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 ‘talk radio’

Dead Air (America): Liberal talk radio alternative going silent

Posted by James McPherson on January 22, 2010

Air America is dead. The 6-year-old radio network set up to combat right-wing talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and which in the past provided an outlet for political voices for folks such as Al FrankenEd Schultz and Rachel Maddow, will cease programming today.

As the New York Times reports, “The closing did not come as a surprise.” Management problems and a bad economic climate for media hurt the network from the start, and even the best programs on Air America never provided much of an “alternative” to anything for most liberals. I suspected from the start that talk radio, like direct mail, would work better for conservatives, not just because of their head start but also because both of those media rely heavilty on the emotional appeals of fear and anger. As I wrote in my most recent book, conservatives have used fear and anger better than liberals have, though the Web has “helped” liberals learn more about the those emotions.

I was glad that Spokane had an Air America affiliate, KPTQ, when some larger cities did not, and I occasionally listened. But I and many others much prefer news over opinion and reasoned arguments over the shrill harangues (about the opposition) and nauseating fawning (toward anyone in agreement) that has long characterized talk radio.

With Fox News, MSNBC and the Internet now providing too much of that same sort of programming offered by talk radio, and with cheaper independent local stations such as my local favorite, KYRS, also picking up some of the slack, I’m not sure Air America served much of a purpose except perhaps as a farm club for MSNBC. Incidentally, Maddow was my favorite host; I liked her better before she moved to MSNBC and became more like Keith Olbermann.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Homeland insecurity: DHS chief apologizes for something Bush appointee did right

Posted by James McPherson on April 16, 2009

Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano felt obligated to apologize to veterans today, reflecting a remarkable shift in national politics. We no longer have a presidential administration that is incapable of apologizing for–or even admitting–obvious blunders (though of course, “We’re sorry we were wrong about the weapons” won’t bring back thousands of dead Iraqi children). Instead, we have an administration that apologizes when it has done nothing wrong.

The apology came in reaction to a Department of Homeland Security report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The American Legion, various ill-informed bloggers, talk radio hosts, Fox News (surprise!) and others immediately and misleadingly feigned offense (while Fox also offered Web page front-page segments about”Porn Stars and Puppies,” “Bubble Baths in Tiaras,” and “10 Cuddly Cougars“).

Many conservatives have taken offense because Homeland Security has been doing part of its job–assessing threats. Perhaps I’ve forgotten, but I don’t remember similar complaints from conservatives about reports that cited threats from left-wing extremism in 2001 or in March of this year. Furthermore, I also haven’t seen any of the whiners point out the fact that the latest report came from a division headed by Roger Mackin, a Bush-administration appointee who contributed more than $4,500 to Republicans during the last presidential campaign.

Critics falsely complain that the report demonizes veterans while targeting virtually anyone who opposes abortion or illegal immigration. I fact, it mentions abortion exactly twice, once in a footnote and once in a historical note. For the record, the first reference states: “Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”

The other, historical, note states in full: “Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage. During the 1990s, these issues contributed to the growth in the number of domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups and an increase in violent acts targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, banks, and infrastructure sectors.”

Immigration gets a bit more attention in the report, though again mostly in a historical context. And anyone with even a modest knowledge of history should be able to recognize that immigrants (legal and illegal) have been a common target of hate groups throughout history (and throughout the world). The supposed “anti-veteran” comments are equally weak, despite Napolitano’s need to apologize today.

The key point is this: Saying that some hate groups use abortion and immigration to justify their actions is in no way synonymous with saying that anyone opposed to abortion or illegal immigration is a terrorist. That would be like saying that because some terrorists are Muslims, all Muslims are terrorists. And I know that conservatives would never suggest such a thing.

Incidentally, the Obama administration should apologize for something else that it did do today, related to terrorism: It announced that CIA torturers will never be prosecuted.

Sunday update: Something else the Obama administrations should apologize for is announcing that it will keep Bush administration secrets regarding domestic spying. Unlike the DHS report that has people up in arms, that electronic spying, by either administration, is something that should worry all of us.

Posted in Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 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 »

Catholics and conservatives campaign against mythical threats

Posted by James McPherson on February 19, 2009

You might think that with various economic crises, a housing crisis, worsening unemployment, rampaging monkeys and race issues, there would be enough to fear in America today. Obviously if you thought that you’d be wrong. A couple of days ago I wrote about Sarah Palin (who apparently pays taxes as if she were a Democrat) grabbing a bit of face time on Fox News (the sort of time she has billed Alaskan taxpayers for in the past)  to warn against the Fairness Doctrine. Now Time reports that Catholics are waging a lobbying effort and national postcard campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act.

The problem, of course, is that there is no such Freedom of Choice Act, just as–despite the wails of right-wing fear-mongers (including some who cloak themselves at “think tanks“–there is virtually no chance of the Fairness Doctrine ever returning. So why the campaign against them? Mostly, in my view, to keep “the base” (particularly the more ignorant parts of the base) constantly fearful. The Fairness Doctrine and the Freedom of Choice Act seem to be just the latest monsters under the conservative bed, keeping key parts of the base shivering under the covers.

As I wrote in my most recent book, conservatives gained power in part because they were so effective at engaging in scare tactics. Fox News and conservative talk radio often get the credit for bringing Republicans to power, but in fact direct mail was the most important medium in the conservative resurgence. Direct mail was most effective because, like the Internet today, it could reach people one-on-one and scare them with threats of what they feared most, even if the scaring often veered into exaggeration or outright dishonesty. It also was largely ignored by Democrats and by the mainstream media (and scholars of media and politics, for that matter), which is why so many of them were surprised by increasing conservative influence that often seemed to run counter to what most Americans said they believed.

Apparently one can’t have too many threatening bed monsters, so I’ve decided to do my bit to help conservatives in their cause. With my blessing, they can now start warning their followers about the following seven fictional threats that Congress may consider:

The First Peoples Trump Trump Act: Now that Native Americans have proven to be better at business than Donald Trump, all gambling properties in America–along with the entire states of Florida, Nevada and Arizona–will be given back to the Indians. Texas, New Mexico and California will be given back to Mexico. The non-gambling portion of New Jersey will be given to anyone willing to take it.

The Workers of Color Act: If two people want the same job, that job will automatically go to the person with the darkest skin. The exception is in the case of a conservative black person, who will be treated under this act as if s/he were white.

The Make Up for Slavery Act: Once promised “40 acres and a mule,” the descendents of slaves will finally be granted those awards, with interest. Because of the state of the economy, the interest will include the entire states of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, both Carolinas, and any part of Virginia ever owned by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

The Congressional Clone Act: Any clone created from the DNA of a member of Congress will automatically be entitled to claim that Congressional seat when the original holder dies. Once Republicans have lost the remaining seats they now hold in Congress, the CCA will be the only means by which a new Congressman or Senator can be appointed, except via normal elections.

The ACORN Elections Act: Since normal elections will still take place, this bill will do away with the Federal Elections Commission and put ACORN in charge of all electoral activities at the federal and state levels.

The Test-Tube Voter Act: Any person who develops out of an implanted embryo that might instead have been used for stem cell research shall be denied all voting rights on account of selfishness.

The Happy Cheerful Gay Marriage Act: No person shall be allowed to marry unless both parties seem appropriately happy. Any two creatures judged to be appropriately happy can marry, regardless of sexual orientation, race, age or species. “Appropriate happiness” will be judged by a Congressional subcommittee chaired by Barney Frank–or his clone.

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Media literacy, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Kill your TV–or at least put it in a coma–before the government kills it for you

Posted by James McPherson on February 5, 2009

Congress has again delayed the required switch to digital, giving many of the elderly, the young, the poor and the clueless a few more months to switch to cable or to get the converter boxes that they hope will let them get a signal after the switch is made. The delay, unwanted by many, also will continue to burden broadcasters with the costs of transmitting both digital and analog signals–while to some degree reaffirming the generally positive news that traditional Democratic constituencies have gained some power while traditional Republican constituencies have lost some.

I am troubled by the fact that articles keep reassuring us that “People who pay for cable or satellite TV service will be unaffected by the change,” a claim that may be untrue. At the same time, the issue reminds us that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for more of us to kill our televisions for a while. killtv

In the days before the wonders of the Internet or the curse of talk radio, I once went from being a newspaper editor who read three or four newspapers every day and watched a lot of television news to living in a bus and consciously trying to avoid the news media. for The experiment lasted for just over a year, and proved enlightening. I read a lot more, and enjoyed a wider variety of reading. I spent more time outside, played more with my dog, and got more exercise. My wife and I talked more (and yes, after more than a year in a bus we’re still married–28 years next week). I thought more. And I missed almost nothing of consequence.

As a lover and scholar of media and a former media professional, it pains me a bit to note that when I went back to being a news junkie at the end of my media hiatus, the news was pretty much the same as it had been before. The Middle East was still screwed up, and Israel and its neighbors were fighting. Thousands were dying in Africa and elsewhere of things we could prevent. And an excessive amount of news coverage was devoted to entertainment news and random violence, especially violence against pretty dead white women.

Yesterday I asked students in my meda criticism class to try to go eight consecutive waking hours without radio, television, texting, print media or the Internet. Judging by the gasps and groans, I suspect that most won’t last two hours. Yet I have highly intelligent friends who rely very little on technology (they do tend to read more than most of us). My brother once went three years without watching television or a movie. A writer friend says watching the chickens in his backyard is more interesting than most of what’s on television. I understand, having seen for myself that a goldfish pond in the summer is more mesmerizing than almost anything on “American Idol.”

Still, I can’t see totally cutting myself off from media, at least before I have to. But I do think taking breaks from the barrage of media messages from time to time is valuable. Besides my bus sabbatical, I’ve spent a year or so without television a couple of other times. Even a few days in the mountains or by the ocean offers a sense of renewel and a reaffirmation of one’s own existence–an affirmation that doesn’t have to be generated by Facebook friends“–that is good for the brain and the soul.

I’ll conclude by letting Ned’s Atomic Dustbin say it in a different way:

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

‘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.

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

“Knowing” what isn’t true: Networks bash Obama more than McCain

Posted by James McPherson on July 29, 2008

We all know the mainstream media, especially the big three networks, love Barack Obama. John McCain’s campaign has complained about it at length, and I’ve recently written about it myself, here and here. A recent blog report of differing amounts of coverage devoted to the two fueled claims of bias.

The only problem? What we know apparently isn’t so, according to the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs. Some anti-Obama bias has been clear, and no reasonable person expects anything resembling objectivity from the likes of Fox New, MSNBC, talk radio or bloggers. It also is true that Obama has received far more coverage–understandably so, because he is new, different, has been targeted by more negative bloggers, and has been doing far more interesting (that is, newsworthy) things than his Republican opponent. But contrary to the old public relations axiom that “any publicity is good publicity,” in fact Obama has drawn far more negative commentary (in both amount and percentage of coverage) than long-time media love object McCain.

The Los Angeles Times reports: “During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.”

The coverage is an apparent shift from primary coverage, when Obama received mostly positive coverage and Hillary Clinton was the target of the most media bashing.

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