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 ‘Spokane’

Rocking the cradle for political change

Posted by James McPherson on October 12, 2008

Last night I had the honor of leading a post-play discussion after Whitworth University’s second night of “The Cradle Will Rock.” The pro-union musical satire, written in 1937 by Marc Blitzstein as part of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, is set during the Great Depression and seems particularly timely considering events of the past couple of weeks.

As demonstrated in the 1999 film by the same title (partially fictionalized, which is unfortunate because the reality is compelling enough), the government tried to block the first performance of the play. But some creativity on the part of director Orson Welles (also one of the key figures in both radio and film history, of course) and others involved managed to circumvent the attempted ban–while demonstrating the power of both art and a unified commitment to action.

As I have noted previously, Christians adhere to a wide range of religious views, and carry out the perceived tenants of their faith in many ways. Nonetheless I was impressed by the fact that a Christian university theatre group would offer such a bold play, which happened to open while the university’s board of trustees was on campus.

Impressed, but not surprised–the Whitworth theatre program, under the guidance of Diana Trotter (who directed this play), Rick Hornor and Brooke Kiener, consistently takes on tough topics ranging from patriotism to religious hypocrisy to genocide–while also going beyond the Whitworth stage to actively engage local schools and the community as a whole. The cast (aided by the piano of music professor Ben Brody) did an excellent job with the suddenly all-too-real play, evoking laughter and tears, and reminding me yet again of why I’m so proud to be associated with the university.

In another coincidental and somewhat ironic note, the play openly criticizes the news media, and was performed in Cowles Auditorium–a campus building named after a member of the same family that owns the local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review. That’s the same newspaper that last week cut 60 more members of its staff (the fourth staff reduction in the eight years I’ve been here), which publisher Stacy Cowles justified as a “pre-emptive strike” against losses that have not yet occurred. The Spokesman-Review also continued its conservative pro-business streak of electoral endorsements last week, favoring John McCain four years after being among the minority of American newspapers that endorsed George W. Bush. The newspaper’s recent actions again provide support for my argument that, for a number of reasons, today’s mainstream media are more conservative than liberal.

To quote the movie’s tagline, “Art is never dangerous–unless it tells the truth.” The same might be said of journalism. If you happen to be close enough to Spokane to do so, you should catch the Whitworth production at 2 p.m. today, or next Friday or Saturday (Oct. 17 and 18) at 8 p.m.

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

Academics, journalism, politics and getting away

Posted by James McPherson on August 11, 2008

As of 3 a.m. today, I’m back from Chicago, where I attended the national convention for the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication.  I also spent a week away from the Internet, checking my e-mail only once during that time (meaning most of my day until now has been devoted to catching up). I read a newspaper only once during the week (taking a day-old New York Times on the train) and caught only brief hotel lobby snatches of television news. Occasional breaks from the media and technology are among the most precious gifts we can give ourselves, part of why I don’t carry a cell phone.

For a political junkie, I picked a good week to be disconnected. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain picked a VP nominee and I’m back in time to hear George Bush bluster about Russia engaging in criminally insane American-style foreign policy.

Most of the news coverage seems to have been devoted to the Olympics, about which I care very little. I haven’t yet seen a single event on television, and have no idea of the medal count. I have great respect for the athletes–more so for those who compete from nations with limited resources–but am turned off by the hype, the money, the cheating, and the reliance on technology that surround the Olympics. It’s enough for me to deal with all of those things in the political races.

Like most such events, the AEJMC convention was a mix of good and bad:

  • Getting to hear from and talk to some of the smartest, funniest and nicest people in my field, including chats with old friends, enthusiastic young grad students, and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who was given AEJMC’s First Amendment Award.
  • Hearing from people who were seriously underprepared or who think they’re much smarter than they are, and spending too much time chatting with people who were looking over my shoulder to see if someone more important (in terms of their personal career enhancement) came into view.
  • Being reminded that few of the hundreds of presentations at this convention–or almost any academic convention–matter to more than a half-dozen people, or will influence anything beyond possibly the presenters’ tenure or promotion possibilities. Even bloggers’ audiences are bigger and may care more about what they read, though I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.
  • Seeing copies of my latest book being sold, and being asked to sign it.
  • An afternoon visit to Navy Pier and its stained glass museum, and a sightseeing tour of the waterfront.
  • An amazing view from our 38th-floor hotel room window, and incredibly high prices for everything else associated with the hotel.
  • Nice people on buses and on the street but crabby people in the hotel, in restaurants and driving cabs (exactly the opposite of what I expected).
  • Amtrak, which we took to and from Chicago from Spokane. Admittedly no one should spend 73 hours on trains in a one-week period. Still, I’m a supporter of the idea of Amtrak, and have always thought we should subsidize train travel more heavily (as we already do with air and especially car travel, though those subsidies are better hidden). But Amtrak doesn’t do much for its own case. The first train was filthy and hours late, and far too many Amtrak employees come across as embittered small-town cops or bad junior high teachers. Amtrak could learn a lot from Southwest Airlines.
  • The reminder that even though I generally prefer the West over the East and small towns over large cities, Chicago keeps getting better in my eyes while the seeming hellhole of Shelby, Mont., gets worse. Admittedly both reactions are based on limited experience (in Shelby I never got farther than 50 feet from the train, nor had any desire to do so considering the locals I encountered there), the same kind of experience that leads me to think kindly of such wide-ranging locales as Seattle; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Tucson, Ariz.; Raleigh, N.C.; St. Petersburg, Fla., Madison, Wisc.; Brookings, Ore.; and Moscow, Idaho; while having generally negative impressions of Los Angeles; Phoenix; Cincinnati; Richmond, Va.; Wilson, N.C.; Wickenburg, Ariz.; Ogden, Utah; Forks, Wash.; and Twin Falls, Idaho. Like most Americans, I have mixed feelings or am indifferent about many other places, including the hugely popular “san” cities of San Francisco, San Diego and San Antonio. My views about any of these places shouldn’t matter to anyone else, though unfortunately my reasoning is based on the same kind of experience that will prompt most people who are clueless enough not to have already made up their minds about how to vote in the November presidential election.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Blog “power”: exercises in self-delusion

Posted by James McPherson on August 3, 2008

There are all sorts of good reasons to blog, such as blowing off steam, exploring ideas, checking assumptions, sharing cool videos, correcting the mainstream media, communicating with a small group of like-minded individuals, and providing a bit of context on issues about which the blogger happens to be knowledgeable.

One apparent problem, however, is that too many bloggers believe that other people actually much care what they think. Political bloggers seem to be especially susceptible to such delusions of grandeur. The fact is, in most cases, we bloggers just don’t matter very much (and anonymous respondents to blogs matter even less).

A few blogs have become significant (inspiring hope among many others) but the vast majority of blogs and Web pages have limited appeal, limited range, and, most importantly, a very limited audience. Look closely (if you can stand to do so) at the comments of even blog posts with hundreds of responses and you’ll tend to see three to six people using the forum to talk to–are argue with–each other. The same three to six people, some of whom choose to stay happily misinformed about most issues, will be the ones most likely to comment on the next day’s post at the same site.

Mainstream media sometimes pay a bit of attention to a topic or organization that seems odd or out of the mainstream, occasionally giving issues or groups more credibility than they’re probably due, before skipping blithely on to something else. Pro-Hillary Clinton PUMAs are a recent example. Unfortunately, some of the PUMAs seem to be buying their own hype, regularly pointing out that there are more than 230 pro-PUMA sites.

I don’t dispute that number, but I also don’t find it particularly impressive. Consider this: If each of 240 sites has a hundred unique fans (that is, counting only folks not counted on similar like-thinking sites)–and based on my perusal of several such sites, I doubt there are that many unique visitors–that makes for a total of 24,000 total PUMAs committed enough to the cause to regularly participate in the process. For context, that’s a couple thousand fewer than live in Marshalltown, Iowa, or about the same as the number of people who work in the Pentagon.

Even if I’m way off, and each of those 240 sites has a thousand unique and committed fans, that adds up to 240,000 PUMAs. That number is probably lower than the number of people who this year will cast ballots for John McCain in and around three or four counties surrounding Spokane, Washington, the city in which I happen to live–and to the chagrin of many on the east side of this state, those McCain voters here won’t keep all of the state’s electoral votes from going for Obama.

I’m glad the PUMAs and various political sites are out there, providing the opportunity for those of us who care to learn some new things and giving the bloggers and their respondents an outlet for expression. But let’s not get carried away with thinking that more than a handful of bloggers–if any–will even remotely influence how most of us vote or live our lives.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »