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 ‘September 11’

‘What’s happenin’ here?’ The news ain’t exactly clear: How to keep up with what’s going on, and why

Posted by James McPherson on December 2, 2008

I got a kick out of it a few months ago when former student and follow blogger Grady Locklear, wrote in a post that I seemed “to check in with every news source under the sun on a daily basis.” I don’t, of course, though I do follow the news more closely than most people. After all, it’s my job.

But if you’re an American citizen who cares about such things as freedom, self-government and democracy, paying attention to the news is your job, too. Fortunately, it’s also not all that difficult, though the news media don’t always make it as simple as it could be. It’s not totally your fault that you probably know more about Natalie Holloway than about NAFTA.

For example, a quick current events question: What outbreak of violence during the past week killed the most people? I’d be willing to bet that most folks would answer with the terrorist attacks in India. But they would be wrong, even though CNN, the New York Times and other news organizations still are focusing heavily on it. Other lead CNN stories today discuss genocide in Iraq, a much larger historical example of mass bloodshed and the possibility of future mass murder, but neither of those is related to the past week’s deadliest outbreak of violence, either.

Though I seem to get a lot of email from bankers, princes and government officials in Nigeria, apparently no one was twittering the violence there where election-related clashes between Christians and Muslims killed hundreds. I don’t think the story was in my local paper at all. CNN had a story Saturday, but unlike the India story today it is already “old news.”

To find anything about Nigeria on CNN today, you have to go to “world news” and then “Africa” (where you also can find a story about cholera killing hundreds of people in perhaps the world’s most screwed-up nation, Zimbabwe.and the New York Times carried it on an inside page.  On the New York Times site, again you must go to “world news,” where you can find a story about Myanmar’s government policies contributing to thousands of AIDS deaths but again nothing about Nigeria unless you click into the “Africa” section. There you’ll find it, if you’ve bothered to go that far.

Contrast that with al-Jazeera. It also leads with stories about India, and in fact there are a number of things that make the India story particularly important (links to terrorism, tensions between nuke nations India and Pakiston, the fact that every time I make a phone call for computer support the call is answered by someone in India, etc.). But al-Jazeera’s front page also has a story about the violence in Nigeria–along with important stories about Congo, Thailand, North Korea, Israel, Romania, Afganistan, Libya, Kuwait, South Africa, Venezuala, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia (the Georgia near Russia, not the one hosting the never-ending Sarah Palin road show).

In fact, American news media offer us far less international news than they once did, at a time when world events are perhaps more important than ever before. Foreign bureaus have been slashed, and many news organizations are letting their competitors pick up the slack–which might be fine, if more of us were reading a broader range of news sources. Most of us, however, rely on just a few. Worse, most of us rely on television, the single worst mass medium for provided context with the news.

So, back to how I follow the news. The first thing I do when I get up and start to get ready for work is flip on CNN, just to see if anything of major importance is happening (a habit I started with 9/11, after a colleague called me to tell me to turn on the television). I usually read my local paper with breakfast, then go to work. I listen to NPR on my way in, and frequently listen to conservative talk radio on my way home (except on the rare occasions I get out early enough to catch “Marketplace”).

At various times during the day, as I have short breaks, I then check in with other media. I always skim the headlines at CNN and the New York Times. If I have extra time, I’ll check Fox News and the Huffington Post, to get the extremes on both political sides. And then if something from any of those sites intrigues me, I’ll follow a thread, looking for other stories on the same topic. If the topic is politics, I’ll check out Real Clear Politics. If it’s international news I’ll check al-Jazeera, the Christian Science Monitor and/or the Guardian.

At night I typically watch some of “The Newshour” on PBS, and might check in with CNN again and/or Fox News or MSNBC. Or maybe I’ll read part of a magazine: I currently subscribe to The Nation, The Progressive Ode and Time, though I vary them at times as subscriptions run out or I get good deals. I generally avoid the whirling mess of irrelevant images and video news releases provided by local television news except to check the weather or occasional sports highlights. If I’m up late enough, I’ll tune into “The Daily Show” and perhaps “The Colbert Report,” both of which offer some interesting takes on the news.

To your right, you’ll also see links to a lot of other news sources. Most of those I check in with fairly rarely, but I try to hit each one–along with a variety of bloggers from various perspectives–once a month or so. Sometimes I add or delete a link, and your preferences may vary. The most important thing, as I’ve written before, is to get your news from a variety of sources.

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Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

Posted by James McPherson on September 28, 2008

Here is the complete 20-part series chronicling the history of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, perhaps the most astoundingly stupid presidential event in American history.

—————

Axis of evil

For sake of definition

Can’t beat the devil

—————

God’s soldiers attack

Saudi pilots slam towers

Time to hit Iraq

—————

They ripped out our heart

We must avenge them all

Chickenhawks are thrilled

_______

 Three thousand were killed

Nine-eleven is the call

We win at Wal-Mart

———

Yes, we must attack

We can’t find bin Laden’s cave

So we’ll bomb Iraq

_______

Bray it long and loud

Bush’s war will protect us

From a mushroom cloud

_______

Why attack Saddam?

Weapons of mass destruction

None there? We’ll be damned

_______

Please world wish us well

And God bless America

Killing infidels

_______

Flags throughout the land

Jingoistic fervor reigns

Don a black armband

_______

Let’s not be out-Foxed

Lapel flags in great demand

How about those Sox?

_______

Don’t count on the press

To learn what’s fact or fiction

The real truth? Just guess

_______

Soldiers bravely toil

Thousands come home draped with flags

From their war for oil

_______

 God save George the King

Chinese car magnets for troops

Who don’t mean a thing

_______

War is hell, he said

As if he had ever been

Your kids go instead

_______

Shake bittersweet Rice

From a sheltered brittle Bush

Harvest has its price

_______

Watch for terrorists

Those who’d offer civil rights

Must be communists

_______

They’ve not hit again

Three-fourths as good as Clinton

Check back in oh-ten

_______

Now the country’s broke

Try to change the rationale

Use mirrors and smoke

_______

Go to war we can

If we must we must, they say

What about Iran?

_______

Politicians’ game

Spin the bottle or the truth

Ending up the same

_______

 

 

Posted in History, Journalism, Poetry, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 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 »

Folk music, storytelling and the Bush administration’s “935 lies”

Posted by James McPherson on May 27, 2008

Utah Phillips is gone and another of my favorite songwriter/storytellers, Rosalie Sorrels, is a mostly retired 74-year-old great-grandmother. Of course there are other folk singers and storytellers, some much better known than those two. Pete Seeger just turned 89, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down much. A combination of government malfeasance, coffeehouses and assorted free thinkers and semi-hippies of all ages probably will assure the survival of the genre. But it’s doubtful that any will characterize the West or the labor movement–How many today knows what a Wobbly is?–in the same way as Utah or Rosalie

We need their ilk. Slaves, civil Rights leaders and others have long known that when you’re singing it’s more difficult to be fearful. And politics is one of those things–maybe the main thing–made for the saying, “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” So in memory of Utah Phillips, in a music video you won’t see on MTV (come to think of it, that now includes pretty much any video), here is a link to comic Harry Shearer’s “935 Lies,” based on the Center for Public Integrity’s Iraq War Card project.

That project documented 935 false statements about Iraq from George Bush  and seven other top administration officials in the two years following September 11, 2001. “Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses,” note the authors of the project.

Shearer is best known for his work on The Simpsons, This is Spinal Tap, Saturday Night Live, For Your Consideration and A Mighty Wind.

Posted in Media literacy, Music, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »