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 ‘Middle East’

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 »

Barak and Barack, Israel and America

Posted by James McPherson on December 29, 2008

With Israel continuing its attack on targets in Gaza for a third day, Defense Minister Ahud Barak says Israel is now in an “all-out war” with Hamas. In the meantime, various countries with sympathies toward one side or the other are trying to provide aid to the areas hardest hit.

President Bush–whom Condi Rice predicts the American people will soon “start to thank” (and not just for leaving office)–sides with Israel. Barack Obama also has previously supported Israel as strongly as any other American politician; one might argue that he wouldn’t be president-elect, if he hadn’t.

Perhaps now, as Obama ponders yet another crisis that he’ll have to deal with when he takes office in about three weeks, he’s wondering if not being president-elect would be such a bad thing. Obama has promised to focus on Middle East issues right away (as if he had a choice) and to try to boost America’s image with Muslims. He undoubtedly will have more credibility among Palestinians than Bush does.

Among other potentially promising signs are the names of the people involved. Barack Hussein Obama’s first name is nearly the same as the Iraeli defense minister’s last name, while his middle name–as we were reminded many times during the election–is an Arabic name that he will use when he takes his oath of office.

In addition, the full name of Obama’s proposed White House chief of staff (a Jew whose father was born in Jerusalem and whose last name means “God is with us”) is Rahm Israel Emanuel.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments »

Christmas killers, foreign & domestic: More proof the world looks better from a distance

Posted by James McPherson on December 28, 2008

The second-most popular CNN story right now is actually a series of photos taken of the Earth by NASA. They include photos of a hurricane, damaged Gulf Coast wetlands, disintegration of a massive ice shelf, flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in California, clearcutting of forests in Bolivia, and irrigated fields in Sudan.

The most-popular story? “Santa shooter carried secret guilt, attorney says.” Not guilt about dressing up as Santa and killing nine people on Christmas Eve, but over how his ineptitude as a parent left his son (a son that until recently he kept secret from his now-murdered ex-wife) a paraplegic.

In the meantime, Israel continues to celebrate the Christmas season by defying the United Nations–keeping with its long tradition of ignoring the UN and recognizing that sanctions only matter when those sanctions are violated by countries the United States want to invade–and waging war against Palestinians.

Israel knew, of course, that it would have the full support of the U.S., even as Bush Administration continues to contribute to a potential polar ice cap-like meltdown of the Middle East.

The New York Times leads with a story about the Israeli bombings entering their second day, but its lead sidebar is headlined, “Israeli Foreign Minister Says Hamas Is to Blame.” Now there’s a shock. The next story is more important, in the long run: “Across Mideast, Thousands Protest Israeli Assault.”

As a more positive offering marking the end of the Christmas season and the hopes for a better New Year,  I’ll end today’s post with a Christmas version of “From a Distance”:

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Science, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 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 »