back in time to hear George Bush bluster about Russia engaging in criminally insane American-style foreign policy.

Most of the news coverage seems to have been devoted to the Olympics, about which I care very little. I haven’t yet seen a single event on television, and have no idea of the medal count. I have great respect for the athletes–more so for those who compete from nations with limited resources–but am turned off by the hype, the money, the cheating, and the reliance on technology that surround the Olympics. It’s enough for me to deal with all of those things in the political races.

Like most such events, the AEJMC convention was a mix of good and bad:

  • Getting to hear from and talk to some of the smartest, funniest and nicest people in my field, including chats with old friends, enthusiastic young grad students, and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who was given AEJMC’s First Amendment Award.
  • Hearing from people who were seriously underprepared or who think they’re much smarter than they are, and spending too much time chatting with people who were looking over my shoulder to see if someone more important (in terms of their personal career enhancement) came into view.
  • Being reminded that few of the hundreds of presentations at this convention–or almost any academic convention–matter to more than a half-dozen people, or will influence anything beyond possibly the presenters’ tenure or promotion possibilities. Even bloggers’ audiences are bigger and may care more about what they read, though I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.
  • Seeing copies of my latest book being sold, and being asked to sign it.
  • An afternoon visit to Navy Pier and its stained glass museum, and a sightseeing tour of the waterfront.
  • An amazing view from our 38th-floor hotel room window, and incredibly high prices for everything else associated with the hotel.
  • Nice people on buses and on the street but crabby people in the hotel, in restaurants and driving cabs (exactly the opposite of what I expected).
  • Amtrak, which we took to and from Chicago from Spokane. Admittedly no one should spend 73 hours on trains in a one-week period. Still, I’m a supporter of the idea of Amtrak, and have always thought we should subsidize train travel more heavily (as we already do with air and especially car travel, though those subsidies are better hidden). But Amtrak doesn’t do much for its own case. The first train was filthy and hours late, and far too many Amtrak employees come across as embittered small-town cops or bad junior high teachers. Amtrak could learn a lot from Southwest Airlines.
  • The reminder that even though I generally prefer the West over the East and small towns over large cities, Chicago keeps getting better in my eyes while the seeming hellhole of Shelby, Mont., gets worse. Admittedly both reactions are based on limited experience (in Shelby I never got farther than 50 feet from the train, nor had any desire to do so considering the locals I encountered there), the same kind of experience that leads me to think kindly of such wide-ranging locales as Seattle; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Tucson, Ariz.; Raleigh, N.C.; St. Petersburg, Fla., Madison, Wisc.; Brookings, Ore.; and Moscow, Idaho; while having generally negative impressions of Los Angeles; Phoenix; Cincinnati; Richmond, Va.; Wilson, N.C.; Wickenburg, Ariz.; Ogden, Utah; Forks, Wash.; and Twin Falls, Idaho. Like most Americans, I have mixed feelings or am indifferent about many other places, including the hugely popular “san” cities of San Francisco, San Diego and San Antonio. My views about any of these places shouldn’t matter to anyone else, though unfortunately my reasoning is based on the same kind of experience that will prompt most people who are clueless enough not to have already made up their minds about how to vote in the November presidential election.

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

Blog “power”: exercises in self-delusion

Posted by James McPherson on August 3, 2008

There are all sorts of good reasons to blog, such as blowing off steam, exploring ideas, checking assumptions, sharing cool videos, correcting the mainstream media, communicating with a small group of like-minded individuals, and providing a bit of context on issues about which the blogger happens to be knowledgeable.

One apparent problem, however, is that too many bloggers believe that other people actually much care what they think. Political bloggers seem to be especially susceptible to such delusions of grandeur. The fact is, in most cases, we bloggers just don’t matter very much (and anonymous respondents to blogs matter even less).

A few blogs have become significant (inspiring hope among many others) but the vast majority of blogs and Web pages have limited appeal, limited range, and, most importantly, a very limited audience. Look closely (if you can stand to do so) at the comments of even blog posts with hundreds of responses and you’ll tend to see three to six people using the forum to talk to–are argue with–each other. The same three to six people, some of whom choose to stay happily misinformed about most issues, will be the ones most likely to comment on the next day’s post at the same site.

Mainstream media sometimes pay a bit of attention to a topic or organization that seems odd or out of the mainstream, occasionally giving issues or groups more credibility than they’re probably due, before skipping blithely on to something else. Pro-Hillary Clinton PUMAs are a recent example. Unfortunately, some of the PUMAs seem to be buying their own hype, regularly pointing out that there are more than 230 pro-PUMA sites.

I don’t dispute that number, but I also don’t find it particularly impressive. Consider this: If each of 240 sites has a hundred unique fans (that is, counting only folks not counted on similar like-thinking sites)–and based on my perusal of several such sites, I doubt there are that many unique visitors–that makes for a total of 24,000 total PUMAs committed enough to the cause to regularly participate in the process. For context, that’s a couple thousand fewer than live in Marshalltown, Iowa, or about the same as the number of people who work in the Pentagon.

Even if I’m way off, and each of those 240 sites has a thousand unique and committed fans, that adds up to 240,000 PUMAs. That number is probably lower than the number of people who this year will cast ballots for John McCain in and around three or four counties surrounding Spokane, Washington, the city in which I happen to live–and to the chagrin of many on the east side of this state, those McCain voters here won’t keep all of the state’s electoral votes from going for Obama.

I’m glad the PUMAs and various political sites are out there, providing the opportunity for those of us who care to learn some new things and giving the bloggers and their respondents an outlet for expression. But let’s not get carried away with thinking that more than a handful of bloggers–if any–will even remotely influence how most of us vote or live our lives.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

PUMAs stalk political relevance–and irony

Posted by James McPherson on July 25, 2008

The PUMA is an interesting species. Some critics might view PUMAs in the way many wrongly characterized Hillary Clinton, as bitter harpies. Others might see them as the type of women that misogynists typically prefer: silly, irrelevant, perhaps even cute.

Either characterization is mistaken (PUMA, by the way, generally stands for “Party Unity My Ass,” though one group has claimed “People United Means Action.”). PUMAs obviously are wrong and misguided, in my view, but passionate. And now they’re getting what many of them want most, some media attention.

PUMAs are angry people, mostly women, many of whom now say they’ll support John McCain over Barack Obama. There’s no denying that there are quite a few of them (though how many are GOP fronts can’t be determined) or that many are bitter. A quick scan of some of their blogs comes across such charming comments as, “Whenever I see one of those stupid “O”s on the back of someone else’s care [sic] I just want to RAM THEM!!!” and “Isn’t ‘barack’ that noise people make when they puke?” and “Do obama supporters still get headaches after they had their lobomy? [sic]” and “Even if Hillary should publicly–in person–denounce all 527s who are trying to get her nominated and elected, we can’t give throw [sic] in the towel. Clearly, the Chicago political mafia is strong-arming her to disown us.”

One blog post is titled, “If we’re PUMAs, then Obamaphiles are CHEATahs.” Cute, huh? Of course the difference is that PUMAs proundly claim the title before going on to disparage those who would prefer a different candidate. (This might be an appropriate time to remind readers that I was not an Obama supporter in the primaries, though I can’t imagine not voting for him over McCain in the general election.)

The CHEATah post comes from a blog that in its “About Us” section states: “We will start with the Democratic party and then work to bring together the rest of the country. We will come together at our common goals and go forward together, strengthened and mighty.” Its “credo,” in part: “We will all need to come together before the fall. Let’s craft a message that even wingers will envy. … Some of us have lost our minds lately. We are putting conditions and litmus tests on our candidates. We are getting lost in the trees while failing to see the forest.”

All of that may sound good, but the blog actually devotes much of its attention to PUMA promotion and Obama bashing, and also has a heading titled “PUMA Power” that states: “There will be a lot of calls for ‘Unity!’. But let us acknowledge what this really is. ‘Unity’ is a weapon that the party is going to use against us.” Perhaps it’s time to update one or two of the above categories.

Despite their real or manufactured fury PUMAs probably will have no meaningful effect on the Democratic Convention as far as preventing Obama from claiming the nomination, especially since Clinton likely will speak on his behalf at the convention. Still, in a tight general election (the kind we typically have) they might conceivably make a difference. Sadly and ironically, it would be a difference that goes against most of their own primary interests (at least those who aren’t secretly McCain supporters to begin with–like perhaps Fox’s favorite PUMA spokeswoman and 2000 McCain donor Darragh Murphy).

PUMAs might make a difference in the same way that Ralph Nader did against Al Gore in 2000, Ross Perot did against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Ronald Reagan did against Gerald Ford in 1976–drawing just enough attention and votes to help put the candidate their supporters disliked most in the White House. The difference in each of those cases was that the candidate’s supporters actually had a candidate who obviously still sought the position, while Clinton likely will–as she has repeatedly on previous occasions–exhort her supporters to do what they can to avoid a continuation of the Bush policies. A McCain presidency would have a good chance of turning those 5-4 Supreme Court votes against progressives into 7-2 votes against them.

Thus far, consistency, except in avoid-Obama-at-all-costs rhetoric, has not been a key part of PUMA power. Even Fox News, which would undoubtedly love to see PUMAs help swing the election for McCain and which has aired more about the group than any other network, can’t help but point out the contradictions. For example, see the YouTube videos below. The last one starts out much the same as the first, but adds some interesting context (though it doesn’t explore the disconnect between, “I don’t think it’s just to prove a point; I think it’s a very important point we’re making.”).

It’s difficult to tell how much influence the PUMAs will have, especially since many of those now complaining will swallow hard, hold their noses and vote for Obama in the general election, perhaps without telling their fellow PUMAs. The influence of blogs on elections also is unknown, though I don’t believe the vast majority of blogs are very representative of much of anything since most tend to have a limited following of serious but somewhat cowardly anonymous supporters who talk mostly to each other–a sort of ooh-look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever form of text messaging with less emotional commitment and no added wireless fees.

PUMAs do have cause to be unhappy, though not nearly as much cause as many of them claim. The Democratic primary system was a mess, but it was a mess that Clinton helped create. Interestingly, some of her supposed staunchest supporters now hope to make a bigger one.

Note: The organization name is corrected above–thanks to the respondents who noted that I had it wrong.

Follow-up: Somewhat ironically for a group that complains about being heard, PUMA sites seem to be among those most likely to delete the responses of those who disagree with them.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

Pogo’s enemy, revisited

Posted by James McPherson on July 15, 2008

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” That’s the best-known line from the long-running comic strip “Pogo” (originally expressed during a series of strips about pollution, before most of us imagined such a thing as global warming) and a sentiment worth revisiting from time to time.

So are we our own worst enemy, so to speak? To be sure, there are a lot of other enemies to be found at home and abroad. A partial list:

  • Lots of nasty dictators, most of whom have been installed or propped up by the United States at one time or another. The brown ones especially provide handy targets when an American president finds his approval ratings sinking.
  • Terrorists of all stripes, who often wreak havoc more because of how we react to them than through what they actually do.
  • OPEC and China, which jerk us around because we need them more than they need us.
  • The Bush administration, and its Congressional and judicial lackeys, which have done about everything imaginable to strengthen the presidency, weaken the economy, and destroy the environment, while enriching themselves and their corporate buddies.
  • The Federal Reserve Bank and the Treasury Department, which seemingly couldn’t manage the money required to beat a 7-year-old at Monopoly. (Not that there are good answers, as my brother points out in his own blog today.)
  • The gutless semi-powerful who might be able to change things, but who hang back because they want to hold on to some tenuous bit of remaining power or respect.  High on this list are members of Congress and various religious leaders.
  • Multinational corporations, which have been given the rights of individuals and which act pretty much like most of us would if given the opportunity–in their own short-term interest, with little regard for others or the world at large.
  • Nonprofit organizations, including the ones I generally agree with, that spend far too much time and money raising money and acquiesce to power too often, so they can appear to have achieved something.
  • Drug-addicted criminals who make us afraid to leave our homes.
  • Political candidates who campaign by trying to befriend us and tearing down their opponents, rather than offering honest and realistic proposed solutions.
  • And of course my primary interest, the mainstream news media, which focus too often on consumerism, the sensational, the trivial, the immediate and the illusionary.

So where is the “us” on the enemies list? We seem a lot smaller than any of those forces already mentioned, right? What can we possible do to change things, in the face of such overwhelming odds?

Ah, but there’s the rub. Or should I say, we can be the rub–an obstacle that diverts something from its seemingly inevitable course. After all, where do those all-powerful politicians come from?

In this country most (except those like Bush, who inherit positions beyond their abilities) start out as state or local politicians. Yet we are far less likely to vote in, or pay attention to, those closer-to-home positions, where fewer votes can swing an election. Ironically, in terms of numbers, the less likely we are to be able to influence an election, the more likely we are to turn out.

Increasing numbers of us hold stock through retirement plans or personal investments, but few of us bother to make our ethical wishes known to boards of directors. Those boards are left to assume (correctly, perhaps?) that our concern is to make as much money as quickly as possible.

Few of us know our neighbors’ names, let alone belong to neighborhood watch programs.

Too many of us talk only to people who think like us–unless we’re arguing. And too many of us think talk, or writing random checks to do-good organizations, is action.

Few of us rely on multiple media. The fact is, virtually every opinion and possible answer to any given problem is being discussed somewhere, but far too many of us rely on single sources of news. Especially troubling is the number who rely on sources with an obvious political bias, despite the Pew Center finding that heavy viewers of Fox News, for example, actually know less about public issues than do most folks, including those who rely on local television. We have to be careful about assuming causation, of course–we don’t know if people are ill-informed because they rely on Fox, if they rely on Fox because they’re ill-informed, or a combination of the two.

Ignorance about issues is inevitable but can be overcome. Apathy is a choice. An old joke asks the question, “What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?” The answer: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” The wit and wisdom of Walt Kelly’s Pogo lives on, but it isn’t delivered to your house every day. You have to go get it. The same might be said of political knowledge, and of a world worth living in.

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Speaking for the poor

Posted by James McPherson on June 12, 2008

Pultizer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr has long been one of my favorite columnists. Probably nobody writes better about issues of race, though he also focuses on a number of other themes relevant to American society and politics. His Sept. 12, 2001, column titled “We’ll Go Forward from this Moment” flashed around the world via the Internet and gave voice to the anger and determination of millions–an anger that might have made us stronger if the Bush administration hadn’t managed to tie it so heavily to fear and twisted it with lies to bog us down in an ill-advised war against an enemy totally unrelated to the 9/11 attacks still being used by some to justify that war.

On a personal note, I might add that Pitts also is interesting as a public speaker (not true of all writers) and in conversation. A few years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with him and a few others, and I’m convinced that the highlight of my student newspaper editor’s year was sharing conversation and a chocolate dessert with Pitts that evening.

Pitts’ column in my morning paper today, however, reminds me of another problem with modern media. It’s not the problem mentioned in his most famous column, and which I’ve often criticized: the fact that we’re so “capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae–a singer’s revealing dress, a ball team’s misfortune, a cartoon mouse.” No, today’s problem has to do with the poor, and their lack of a meaningful voice.

Crime news and entertainment media alike are more likely to portray minorities and the poor as perpetrators of crime. The fact that those same people are more likely to be victims is less obvious, and even the somewhat rosy FBI crime report released a few days ago may hide some disturbing trends. In addition, the media seldom remind us that most welfare recipients are white–even if we just go with traditional definitions of welfare and exclude farm subsidies, corporate tax breaks, homeowner exemptions, retirement benefits and the like. Still, despite the fact that most Americans probably don’t know those things, they’re all old news.

Also not new but worthy of discussion is something else Pitts points out, that poverty is not a black-white-brown issue, and that far too often, “The poor among us retreat instead into the easy comfort of tribalism, black with black, brown with brown, white with white, unable to conceive they might have common concerns that transcend melanin and ancestry. They divide themselves, and thus render themselves inconsequential so that those above in aeries of wealth and power can rest easy, unthreatened by demands for change.”

After eloquently and justifiably asking “who speaks for the poor?” Pitts concludes his piece with, “Or better yet, when do the poor finally speak for themselves?” And therein lies the problem. Assuming that their daily struggles with issues of family, food, shelter and gas prices allow them to time and energy to do so, how do they “speak” when their possible outlets for speaking have been so limited?

After all, the poor don’t “render themselves inconsequential” all by themselves, especially because those within “the aeries of wealth and power”–including corporate media owners–benefit so much from the current situation. I’m no Marxist, but I do know that local television news doesn’t adequately cover anything except perhaps the weather, and newspapers don’t cover the poor. Poor parts of town don’t appeal to advertisers, so newspapers have little incentive to sell papers there or to cover those areas. Newspaper subscriptions are expensive–and just try finding a newspaper vending box in the poorest part of your own city, even if you have the 50 cents or more to spend to try to find out what the City Council has planned for your neighborhood.

The rural poor may be even less represented, especially since news organizations continue to cut staffs–and because news from the outback has little chance of “paying off” in any meaningful way for a media organization. I grew up in a small town in Idaho, and was interested in journalism as early as junior high. But except when I went away to camp, I never had the chance to meet a real reporter until I was in college. Even our high school sports results were called in by the winning coach (though in some places newspapers hire college students as stringers to cover the games, while continuing to ignore issues related to rural poverty).

In addition, with the disparate state of education in poor neighborhoods compared to the suburbs, and with news media that seem to have little relevance to their own lives, the poor are less inclined to turn to the media to try to express their own concerns. They’re also far less likely to have computer skills or Internet access (in some cases, the rural poor still lack electricity), so they are unlikely to have the ability to speak for themselves via blogs such as this one (and with millions of blogs, the chances of any one being read and taken seriously are remote), or to use networking tools to discover and discuss their common interests.

An interesting related discussion comes in a piece today from the Poynter Institute’s Amy Gahran in which she asks, “Do most people really care about local community news?” and “If they really valued it, wouldn’t far more of them make more effort to find it, read it, share it, and preserve and expand it–as well as create their own?” The piece then focuses mostly on news about suburban issues, before asking, “What do you think–and even more importantly, what do you actually see and do in your own life and community?” If the question is aimed at journalists, an accurate answer likely would be “not much.” And if the question is aimed at the people who live in those communities, people in the poorest communities likely can’t answer at all, because they won’t see the question.

Incidentally, ignoring the poor is nothing new for the media. Many news organizations acted as though the Great Depression did not exist even while we were in the midst of it (it will be interesting to see if they do the same if the ongoing slump turns into a new depression). I do like Pitts’ idea of the poor joining together, rising up against the forces that divide and continually conquer them. But activist organizations of all stripes tend to be heavily made up of retirees and college students for a reason–because those folks have the time and money to spare. Sadly, the poor typically have neither.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »