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 ‘NPR’

Juan gone: NPR, Fox and ‘news analysis’

Posted by James McPherson on October 21, 2010

National Public Radio has fired Juan Williams for making a remark that sounded too much like the only Jesse Jackson quote that conservatives like (well, maybe except this one).

I have mixed emotions about the firing, similar to those expressed by writers Glenn Greenwald and  Greg Sargent. But I also think it should never have come to this: NPR should have pushed Williams out long ago. After all, it’s not the first time he has been in trouble for comments on O’Reilly’s show.

Mostly, though, I’d have eased him out because I think his overall tone has changed over time to be more in line with Fox News/MSNBC-style “discussion” than with what his job was with NPR. After all, probably most people couldn’t name a regular commentator with NPR, while I think Williams likes being a celebrity.

Williams’ commentary in this case (and others) with Fox relied on personal feelings, rather than on political expertise. That made him inappropriate as a news commentator for NPR.

The Williams case also shows the difficulty of trying to be a rational and consistent commentator who works for markedly different audiences. One of my favorite conservatives, David Brooks, has the same problem.

By the way, I think CNN may have been trying to reclaim some NPR-style credibility with the firing of Rick Sanchez. But for the network that brought us Lou Dobbs and (via CNN Headline News) Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace, it’s probably too late.

Next day update: Williams defends his comments on Fox. His essay doesn’t change my mind, but it does illustrate some other key diversity-related problem similar to what I’ve discussed previously.

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

Movin’ on up: Fox News gets front row, NPR biggest winner in White House musical chairs

Posted by James McPherson on August 2, 2010

From the “be careful what you ask for” file: Fox News got part of what it sought from the White House Correspondents’ Association, but not what it really wanted–and may actually be sorry for the shift.

Fox, along with NPR and Bloomberg News, wanted the front-row-middle seat in the White House briefing room, long occupied by retired-and-disgraced Helen Thomas. Instead, the Associated Press was shifted to that spot (a logical move) and Fox was moved up to the front row in the former AP spot.

Interestingly enough–despite the misplaced ego-based idea that “the real plum is being in the front row,” and despite the unwarranted happiness of some conservatives (examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) about the shift–Fox probably was better off before the shift; the new seating arrangement will make it easier for Major Garrett, the network’s White House correspondent, to be ignored.

Instead of in the middle, directly behind the very short Thomas (or now, an AP reporter), with the new seating chart Garrett will be in the second seat from the end in the front row–and Fox will have no basis for complaint, since it now has the seat long occupied by the Associated Press and between NBC and CBS.

And the big winner? Ironically, it’s NPR, which moves from near the outside of the third row up to Garrett’s old seat (right next to Bloomberg). That should cheer up the liberal groups who organized protests against the Fox bid to move forward.

The effect on the news of the changes? Sadly, nil.

Here’s the old seating chart; Fox and NPR each will move one row forward and two seats to the left, while AP moves two seats to the right.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Little trust in government–does it matter?

Posted by James McPherson on April 19, 2010

So apparently record numbers of Americans distrust their government. As someone who still has a “Question Authority” pin in in his office (albeit pinned to a stuffed moose), I don’t think that distrust is necessarily a bad thing, and today NPR offers an excellent historical look (with a timeline that starts in 1775) at the issue.

Of course it is unfortunate and perhaps crippling if our distrust is so deep that it keeps us from even considering that government officials (whom, after all, we elected) and especially folks on the “other side” may have good ideas, and that they generally choose to serve because they want to do what’s best for the country or their community.

It’s even more dangerous for our democracy and our safety–as Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative writer Kathleen Parker and others point out–if at the same time that we seriously distrust government and mainstream media, we also decide to put inordinate trust in inflammatory whackjobs such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and various conspiracy theorists such as the “birthers” and “truthers.”

Domestic terrorism is nothing new in this country. There is little reason to think there isn’t more such terrorism on the horizon, fueled by incendiary rhetoric (often the ranting of anonymous cowards) on the airwaves and the Internet, and by and fearful, intellectually lazy Americans who place their trust in “authorities” even more questionable than those we elect.

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

NPR asks, ‘Where are the women — at NPR?’

Posted by James McPherson on April 7, 2010

“When it comes to female voices from outside NPR, the network is not as diverse on air as it would like to think. NPR needs to try harder to find more female sources and commentators.”

Those words come from a piece by National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard (and highlighted today by Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore), who also points out that, to the network’s credit, that NPR “has been an industry leader with female correspondents and hosts. Three out of the five hosts of its biggest shows — Morning Edition and All Things Considered — are women. The CEO and the head of the news department are women, as are many other top executives throughout the company.”

The study conducted by Shepard and two NPR interns came up with a number of interesting statistics and graphs, which I encourage you to check out (one graph can be found below). And all that at a news organization which is doing a better job in terms of gender balance than perhaps any other national organization.

The article manages to demonstrate the value of both NPR and of ombudmen, which far too few news organizations are have the courage to employ–part of the reason that the media have such low credibility ratings.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Winter Olympics & Hollywood suggest why politicians lie–or lose

Posted by James McPherson on February 24, 2010

“Remember when the Internet was supposed to kill off television?” asks a front-page story in today’s New York Times, before going on to point out that for at least some kinds of television, the Web actually boosts TV ratings. In an era in which families now no longer watch television together, the Internet lets people “talk” to each other about what they’re watching.

Also this morning, in a typically excellent commentary for NPR, Frank Deford marveled about the fact that NBC’s Olympic coverage one night last week beat even “American Idol” (a show I must admit that I can’t stand, and have never watched in its entirety, despite its huge following).

NBC won the night despite the fact that its “coverage” of Lindsey Vonn’s gold medal downhill run appeared hours after she had won and presumably after almost anyone who cared knew she had won. (Incidentally, I also find it interesting that the Olympics are a big TV hit, despite the fact that most Americans wouldn’t watch a non-Olympic ski race on a dare.) In fact, many people probably watched because they knew she had won. Or because they knew she had won.

“Perhaps this suggests that at this time when there is so little good news in America, when we do not enjoy the everyday success we used to rather expect, when we are so at loggerheads as a people, that there is something comforting about us coming together to watch a beautiful young woman, struggling with injury, secure in our knowledge that she will raise Old Glory on high,” said Deford. More important, I think (though perhaps too obvious), was his preceding statement: “Evidently, we would now rather revel in an assured triumph than suffer through a live competition with a problematic outcome.”

Well, yeah. Americans hate bad news. That’s why most American films–focus-group tested into homogenity–come with tidy, happy endings, usually (as I heard the great Roger Ebert note years ago) with a crowd of onscreen people cheering the heroes so that we might know to cheer along with them.

Now some DVDs come with alternate endings, and I asked students today to share examples they had seen. Apparently the main characters ended up dead in “The Butterfly Effect” and struck by lightning (though, unfortunately, not fatally) in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Many films now offer alternate endings, typically darker than the originals.

Unfortunately the “happy ending” syndrome extends to American public policy. We all know the economy, the environment and health care have serious problems. But we certainly won’t stand for some politician telling us bad news that really means anything–as in, we need to sacrifice something to fix the problem–and in fact would vote him out of office if he did. So they all promise wonderful things that we won’t let them deliver, and then blame the lack of resolution on the folks on the other side of the aisle.

After all, every American has also been conditioned to know that for every hero there must be a villian, whether that villian is a scheming movie girlfriend, a Russian ice skater, a Democrat or a Republican.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Howard Zinn and other dead warriors

Posted by James McPherson on February 1, 2010

A late mention, as I’ve been away: noted historian Howard Zinn died last week.

In honor of Zinn, I offer his speech on American’s “three holy wars”:

Feb. 8 update: I just came across an NPR bit from a few days ago discussing how the network was criticized for including a nasty quote from David Horowitz as part of its online obit of Zinn. I agree with some of the criticism–that Horowitz’s comments didn’t add anything particularly meaning ful, especially for NPR listeners (thought they did help further illustrate the stupidity of Horowitz)–but can’t help but think that Zinn might have appreciated the “alternative view” of his own history.

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

$1.3 million enough for NPR in Spokane or one ex-CEO

Posted by James McPherson on August 14, 2009

To NPR’s credit, the story comes directly from National Public Radio: According to tax records, buying out former CEO Ken Stern cost the network about $1.3 million.

An interesting coincidence is that $1.3 million is also the total budget for my local NPR station, though relatively little of that comes from federal funds.

It’s also about what AT&T paid recently to settle a religious discrimination claim, what the EPA will devote to clean up petroleum leaks in Hawaii, what the Department of Labor will spend to help help Minnesota workers hurt by auto industry declines, or what a rich person can spend for a “flying” submarine.

On the other hand, that same $1.3 million wouldn’t buy 15 seconds of advertising during the Super Bowl.

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

John McCain, torture MIA

Posted by James McPherson on April 17, 2009

John McCain’s campaign manager told fellow Republicans today that conservatives should support gay marriage, and that the party had been co-opted by the Religious Right. McCain himself recently insulted Sarah Palin, his own vice presidential choice, on national television.

No wonder his boss had trouble winning over conservatives, and these incidents remind me that I once was a McCain fan. Then I became so disgusted with McCain’s presidential campaign, which seemed to be mostly a series of  desperate “Hail Mary” passes that sent him lurching farther and farther to the right, that frankly I recently wished I’d never have to hear from him again.

And yet, today I do. A day after the Obama administration released proof that the Bush administration had indeed endorsed torture–and at the same time announced that it would not punish the torturers–I want to hear the views of torture victim John McCain on this issue.

Does McCain agree with Rush Limbaugh that torture, at least to the extent we know so far was done by Americans (my bet is there will be more and worse to report) was justified, and that a worse crime was in fact Obama’s release of the torture memos?

“My God, we’ve just shown our enemies what we do! We’ve just given away the effective elements of our techniques here,” said Limbaugh. “What he’s done now is, if we’re hit again, he owns it.  If we’re hit again, President Obama owns it.”

Limbaugh also implied that even McCain supported his view–even if the former torture victim himself might not be smart enough to know it: “The idea that torture doesn’t work, that’s been put out from John McCain on down.  McCain for the longest time said torture didn’t work, and then he admitted in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last summer that he was broken by the North Vietnamese, so what are we to think here?”

That’s a good question, actually. Once we thought we knew the answer, as demonstrated by the three clips below (I appreciate the part of the second when McCain had no way of knowingly that he was comparing the Bush administration to Pol Pot).

There is no issue on which McCain should have more credibility than that of torture. As he reminded us thousands of time during the campaign, he has seen it, felt it, and lives daily with its effects. So here’s my plea to McCain:

Senator, the presidential campaign left us as confused about where you stand as it seemed to leave you. So please–and God knows, I can’t imagine asking again–let us hear from you now, before the nutballs can froth at the mouth for another day.

If your resounding defeat has restored your principles and your soul, let us know, so we can all start the process of rebuilding your reputation. And if you remain tortured by an inability to recognize the American values you once heralded, please, again, just go away.

Next day update: ThinkProgress and Huffington Post demonstrate how Limbaugh distorted McCain’s words, and offer video of Limbaugh’s quotes. We’re still waiting to hear from McCain.

Sunday update: In a headline that surely wasn’t accidental, the CNN Wire offers this: “Former CIA head slams Obama.” Get it? Head slams? The released memos show that slamming a suspect’s head against a wall was considered an appropriate means of interrogation. And we’re still waiting to hear from McCain.

Sunday update #2: What I didn’t know, and can barely believe considering how his admitted cluelessness about technology may have hurt him in the campaign, is that John McCain is now on Twitter.

If McCain really writing and sending the tweets (and I have doubts), that means there’s even less excuse for his silence about the torture memos. The most recent tweet, as of now, from 23 hours ago: “Chavez’s book–best cure for insomnia!!” Yes, with two exclamation points. Cute, but of course irrelevant.

Monday update: We now know that the CIA waterboarded suspects–in one case, apparently 183 times–and that the agency lied about it. You might want to check out this “tortured history” of the practice from NPR.

In the meantime, four minutes ago John McCain Twittered, “Turn on FOX News now! – Joe Lieberman and I are doing an interview with Jane Skinner.” He remains silent on the latest torture revelations, however. Maybe Skinner will ask him about it.

Tuesday update: Americans are split on torture, meaning they don’t know what to think, while paragon of evil Dick Cheney–who for most of us didn’t have any credibility even before he started his years-old campaign of lying about the Iraq War that would make him richer–continues to spew garbage. We seem to be hearing more from him now than when he was in office.

So, could McCain help? Maybe a little, if people listened closely enough. He finally did speak yesterday to Fox–somewhat contradicting himself with his own statement (basically saying, “Torture is bad; talking about torture is bad) and refusing to clarify it later. But clearly did say that the fact that America has tortured prisoners has helped our enemies, serving “as a recruiting tool for Islamic extremists.” Thanks, John.

Wednesday update: Today we find that Condi Rice and probably Dick Cheney approved the waterboarding. I wrote more than a month ago that Cheney should be tortured; now it appears that Rice should be, too. We’ve probably had presidential administrations that were as inept as the Bush people, but I wonder if we’ve ever had a group that was as evil.

Posted in History, Legal issues, Politics, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Death and dancing, faith and journalism

Posted by James McPherson on April 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking miles to get to–and then avoid–the best Inauguration of my lifetime

Posted by James McPherson on January 20, 2009

Some students and I left our hostel before 4:30 this morning to join the masses on the National Mall for the Presidential Inauguration. After quite a bit of walking, and getting conflicting information from two police officers (believing the second, who told us more what we hoped to hear–and who turned out to be wrong), we joined a large and rapidly growing crowd of people waiting to get into the mall at Third Street.

After an hour of standing in bitter cold, my lower back was already cursing me, and we knew we had at least another hour before the gates opened to (we hoped) let us go stand for another five hours or so before and during the Inauguration.

I quickly decided on an alternate plan, and as a result had pretty close to a perfect Inauguration Day. I gave the students some advice on how to protect themselves in case of a crowd surge (take up as much space as you can, keep your feet wide, hold onto one another) and fought my way to the back of the crowd.

I walked to 18th street, on the far side of the Washington Monument from the Capitol, where I knew that people without tickets could enter the mall. I also thought I’d make a detour to the Lincoln Memorial, since my brother had once recommended it as a great spot to take in a quiet sunrise.

I didn’t quite make it by sunrise, walking past the Vietnam Memorial in appropriately gray light. Hunched against the cold in my leather jacket, hat and hood, I noticed a woman taking photos of me as I walked past the monument. Perhaps she figured I was a vet (which I’m not), or just someone paying a bit of tribute to those who died in an earlier senseless war (which I was).

From there I went to the Lincoln Memorial, unfortunately still fronted by most of the massive stage that had held the performers for Sunday’s concert. Perhaps a hundred people already sat on the steps. I climbed past them into the Memorial, taking a couple of photos of the impressive seated Lincoln statue, then a couple of shots of the mall from the top of the steps.

I went next to the Korean War Memorial, my favorite of the three in the area that honor war dead. Next was the World War II Memorial, my least favorite of the three, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is as grandiose as the American memories of that war.

I turned into the mall itself, joining throngs of people headed forward–not to anywhere other than to a spot as close as they could get to the Capitol stage on which the Inauguration would take place. By now that was probably three-quarters of a mile away.

I stopped near an area where an NPR reporter was interviewing people about why they were there. I took her picture, and when glancing up toward the jumbotrons I noticed  the portable watchtowers. Tinted windows made it impossible to tell whether they held snipers or just watchers. A helicopter flew overhead, and two armed men stood on a nearby roof. The ceremony itself was still more than two hours away.

The space had quickly filled around me, and I realized that I no longer had any reason to be there. I had already experienced the crowd, and now realized that if I was going to wanted to watch it on television, I would rather do it with my wife (who had decided not to brave the cold and crowds).

After a brief stop at the Washington Monument to watch the area in front of me fill up, I hiked back toward the hostel. For my entire walk back, the streets were filled with an endless sea of people going the opposite direction. I also noted some irony in the fact that K Street–famous for lobbying abuses that helped Republicans lose Congress–was now filled with venders hawking Barack Obama-related merchandise.

After six miles or so of walking, and about five hours after I had rolled out of bed, I grabbed breakfast and plopped in front of the big-screen TV. My wife and I quickly were joined by others, and by the time the ceremony began more than two dozen people filled the room (which has 20 chairs).

At least three countries and several states were represented in the small room. About a third of them were black, and having lived in the South for a couple of years, I wasn’t at all surprised that some of them kept talking to the screen.

The youngest person in the room was a small energetic African American boy who blurted out “Barack Obama!” every time Obama’s image appeared on the screen, making the rest of us chuckle. The oldest may have been “Manny,” who immigrated from Iran 19 years ago and who couldn’t relax until he finally reached his daughter by cell phone to find that she was safe on the mall and hadn’t been crushed by the crowd.

We all watched the Inauguration intently, and several of us cried at various times (when Aretha sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” among others). When the National Anthem began, Manny began softly singing along. My wife and I joined in. And when the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said, “Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen,” most of us said, “Amen.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »