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 ‘Spokesman-Review’

My breakfast with George Will, and correcting his errors

Posted by James McPherson on October 16, 2012

Today I had the opportunity to have breakfast with noted conservative political commentator and baseball fan George Will, someone I’ve both admired and criticized at times in the past. OK, saying I had breakfast with him is stretching things: In truth, it was me and several hundred other people eating breakfast, while Will addressed the crowd and then answered a few questions as part of an event hosted by my university.

I wore my best suit and sat at a table sponsored by my local newspaper, chatting before and after the speech with the publisher, the business manager, and and a few editors of the Spokesman-Review. I met Will during a reception after the event, and I’m sure he didn’t remember my name 15 seconds later. Nor should he have.

As would be expected from someone as intellectual, witty and well-paid (typically $40,000+ per speech) as Will, he gave an interesting speech about politics, well-illustrated by baseball anecdotes. Several of the lines I’d heard before, but they were well-delivered, often funny and greeted with appreciation. He didn’t come across as a big fan of Mitt Romney, which might not be surprising considering Romney’s inconsistencies and the fact that Will’s wife has worked for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry during this campaign.

Still, Will got some things wrong in his speech. For one thing, Will offered the common conservative complaint about inheritance taxes. You can take all your money and blow it in Las Vegas, and that’s fine with government–but you can’t give it to your kids, he said. And of course that’s a blatant mischaracterization long promoted by “death tax” folks. In fact, if you choose to toss away all your money in a casino, the casino will pay taxes. Likewise, you can give away anything you want, to anyone–but the recipient should expect to pay taxes on the gift. Despite what Will and others would have you believe, it’s not the giver who is taxed; it’s the receiver.

And most of the time, if we’re talking about inheritance taxes, even the recipient isn’t significantly affected. Only the estates of millionaires like Will actually get taxed at all by the federal government–a fact that would Founding Father and “Common Sense” author Thomas Paine would find appalling. It is ironic that so many Will-style conservatives who promote “equality of opportunity” have no problem with the children of millionaires starting out with little chance of having personal stupidity bringing them down to the economic level of the smartest and hardest-working children born into poverty.

Will also criticized the format of the presidential debates, and I happen to agree with him in that regard. These tightly regulated political events are not “debates,” and (like me and many others) Will suggested he would like to see Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in which each candidate talks, uninterrupted, at length. But then Will added something like, “Can you imagine either of these guys being able to string together coherent paragraphs for an hour?” Many in the audience chuckled at the implication that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney would be smart enough to keep up with someone like, say, George Will.

But in fact, I can imagine it. In fact, though it will never happen because of cowardly party handlers, I love to imagine such a scenario. Neither of the presidential candidates got where he is by being an idiot, and having the opportunity to speak for an hour or so at a time–which both men have undoubtedly done numerous times in their noteworthy pasts–and then to answer an opponent’s comments might actually force each to stray from pre-scripted jokes and talking points. Obama might even prepare (though after his first debate performance this year, I assume he’s done a bit more prep for tonight’s version).

Will’s mischaracterizations of inheritance taxes and of the intellects of Obama and Romney are common ones, of course, and today’s errors were pretty minor compared to some in his past. And to be fair, someone who spends as much time in the public eye as Will does is bound to be wrong or to speak too flippantly some of the time. I’ve criticized him in a book (something I didn’t bring up today) for a couple of things: helping Ronald Reagan practice for a debate with Jimmy Carter (using a stolen Carter briefing book) and then praising Reagan for his performance after the debate, and for repeating a myth that Al Gore (rather than a supporter of George H.W. Bush) was the first to “use Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis” in 1988.

I started reading Will’s column when I was a kid, and have always admired his intellect, his use of the language and his love and understanding of baseball–but frankly I thought he went a bit nuts during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, letting his disgust over Clinton’s personal behavior color his perspective on more political issues. Since then he seems to have reverted to his more rational self, and I do enjoy reading his column and listening to him on Sunday mornings. But I never forget that he’s every bit as biased as I am, and therefore prone to errors that support his own side.

And even when we’re not factually wrong, sometimes we’ll just disagree. For example, Will criticized early voting, because he misses the civic exercise of going to a polling place on election day. I miss it, too–but I’d rather have more people voting while diminishing the prospect of having an “October surprise” swing an election. The old system favors financially secure conservatives, while early voting aids those who work long hours. I wish Will–a lifelong fan of perhaps the ultimate working-class team, the Chicago Cubs–had more empathy for their struggles.

Next day: After the breakfast Will went on to San Francisco to provide debate commentary for ABC. Afterward he declared Obama the winner and indicated that the debate was far, far better than what his words of that morning indicated he expected: “It was a very good fight. I have seen every presidential debate in American  history since the floor of Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the  best.”

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Local media zombies: Producing news fit for a museum

Posted by James McPherson on April 11, 2009

However much marijuana Woody Harrelson may have just smoked, I don’t believe his claim that he mistook a photographer for a zombie. On the other hand, if he were talking about dying local news organizations–which stumble on zombie-like as if they were already dead–Harrelson might have a case.

A few hours from now I’ll take part in a panel discussion about “the changing media landscape in the Inland Empire.” The 3 p.m. panel will be sponsored by (and held at) Auntie’s Books, the best independent bookstore in the Inland Northwest, and is one of many events during this year’s Eastern Washington University Get Lit! literary festival.

For today’s forum I’ll join editors from our local daily and weekly, someone from our independent community-owned radio station, and a local magazine editor. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know I won’t be an optimistic voice on the panel.

Coincidentally, today happens to be the one-year anniversary of the re-opening of the Newseum, called “the world’s most interactive museum.” Despite some deserved criticism, the “news museum” had a successful first year. The Newseum may have been about the only success associated with news in the past year, and even it suffered staff cuts. On the other hand, as noted with yesterday’s post, who hasn’t? One of my biggest criticisms of the museum is that the $20 admission price is too high–providing yet another barrier between the reasons for a free press and the people who would most benefit from robust news media.

Because the media have done such a poor job of making a case for themselves, and for the First Amendment, most Americans don’t care if the media zombies disappear. Those who listen to talk radio or Fox News may even cheer the deaths–failing to recognize that those zombies may be all that stands between democracy and even more dangerous monsters.

Next day update: The panel got a good turnout and the time flew by, with thoughtful participation from the audience. It included one of my current students, two former students, one of my favorite grad school professors, assorted community activists, a few colorful and passionate locals (including one who kept referring to the Inlander as “the Islander”) and academics and students from at least five area colleges–the kind of mix that makes Spokane a far more interesting city than I imagined before arriving here nine years ago.

Thanks to any of you who participated (even if by just showing up), to the Spokesman-Review’s Ryan Pitts for moderating (and for gracefully handling the insults–some deserved, some not–aimed at his employer), and especially to Jasmine Davey at Auntie’s and Get Lit! coordinator Dani Ringwald for putting it all together.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

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 »

The real McCoy: Conservative cartoonist shows contempt for Americans

Posted by James McPherson on November 8, 2008

I have never understood the appeal of cartoonist Glenn McCoy to anyone other than a Sean Hannity fan, and McCoy (whose schoolyard-bully scribbles regularly appear in my own local newspaper) has for some time been one of my least-favorite cartoonists.

That’s not because he is a conservative–after all, one of my favorite cartoonists is the Arizona Republic’s Steve Benson–but because McCoy regularly combines a mean-spirited partisan approach with twisted logic and a notable ignorance (or willful disregard) of history. Americans and the news media are ignorant enough about their history without the distortions of the likes of Hannity and McCoy, whose Nov. 6 cartoon well demonstrates his shortcomings.

In that cartoon, Barack Obama stands holding a newspaper with the headline, “OBAMA WINS.” Next to Obama, Abraham Lincoln’s statute is thinking, “I guess you CAN fool all of the people all of the time.” Think about that for a moment, and then let’s first address the logical problems with McCoy’s argument.

  1. Most people are not Americans.
  2. While the presidential campaign was longer than most, two years hardly represents “all of the time”–and even many Obama supporters disagreed with some of his thinking (and pointed out his misstatements).
  3. Many Americans did not vote at all, either because they were not qualified to do so or because of apathy.
  4. About 53 percent of the those did vote cast ballots for Obama, meaning almost half of voters preferred someone else.
  5. Even many of those who voted for Obama would have preferred someone else: Hillary Clinton, Bob Barr, Mike Huckabee, or any number of others. But faced with the only real choice left–Obama or McCain–they rejected the candidate who represented the party blamed for many of the current problems we face, and instead chose the candidate who most represented hope, optimism and the likelihood of change. Voters did the same thing, of course, when they chose Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Outside of the logical arguments, McCoy also demonstrates an ignorance of American history. After all, this isn’t the first time Americans had elected a little-known candidate out of Illinois who:

  • opposed the war his country waged
  • was known largely for his oratory skill
  • served a brief and undistinguished stint in the Illinois legislature
  • ran for president after a mere two years in Congress.

The war that candidate opposed was the Mexican-American War, and the candidate was Abraham Lincoln.

Finally, McCoy demonstrates a partisanship that spills over into contempt for the American electoral system and the majority of voters who participated in it. Just two days after Americans had demonstrated–again–their desire to get past win-at-all-costs partisanship in the hope that their government might actually focus on the issues that matter most, McCoy chose to act like a spoiled child and call those voters idiots for voting the way they did.

Unfortunately, many newspapers–including the Spokesman-Review, which I read daily and which was among the minority of American newspapers that endorsed John McCain–chose to carry the cartoon on their editorial pages, demonstrating their own disregard for logic, history and the electorate. Such decisions make it somewhat easier to understand why the Spokesman and other papers have undergone serious financial problems, and why their very existence is threatened. The same editorial decisions also make it tougher for many of us to care whether those publications disappear.

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

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 »