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 ‘presidential campaign’

No more silent nights: Sarah Palin and media share sentiments

Posted by James McPherson on December 23, 2008

Apparently Sarah Palin’s biggest regret of her recent bid to take over Dick Cheney‘s job was she was “not allowed” to spend “enough time with the media.”

Of course Palin has been everywhere in the media since the election, but was kept under largely under wraps during the campaign itself. John McCain talked more about “Joe the Plumber” than he did about his own running mate.

Yet despite the fact that both McCain and Palin complained about the press treatment of her during the campaign, Palin now wishes she had spent more time with the media. On that, I suspect most people in the media agree with her.

Still, now she’s getting almost as much of airtime as her northern neighbor, Santa Claus. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day she could wish us all a Merry Christmas by singing a favorite children’s holiday song about Rudolph (a name, interestingly, that originally meant “famous wolf shot from a helicopter”) while somebody butchers a reindeer in the background.

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

Fox, MSNBC offer semi-honest media bias; Barbara West, not so much

Posted by James McPherson on October 28, 2008

John McCain and Sarah Palin are spending much of their time bashing the mainstream media for bias, an argument that I frankly have little use for. Obviously I don’t disagree that media professionals are biased, and have written at length about that bias in my latest book (and to a lesser degree in the first one).

I do disagree that most of the media’s bias is liberal. After all, probably no modern politician has benefited more than McCain from friendly media treatment throughout his career, and I believe McCain chose Palin  largely because she was not well known but had a certain charm that might appeal to media folks willing to give her a pass on her relative lack of knowledge or experience. (I recommended back in June that he choose Palin, predicting that the resulting media coverage would be “superficial and glowing.”)

Unfortunately for McCain and Palin, the campaign at first chose to mostly hide her from the media, and the appearances they did permit (see the Katie Couric debacle) only served to highlight the candidate’s shortcomings while stunting her political and rhetorical gifts. That led to the goofy situation in which the campaign ended up trying to portray a random question from a college student as a “gotcha question” from the press. If Palin can’t handle a student’s question while she’s grabbing a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, let’s hope she’s never put in a position where Vladimir Putin can ask her a question at a state dinner.

Worse, because of Palin’s previous interviewing misadventures, now when she uses her pitbull-with-lipstick charm on the stump, she looks like a partisan hack. More people now view her unfavorably than favorably. No wonder even McCain’s buddy Joe Lieberman now says, “Thank God she’s not going to have to be president from day one.”

As for the guy at the head of the ticket press, McCain has proven not to be the macho character that the media helped create. He is neither a straight talker nor a stable influence.  Keep in mind, this is the same campaign that every day criticizes the media for “investigating Joe the Plumber,” but is incapable of uttering three sentences without blurting out the words “Joe the Plumber.” A McCain-Palin administration might be the first to eliminate the Department of Education while implementing a cabinet level position heading a new Department of Folksy Nicknames.

A lot of people complain about the obvious bias of Fox News toward conservatives or the obvious liberal bias MSNBC. I frankly don’t have a big problem with that. I think it’s good that we get a range of perspectives, which is why I force myself to watch both networks, listen to talk radio, and read (and link to) blogs of both liberals and conservatives–though admittedly the more thoughtful perspectives of National Review from the right and the Nation from the left are far more useful. Unfortunately far too many people on both sides rely only on messages from their own side.

I am more concerned about news people who try to hide their obvious biases. Far too many national news figures have previously worked for politicians (and though this is a guess, probably as many Republicans as Democrats). I’ve noted my problem with Andrea Mitchell–the wife of overrated economic apologist Alan Greenspan–working as an NBC reporter (despite the fact that she is less obviously partisan than some of her colleagues at the network). A more blatant, and much funnier, example came with Florida reporter Barbara West interviewing Joe Biden by using outlandish Republican talking-point questions that sounded as if they could have been provided to her by her husband, a former Republican media consultant.

Barbara the Talking Head did manage to get what she probably most wanted out of the interview: her own “Joe the Plumber” bit of attention, capped by appearances with Bill O’Reilly (who with no apparent sense of “pinhead” irony questioned her use of “buzzwords”) and on what may be the goofiest “news program” on television, Fox and Friends. The attention may have been too much for her employer, WFTV, which now blocks YouTube from carrying the interview after it received 1.2 million hits over the weekend.

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Lipstick, pigs, pit bulls & Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 9, 2008

“John McCain’s campaign mobilized its new ‘Palin Truth Squad’ Tuesday to accuse Barack Obama of comparing McCain’s running mate to a pig, and called on him to apologize.” That’s the first sentence of a ridiculous story that Fox News (surprise!) carried among its lead stories for much of yesterday.

The story is ridiculous because Obama of course never compared Palin to a pig. She has compared herself to a pit bull with lipstick, but let’s hope Obama never agrees with her–otherwise the “Palin Truth Squad” (as if that’s not an oxymoron) will be accusing him of calling her a bitch (you know, a pit bull could be female, and a female dog is …). A Wall Street Journal reporter also falsely asserted that Obama was referring to Palin with the “lipstick” comment.

Even the Fox story goes on to point out that Obama said: “John McCain says he’s about change, too, and so I guess his whole angle is, ‘Watch out George Bush.’ Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics … That’s not change. That’s just calling something the same thing, something different … But you know … you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You know, you can … wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years.”

So if Obama was calling anyone a pig with lipstick, he was referring to McCain, but actually he was referring more specifically to the Bush policies that McCain supports. You may remember–even if McCain seems to have forgotten, and even if most of the GOP would like to forget–that John “I-was-a-POW” McCain is the one at the head of the Republican ticket. Even Mike Huckabee agrees, much to Sean Hannity’s dismay. (See second video below.)

As the Fox story also points out, the “pig with lipstick” phrase “is common in Washington, D.C.” How common? Well, it turns out that John McCain used exactly the same phrase last October when talking about a health plan proposed by–you guessed it, Hillary Clinton. So should we assume that the McCain camp thinks Obama was referring to Palin because that’s what McCain meant about Clinton?

Furthermore, the term is the title of a book written MORE THAN TWO YEARS AGO by Torie Clarke, one of McCain’s former advisors and a Pentagon communications director–another of those Bush-McCain connections the campaign would now like you to forget. Politicians and others have used the phrase–which also appears overseas–for years. As Politico’s Ben Smith points out, Obama has used it since before 90 percent of Americans ever heard of Palin. Back in April Elizabeth Edwards used the same phrase to criticize McCain’s health care plan.

Fox and other McCainiacs making the charge are making fools of themselves with this issue for a couple of reasons. First, as demonstrated, the phrase is so common as to be a cliche’. Second, isn’t it conservatives who are always whining that liberals are “too sensitive” about language and prone to take things out of context?

With how the selection of Palin has energized the Republican base, it appears that McCain may have managed to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But he obviously still is not very confident, since when it comes to sad and desperate negative campaigning, his campaign is going whole hog. When will the McCain folks start focusing on issues? All together now: When pigs fly.

Below is the video of what Obama actually said, so you can judge it for yourself. And below that is Huckabee’s comment.

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

Blogcessive compulsive post #100

Posted by James McPherson on September 7, 2008

Back on Aug. 29 I said my posting frequency was probably about to decrease because I was starting school again, among other things. I then proceeded to post at least one entry per day for the next six consecutive days, giving me an overall streak of 13 days in a row.  This one makes 100 posts since I started the blog on April 22, or an average of almost exactly five per week (despite two multi-day trips out of town).

Obviously I enjoy it. But now that the political conventions are over, maybe I can stick to my previous plan. My wife will undoubtedly appreciate it. And maybe I can’t. There’s just so much interesting, stupid stuff involved with presidential campaigns. Thanks in part to the Internet, this one promises elements of the bizarre never previously seen.

Please keep checking back, and if there’s nothing new, check out the archives or links. The most popular posts can be found at the bottom right of this page, or just skim back and look for headlines that interest you. And thank you for reading, especially those of you who make the extra effort to provide your own perspectives via comments.

Posted in Education, History, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

McCain’s best potential debate line

Posted by James McPherson on August 2, 2008

The McCain campaign has released a new Web ad titled “The One,” featuring Barack Obama and Moses (as played by Charlton Heston). I found the ad mildly amusing, though of course virtually everything in it was taken out of context. The GOP obviously has figured out that with no meaningful issues, negative campaigning is their only chance of victory–that’s why almost all of their advertising talks far more about Obama than about McCain. It’s sad that the “straight-talk express” has run so far off the rails.

I do look forward to the debates, when McCain can tell Obama: “I knew Moses. Moses was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Moses.”

Below you can see the original version of that retort, from the 1988 vice presidential debate of two decades ago.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Act now”: a new way for candidates to reach the electorate

Posted by James McPherson on June 5, 2008

The fact that lately I’m going through one of my occasional bouts with insomnia does have one advantage. Seeing middle-of-the-night infomercials for everything from exercise equipment (Does anyone work out at 4 a.m.?) to get-rich-quick schemes to “Girls Gone Wild” videos reminded me of an idea that I recommended to several political organizations when this campaign season begin. Each of those organizations ignored my suggestion, so with the general election campaign now underway I’ll make it again here.

My idea might be especially helpful for the Barack Obama campaign (which has more money to spend on communication experiments, anyway) and its supporters to help counter the conservative spin machine. My idea would effectively promote and especially explain important progressive ideas more effectively than debates, regardless of the number of debates or their format. My proposal might also increase both the amount of money devoted to the cause and the number of people who make up the progressive base.  

I became more convinced of the potential value of my idea after having read Richard Viguerie’s book, America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power. Viguerie, as you undoubtedly know, managed to use direct mail to help build a massive conservative base while most progressives and the mainstream media remained largely unaware of the political shift taking place under their noses. Though the book is loaded with self-congratulatory promotion and contains a number of misleading statements, it also offers some relevant points about how effectively conservatives have used direct mail, talk radio and the Internet. In each case, progressives have played catch-up, and many progressive organizations now effectively use some the same tools.

In fact, as I’ve noted previously, Democrats have used the Internet more effectively in the past two presidential elections than Republicans have. My own forthcoming book documents how conservatives used media to gain power, but also how the tide may be shifting.

But my idea is for something that may be entirely new to politics, and is particularly relevant to Viguerie’s early discovery that the percentage of so-called conservatives was not static, but could be dramatically expanded if people were shown the relevance of various conservative messages to their own lives. The Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns both have also demonstrated that new voters can be brought into political activism. One way to continue that expansion and reach more prospective voters–a way that salespeople have been reaching them for years – would be through the use of a form of infomercials. My suggestion is to use these long-format television messages not to sell goods, but to promote important ideas.

Infomercials have a deservedly poor reputation, with far too many of them produced by slick hucksters. Yet they also have been extremely effective. Relatively cheap to produce and air, they now make up a huge percentage of the income of local television stations and small networks. They appear around the clock (as a professor I can attest that most college students–who make up perhaps the largest untapped progressive market–seem to watch them primarily after most of us have gone to bed). Obviously the half-hour messages appeal to both viewers and station owners.

I do not suggest that the spots should sell anything other than ideas (and definitely should avoid the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!”). They might or might not ask for contributions, in return for some item (a book, a video, an attractive patriotic print or a copy of the U.S. Constitution are possibilities that come to mind). Perhaps something might even be given away to those viewers who request it via a toll-free number, mail or e-mail. The contact information they submit with the request might then be used to expand traditional lists of donors and volunteers.

Each message should center on a coherent, specific issue. After all, a traditional advantage of mail or print media over television–the medium that Americans actually prefer to use–is that a 30- or 60-second spot is not enough time to develop a meaningful message. In fact, because progressives appeal to reason more than to fear, this is an area in which they should have an advantage over conservatives (who undoubtedly will start running their own long-format broadcast messages if the idea proves effective).

I offer three media examples that might help illustrate the feasibility of these types of messages:

  1. One of the hottest market trends in motion pictures has become the documentary (many of them political in nature), indicating that people will not only sit through a lengthy educational message, but in some cases will even pay to do so.
  2. Ross Perot gained credibility and support during his 1992 presidential campaign in large part because of his use of graphs and charts in televised messages, suggesting that Americans appreciate details when they care about an issue.
  3. A 30-minute message titled “A Time for Choosing” was broadcast repeatedly by the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Among other things, the piece strengthened unity among conservatives and helped convince a group of California businessmen that its star–Ronald Reagan–should run for governor. Obviously today there is no shortage of Hollywood stars who support progressive causes and who might be willing to participate in a new kind of campaign.

Though there undoubtedly are many other possible themes, I’ve come up with 25 potential ideas for messages that come to mind for the Obama campaign or other progressive groups (some the campaign itself might try to stay away from, but supporters could develop):

  1. How individuals can participate in and influence the political process
  2. The Supreme Court
  3. The truth about the USA-PATRIOT Act
  4. The real John McCain–or the two John McCains
  5. The real costs of the Iraq War
  6. Where military (and/or anti-terrorism) funding goes
  7. Free trade issues
  8. Poverty in America (including the working poor)
  9. Voting rights issues
  10. Government corruption
  11. Corporations and the GOP
  12. Energy policy
  13. Environmental issues
  14. The status of women in America
  15. Truths about abortion
  16. Civil rights
  17. Immigration truths
  18. The Imperial Presidency
  19. Education and the truth about “No Child Left Behind”
  20. Voting machines (including reasons for the use of paper ballots)
  21. Campaign finance
  22. The American tax structure (and perhaps how the IRS focuses enforcement efforts on “the little guy”)
  23. Christ’s call to help the needy (countering the Religious Right)
  24. Social Security
  25. The Health Care Crisis in America (One approach might be to compare American health care with that of other nations–perhaps the nations where many Americans now buy their drugs or have their surgeries.)

My suggestion would be to produce and try out one or two messages in a limited geographical area. If I’m right, the response should then prompt the development and airing of more messages, distributed more often over a wider area. The messages also would go on YouTube. And I’ll have something else to watch at 4 a.m.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »