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 ‘New York’

Lost in America–or at least in two cities

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2013

Though at least one major political party seem to be wandering aimlessly, I wasn’t ever actually completely “lost” during a just-completed 18-day trip to New York and Washington, D.C., with a dozen students (see the class blog here). But do I lack a great sense of direction and don’t use a smart phone, and so rely heavily (if not always well) on maps–as some of my students humorously chronicled in the video below.

I will note that we visited approximately 20 media-related sites in the two cities, and found our way to each meeting with time to spare. On the other  hand, I guess the video may provide some support for the common but nutty claim that liberal professors are leading students astray.

I’m fortunate to work in a university that values off-campus study, and have been lucky enough to coordinate two of my last three every-other-year study programs with presidential inaugurations. To be sure, there were a lot fewer people in Washington this year than four years ago–but it was interesting to see the shift in crowds from the Obama supporters there for the Inauguration at the beginning of the week to the people who came for the annual “March for Life” at the end of the week.

Demonstrating that political views are not black and white in America, at least one of my students attended both the inauguration and the march. I avoided both, and though I may disagree with the student’s politics, as a fan of peaceful political activism I commend her decision. Though students sometimes disappoint me, they far more often make me proud to be associated with them.

This year’s group had the added benefit of sharing a hostel with Wiley Drake, a somewhat pitiful “pastor” who earned some degree of notoriety a few years ago by praying for President Obama’s death. A birther who claims Osama bin Laden died in 2007 and who ran for president himself last year, Wiley has an Internet radio/TV show that he broadcasts (poorly) from wherever he happens to be–including from the hostel dining room.

Frankly, my students would do a better job of broadcasting than Drake does, and would generally make more sense. Even if they keep making the mistake of thinking I know where we are going.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Valuable lessons on ‘whom you know’ and on being in the right place at the right time in NY and DC

Posted by James McPherson on January 18, 2009

I’ve been blogging less than usual the past week or so for three reasons: because of various technology issues, because other parts of the program are keeping me busy, and because I’d rather you spend some of your free blogging moments checking out the class blog (including photos and video) for the program I’m now leading on the East Coast.

The group arrived in Washington, D.C., yesterday, and if you’ve been following their class blog you know they’ve met some interesting people and have learned some things (as have I). And despite the inconveniences of a visit from mice in New York, a broken heater here (in the women’s room in both cases), and some minor transportation issues, the students have had valuable experiences that have gone far beyond walking most of Manhattan, shopping, eating prodigious quantities of pizza and ice cream, passing Barack Obama’s train on the way from New York to Washington, and beating their professor at pool.

Perhaps most significantly, students have learned two of the most important things about how the world works, things that have little to do with the traditional education that universities typically provide.

The first of those lessons is that it really is often true that whom you know matters more than what you know. We’ve met a couple of people with great media jobs who had no formal training for those jobs, but got them largely as a result of personal contacts.

Of course the lucky recipients of those jobs had to prove themselves capable of doing the work, but the fact is that most of the six billion people on the planet–including many, many folks more initially qualified for the positions–had no chance of getting those jobs.

Most of us in our group will go to the Inauguration on Tuesday as part of the mob (which as a people-watcher with a journalistic mind I’m actually looking forward to), but three students managed to wrangle tickets thanks to a mother’s connections with a Congressman. Other connections–mine, those of colleagues, and in at least one case those of a student–also helped us get meetings with several of the great media sources we’re meeting with on this trip.

And of course all of us can cite examples (even if the meritocracy-preaching fortunate such as Supreme Court justice and affirmative action beneficiary Clarence Thomas sometimes ignore them) in which family connections or even seemingly minor incidental contacts have led to jobs.

Frankly, part of the reason I have the job I do is that I met a current department colleague while we coincidentally shared an airport shuttle in New Orleans a year earlier. In addition, I was invited to write both of my books (and several other chapters and articles) as a direct result of contacts made through the American Journalism Historians Association.

The second key lesson students have learned is that being in the right place at the right time can matter a lot. Students took in a church service at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem last Sunday, only to find that the day’s surprise guest preacher was Jesse Jackson.

An incidental contact led to two other students getting to see Conan O’Brien’s program, and because I was in the right place at the right time, I was offered two free tickets to see David Letterman last week–and am still getting grief from students because I turned the tickets down due to a conflict with one of our already scheduled class meetings.

In a terrible media market (something of which the experts we’ve been meeting keep reminding us) amid a collapsing national economy, it might be easy for students to become disheartened. Knowing that they spend most of their time in Spokane, Wash., where the “right people” rarely hang out, and knowing that most of them don’t have the kind of connections that will get them easy access to the jobs they want, has provided further moments of discouragement.

At the same time, rather than becoming depressed, Whitworth University journalism students have actively sought out the people and ways to make themselves more marketable. One is doing an impressive blog about the state of the industry, and used an independent study to create and develop the blog and to discuss key related issues with a number of media professionals.

Our journalism students attend national conventions and take part in programs like this one to further enhance their chances of making the right connections. Our department requires students to complete internships, and at least four of the student journalists on this trip have already worked for newspapers or television stations.

All of the student journalists with me work for the student newspaper (comprising most of the editorial staff) and/or radio station, and a couple are discussing adding a Web “television” station linked to the newspaper site.

Last night I went to bed thinking that four students were  staying up to play cards. Instead, the three who were already bloggers helped the fourth start a blog of her own, and the two with Twitter accounts helped the other two set up accounts.

Other media-related activities not formally part of the class, but which have been undertaken by students on this trip, have included seeking and getting enhanced training at College Publisher (which hosts the Whitworth student newspaper Web site), getting up early to visit “Good Morning America,” and taking in a taping of Sean Hannity’s show, in addition to the O’Brien experience.

Even more impressive, a group of a dozen students have asked me to oversee an independent study related to new media technology during the upcoming semester. A normal independent study involves one or two students working on something not covered by traditional classes, but in this case a dozen students have agreed to show up twice a week to teach each other more of the skills that might enhance their job prospects.

Though the university will provide a computer lab for a couple of hours a week in this case, professors are not paid for overseeing independent study programs of any size. We do it because we love to see and encourage enthusiasm about learning, and because such programs teach us more about things we also care about.

In this case, I’ll sit in with the students and let them teach me some technical skills that I can then share with even more students in the future. The students are amazing in their efforts to enhance their education–but the school and I are getting the better deal.

And so will future employers, should they be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to get to know these students.

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

Two days in ‘the Greatest City in the World’

Posted by James McPherson on January 11, 2009

Since 9/11, every episode of “The Late Show with David Letterman” has started with a reference to that slogan, “the Greatest City in the World.” I’m not sure I buy that–“greatest” is one of those phrases so common to advertising because it’s impossible to quantify–but New York is a very cool place.

Students are already picking up some interesting insights from their time here–check out their “Media Impact” blog, linked under “Students and Friends” at the right side of this page. (I’d embed the link, but the hostel computer system isn’t very link-friendly.)

We have the weekend off, and some of us spent most of yesterday at the Met after a walk across Central Park. Others made a quick visit there, then went on to Staten Island, Brooklyn, West Point and/or Times Square. We also had snow that remains on the ground today–though nothing compared to what we left in Spokane.

Today some of us are hitting the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero. Then for the rest of the week it’s back to work, meeting with media leaders. Tomorrow we’ll visit with The Onion and Channel 13, where Bill Moyers does his show.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Gadgets create more ‘reporters’–and fewer journalists?

Posted by James McPherson on January 7, 2009

Skype, netbook computers, mobile communication devices and other electronic devices make it increasingly easy for anyone to become an on-the-scene reporter. Regardless of the economy, people apparently aren’t going to give up their gadgets–at least until there’s no power to run them–which in may both help and harm journalism.

Poynter’s Al Tompkins, a broadcast & multimedia expert who last year led a workshop that prompted me to start this blog, writes today about a TV reporters using a laptop, a Blackberry and Skype to report from the scene of the college football championship game.

“She didn’t have a big live truck accompanying her, or an engineer tuning in a shot or a photojournalist standing behind the camera and setting up lights,” Tompkins writes. “[The reporter] set up her own camera, opened her laptop, connected the camera to her computer, slipped a wireless connection card into her laptop, called up Skype and used her Blackberry to establish IFB (the device TV folks wear in their ears to hear the off-air signal). It all looked just great on air.”

Spokane television stations have been going nuts with Skype lately, mostly to show how much snow and ice are on area streets as they encourage the rest of us to stay home (which most have for long periods, since we’ve already had 77 inches of snow, almost double what we get in a typical winter). As long as the news vehicle moves slowly, the pictures are good–but rarely any more interesting or informative than the shots we used to see before reporters fell in love with their newest toy.

As someone teaching future journalists, a key issue to me is the point Tomkins makes later in the story–which features an interview with the reporter about “working alone”–about the effect on staffing: “This type of reporting marks a new day. It is more than backpack journalism or one-woman-band reporting; it is soup to nuts, live reporting without a live truck or a signal that looks like a Max Headroom video. Obviously, it is also a potential cost-saving way to use fewer people and to send in live reports without using expensive trucks.” (emphasis mine)

As technology continues to improve and news organizations cut more staffers, those organizations can rely increasingly on non-professionals to provide content. My local paper, for example, may use pictures, video and/or text from some of my students who will be in Washington, D.C., for the Inauguration. That would be good for my students, would let the paper cover the event more comprehensively than it would otherwise (not long ago, it probably would have relied on wire service copy), and would let readers in on more of the action.

At the same time, amateur citizen journalism further decreases the need (in the eyes of owners) for qualified journalists, and increases the possibilty for error–or even intentional fraud by people who may try to scam a news organization with dramatic–but misleading or false–video or text.

Off to New York and D.C.

My own posts may come less frequently for the next few weeks, since a dozen students and I are about to leave for a 17-day study program to New York and Washington, D.C. We meet with about two dozen professionals in media-related fields, and most of us plan to be among the millions of people attending the Presidential Inauguration.  It didn’t occur to me when I started planning the trip that Manhattan would be the less crowded of the two places we’ll be spending most of our time.

The students will be blogging along the way (and perhaps linked with the Spokesman-Review), if you want to keep up with what they’re doing and some of their reactions to people and places they’ll visit–including the Nielsen Co., NPR, PBS, the Associated Press, The Onion, The Smoking Gun, Saatchi & Saatchi, Barron’s, Fairness & Accuracy in Media, the Public Relations Society of America, Columbia Journalism Review, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Student Press Law Center. It should be quite a trip.

And just in case I don’t get to post as regularly as usual and you’d like something more to read as long as you’re here, below are 20 favorite posts that you may have missed from the past:

As Bush people approach endangered species status, scientists find other rats, vipers and creepie crawlersBurn a flag for the Fourth

Begging to differ

Bettie Page & Robin Toner: Two women who made media history

With Jessica Alba too fat, Keira Knightly too flat, Faith Hill too plain & Sarah Palin too real, how should mags portray Michelle Obama?

Post #200 of a stupid, outdated idea

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

If you’re going to write anything stupid in the future, don’t come to my class

Top stories and missing stories of 2008: Obama, the economy, China and Mother Nature–and by the way, isn’t something going on in Iraq?

2012 predictions for GOP: Jindal, Huckabee, Romney, Palin or relative unknown?

Have you ever heard of the “world’s most famous journalist”?

Ignorance and the electorate

On-the-mark election predictions, and why Obama won

WOW! Young people access news differently than grandparents

Family values

Veterans Day: Thank the slaves who let you shop and spew

Speaking for the poor

Curiosity and journalism

Pogo’s enemy, revisited

Utah Phillips and other dead patriots

Warku-go-’round: A 20-part history of Bush’s War

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

Visiting D.C. during inauguration week

Posted by James McPherson on November 29, 2008

In January my wife and I will go with a dozen Whitworth University students to New York and Washington, D.C., to meet with about two dozen leaders and experts in various mass media agencies and industries. Sites and people we will visit include the Associated Press, Columbia Journalism Review, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Public Relations Society of America, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, NPR, PBS, Fairness & Accuracy in Media, the Onion, a couple of academics, a telecommunications lobbyist, and representatives from finance, newspaper, television and magazines.

The first version of this “media impact” study program went to those same two cities two years ago, meeting with some of the same people and some others. I remain impressed with how giving some very important people are of their time when it comes to helping students (and somewhat surprised at the outsized egos of some other people with jobs that are far less important).

The biggest difference between this trip and the one two years ago is that this year Barack Obama will be inaugurated during the same week that we’ll be in town, a day after Martin Luther King Day (which fell during the New York segment two years ago). As you might guess, scheduling for that week was a bit tougher this time around, and some folks we’d have liked to chat with will be unavailable. We’ll talk to a few more people in New York and not quite as many in Washington. Still, I expect the excitement of being in the city at that time, and seeing how the media cover the inauguration events, will be worth the tradeoff.

On the other hand, our group of 14 will be among more than a million extra people expected in the city during that week. Who’d have thought that of the two cities we’ll visit, New York might seem the less crowded? Fortunately our lodging was booked well in advance. One of the Washington media people I was talking to recently suddenly asked, “How did you get a place to stay?” It’s a logical question, considering that the New York Times reports today that the non-availability of Washington-area rooms has people asking for up to $60,000 to rent out their homes for the week and $25,000 for a weekend rental of a one-bedroom apartment.

And folks thought it was expensive to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton administration. I guess yet another area in which Democrats are better for the economy than Republicans is real estate prices.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Six more religious questions for McCain and Obama

Posted by James McPherson on August 18, 2008

In my view, John McCain and Barack Obama both did OK in their Saturday night back-to-back discussions with Rev. Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church. McCain did better than I expected and probably came out a bit ahead.

McCain did so well, in fact, that some critics thought he must have had the questions ahead of time. Despite Warren’s assurrences (and apparent belief), McCain and/or his key staffers may in fact have heard most of Obama’s interview, since McCain was in a car with staffers rather than locked away in a soundproof room during that time.

Still, though I have decreasing regard for McCain’s honesty, I doubt that he needed to cheat. His answers were shorter and more direct, and he came across as more focused, largely because he used most of the questions–as good candidates do during what has come to pass for political “debates“–as opportunities to regurgitate his stump speech. He said almost nothing that regular watchers of politics hadn’t heard repeatedly, but his answers did play to much of the Saddleback audience.

Obama’s longer, more conversational and less focused answers weren’t helped by Warren’s repeated interjections of “uh huh,” but the pastor was clearly nervous at the beginning and got better as the evening went on. Obama gave the worst answer of the night (about when life begins), with McCain’s answer about what qualifies a person as financially rich the second-worst. Neither candidate made a huge gaffe, though it remains to be seen which segments will be most heavily viewed as out-of-context YouTube videos. McCain also benefited from getting to go last (ask Shawn Johnson and Sandra Izbasa if that matters).

In truth, however, I doubt that the discussion will have much of an effect on anything. Given a choice of a religious/political discussion on a Saturday night in August, most of the relatively few people who were home watching television were tuned to the Olympics. McCain was going to get the conservative evangelical vote, anyway, though he may have boosted his credibility with the folks he once termed “agents of intolerance.” Obama may have countered the ongoing fiction that he is a Muslim, though the people stupid enough to believe that may not be able to figure out how to vote, anyway–and if they do, they weren’t going to vote for Obama.

I am a bit troubled that the candidates felt they needed to attend a church-sponsored discussion at all, a further complication of what I see as an often negative relationship between religion and presidential politics. It would bother me less if the candidates felt equally compelled to answer questions from a union leader, a state governor, the mayor of a major American city (New Orleans or New York, perhaps?), a panel of teachers and parents, and a panel of economists.

And though I think Warren did a decent job, he failed to ask a few questions that I would have in a forum such as this one. Though I likely will never see them answered by the candidates, I’ll post a half-dozen of those questions here:

  1. Catholics who practice birth control or have abortions sometimes are criticized for hypocrisy because they act in opposition to what the pope has professed. Since the leadership of every major religious denomination in the United States opposed the Iraq War, does that suggest hypocrisy among those churchgoers who favored the war–including President Bush and those in Congress?
  2. What is or should be the role of a church denomination’s leadership, for you and for Christians in general?
  3. Catholics make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. population,  and Jews only about 2 percent. Since five of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic and two are Jewish, isn’t the court seriously out of balance?
  4. How do your views of the death penalty correspond with your Christian faith?
  5. As president, you are expected to represent the entire nation. Name one Muslim and one atheist whom you count among your friends and advisors.
  6. Discuss your views of evolution and “intelligent design,” and how you feel they should be taught in public schools.

Posted in Education, Legal issues, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 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 »