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 ‘torture’

Why Dick Cheney should be tortured

Posted by James McPherson on March 15, 2009

Dick Cheney, perhaps the most evil chief executive in our nation’s history (yeah, I know–technically the president is the chief executive, but I’m talking about the person really in charge of policy), told CNN today that Barack Obama’s policies increase our risk of being attacked by terrorists.

Aside from the fact that it seems our risk might decrease from having a president who values diplomacy over bluster and who actually reads threat memos more closely than he reads The Pet Goat, Cheney’s argument is typically inane self-defense, perhaps offered as a means of trying to avoid justified prosecution of George W. Bush, Cheney and others for war crimes.

“Cheney said the harsh interrogations of suspects and the use of warrantless electronic surveillance were ‘absolutely essential’ to get information to prevent more attacks like the 2001 suicide hijackings that targeted New York and Washington,” according to the report.

In other words, it’s the old fascist argument, offered at a time when the American public is sick of the whole Bush/Cheney-caused mess, that “we have to strip your civil rights away to save them.” Not the sort of thing that conservatives once stood for, but then these weren’t your grandfather’s conservatives. Thank God they’re not ours, anymore, either.

Apparently CNN didn’t ask Cheney about recent  revelations by one of the nation’s top investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh, that the former vice president personally oversaw a military  “assassination ring” that bypassed the CIA and carried out clandestine murders in other countries.

“It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on,” Hersh reportedly stated. “Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.”

I have no idea whether Hersh’s report is accurate. If so, the illegal death squads clearly pose an international threat. I suggest we torture Cheney until he confesses.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Obama’s selective openness a bad sign for him and us

Posted by James McPherson on January 30, 2009

Barack Obama has been justifiably praised for his efforts to use technology to talk directly to the American people, and, since his election, for his orders to increase the transparency of government. 

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama promised on his first day in office. And as a former journalist and a citizen concerned about the workings of government, I’m happy about the promises of increased openness.

Unfortunately those promises may go largely unfulfilled, as indicated by Columbia Journalism Review writer David Cay Johnston’s  experience. Not only is the press staff difficult to reach and sometimes apparently ignorant about how the media work, Johnston reports that the administration is also editing briefing transcripts before posting them–a practice used by the Bush administration to “polish the record.”

 “Politicians make choices and have to live with them,” Johnston notes. “How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.”

Obama’s decisions likely will keep getting tougher, not easier, and with each he’ll have to decide anew his commitment to open government. Will he open the windows on U.S. torture policy? Will he keep the Bush administration’s secrets, even if it means that war crimes go unpunished? Worse, might he continue some of the abuses? How will he protect us from the end of the world less than two months after his 2012 re-election? OK, I’m kidding about that one: I’m not at all convinced he’ll be re-elected, even if we happen to survive that long.

Though Obama has been talking a lot about the economy and the need to spend lots of money to forestall total economic collapse, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wonders if the president is giving any consideration to a central theme of his campaign–how health care, perhaps the biggest draw on the economy, might be fixed? Obama and his people aren’t saying, so we don’t know.

There’s a lot they aren’t saying, despite the fact that Obama now seems to be on television constantly. As can be seen nightly on the Vegas strip or with the Three-card Monte games of New York City, the most effective magicians work not by openly hiding things but by using charm, patter, and perhaps a pretty girl or two to keep us from looking where we should. And it is worth remembering that Obama drew kudos for the “discipline” of his button-down presidential campaign, from which leaks did not escape.

Naturally politicians hate it when everyone knows what they’re doing, sometimes for good reasons. For one thing, if ideas are revealed too early, critics can jump in before plans can be given thorough consideration or a fair hearing. For another thing, leaks make a course change tougher if people know you originally intended something else. You might even become known as a flip-flopper. And sometimes information can simply be embarrassing.

But the Bush administration convincingly reminded us why we can’t simply trust officials to tell us what we need to know (even an official with his own Blackberry and YouTube channel), and why we need journalists to dig for us, to follow up on statements, to explore alternatives. After the press and government failures of the Iraq War, domestic spying and the economy, we can hope that even journalists have learned the same thing.

Incidentally, Johnston’s article also reminds us of why CJR (where editor Mike Holt graciously met with a dozen of my students in New York earlier this month) is such a valuable source both for and about journalism. I renewed my subscription this week.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

As Bush people approach endangered species status, scientists find other rats, vipers and creepie crawlers

Posted by James McPherson on December 17, 2008

Now here’s an intriguing lead:  “A rat believed to be extinct for 11 million years, a spider with a foot-long legspan, and a hot pink cyanide-producing ‘dragon millipede’ are among the thousand newly discovered species in the largely unexplored Mekong Delta region.”

That’s the first sentence of a CNN story today. Apparently Agent Orange, war-ravaged and starving natives and other Vietnam War-associated horrors failed to kill off the rat. Come to think of it, judging by 1950s films such as “Tarantula,” “Earth vs. the Spider,” The Deadly Mantis,” “The Black Scorpion,” “Them” (giant ants), and “Beginning of the End” (giant grasshoppers), Agent Orange may even have created the spider and the millipede.

Based on a World Wildlife Fund report, the  story later states: “Perhaps a more startling discovery than the rat was a bright green pit viper scientists spotted slithering through the rafters of a restaurant in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand.” Maybe it was searching for an 11-million-year-old rat. Regardless, Southeast Asia just slipped a notch or two on my list of desired travel locations.

The WWF offers a list of endangered species to watch, and uses government science to point out the increased danger to species from global warming. Unfortunately, as with other areas of public policy, when it comes to global warming and endangered species the Bush administration has a perhaps-criminal disregard for science.

In a typical Friday move, at the end of last week the administration announced a plan that will let bureaucrats instead of scientists determine the fate of some endangered species. Three days later, in what has become a regular occurrence, a government report revealed wrongdoing on the part of Bush officials involved with at least 15 endangered species cases.

And no, those aren’t cases regarding retirement funds, the Big Three auto makers, or the endangered folks who were tortured by the Bush war team captained by Dick Cheney or and its allies.

Though it’s probably coincidental, perhaps the latest actions by the outgoing Liar in Chief explain why Barack Obama introduced key members of his own “environmental team,” including Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, this week.

On the other hand, to be fair, maybe Bush has a good reason for ignoring scientists: Maybe he saw those same 1950s horror movies. For something considerably less scary than the Bush administration, see almost eight minutes of “Them” below:

Posted in History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics, Science, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

McCain camp desperate, silly and sad

Posted by James McPherson on August 24, 2008

Affirming my observations of recent weeks that the John McCain campaign steadily becomes increasingly silly, increasingly desperate, and–despite recent polls–decreasingly likely to win the upcoming presidential election, the campaign is doing what it feels it must to have a prayer of victory.

Previously noted by many is how McCain now panders to the Religious Right figures whom he once termed “agents of intolerance.” At the same time that he engages in increasingly unchristian behavior, even to the point of adding to his own lies by refusing to criticize obvious lies from a man who has been one of McCain’s harshest critics. Nonetheless, his most recent ad must make “straight talk express” fans cringe when they hear the candidate intone, “I’m John McCain and I approved this message.”

This ad (the first clip below) asks why Hillary Clinton isn’t Barack Obama’s choice as running mate, and states that she was kept off the ticket “for telling the truth.” While that message might work with a few PUMAs, it seems likely that even many of them might be turned off by such blatantly pandering on the part of a man who consistently has done little on behalf of women–even if they believe that anyone in the McCain campaign knows the inner workings of their opponent’s operation.

McCain himself, it seems, once would have been embarrassed by such a commercial. Doesn’t he have some other means of attack other than to put his own face and voice in an ad that not only doesn’t say anything about himself or his candidacy but which actually promotes a losing candidate from the opposition party? Of course he obviously likes those folks, since he pals around with two-time loser Joe Lieberman. But isn’t McCain’s new language more befitting of Jon Stewart or bloggers than of a candidate for president? And does his new ad suggest that McCain like to replace sidekick Joe Lieberman with Clinton (a good idea if she’d go for it, but she’s far too smart for that).

One problem, I suppose, is that McCain has relatively few positive options because his own campaign message to voters might be boiled down to: “I was tortured before most of you were born (though if we do the same things now to scary Muslims I would no longer call it torture), I hate war but think we ought to engage in a lot more of it, I’m old, I’m cranky, and I disagree with almost everything else I said a year ago, back when I was still voting in the Senate–so elect me president before I die or before my rich wife leaves me for one of my lobbyist friends.”

Another somewhat silly McCain ad came out on the same day that Barack Obama announced what most followers had considered inevitable for days if not weeks, that Joe Biden would be the Democratic nominee for vice president. That commercial (the second clip below) shows Biden criticizing Obama and complimenting McCain. The only problem with the ad is that it merely reflects the kind of rhetoric that happens in political races all the time–in fact, the third clip below is a version that might be used against McCain if he chooses Mitt Romney to be his running mate. Biden’s rhetoric also reflects the give-and-take nature of the Senate, reflecting why I was somewhat surprised when two Senators won their party’s nominations.

Obviously a current senator will become our next president, while another will go back to serving with Clinton in the Senate. Perhaps that’s why McCain is being so complimentary to her now–he figures she can remind him where things are in the Capitol once he gets back there. 

Posted in Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments »

Have you ever heard of the “world’s most famous journalist”?

Posted by James McPherson on May 28, 2008

A column by Sabin Willett (an attorney for a firm that has represented Guantanamo prisoners) in today’s Miami Herald, reprinted by CommonDreams.org, illustrates why so many Americans are clueless about this nation’s standing in the rest of the world. “The world’s most famous journalist isn’t Peter Arnett or Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or Dan Rather,” Willett writes. “His name is Sami al-Hajj. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. That should worry you.”

Willett points out that al-Hajj, a TV cameraman from Sudan, was recently released without comment after years in Guantanamo–years in which “al-Jazeera followed his odyssey day by day” while “most Americans never saw his photograph in mainstream American newspapers or heard about him on television.” I’ve attached YouTube clips (more than 23 minutes, or about the length of a full nightly news broadcast in this country) of al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” coverage of the al-Hajj case and world Press Freedom Day below. A quick search of the New York Times archives for al-Hajj’s name reveals a total of 12 results, only two of those news story focusing on al-Hajj–a four-paragraph story in September 2002 with the lead, “A reporter for the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera is being held at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, suspected of having links with the terror network of Al Qaeda, according to a statement issued by the station,” and then one reporting his release earlier this month.

The press did pay a bit more attention a couple of weeks ago to the government’s decision to drop charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, the supposed “20th hijacker,” after al-Qahtani’s information apparently was deemed worthless in part because he was tortured (supporting John McCain’s early criticism of torture, before he voted to allow more of it). To the surprise of no one who closely follows the media, the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped on a Friday so that American press coverage would be limited.

Willett is justifiably critical of the U.S. news media in the case of the Sudanese cameraman, noting that while they could not have known whether al-Hajj was a journalist or a terrorist, they “should have been shouting from the rooftops about al-Hajj–demanding evidence, a trial, the truth. But our press was silent.” Willett also suggests that the press silence may be a harbinger of ineptitude to come:

Today the war drums are rumbling again, this time for Iran. Will our press stand its post, or pick up the pom-poms of 2002 and 2003?

The omens aren’t good. The most famous journalist in the world was imprisoned by Americans, without charge, for almost seven years–was beaten, isolated, humiliated, force-fed, relentlessly interrogated and then quietly released. And you never heard about him.

Al-Hajj claims he was tortured while in American custody, that he was interrogated more than 130 times, and that his keepers wanted him to go to work for the U.S. “They wanted me to betray the principles of my job and turn me into a spy,” he said. “It was made clear to me later that the main goal behind my detention was to detain the journalist who reveals the truth.”

We have no way of knowing whether al-Hajj is telling the truth, of course. But part of the reason we don’t know is because the American press never bothered to investigate.  And if they won’t investigate the case of a fellow journalist, what are the odds they’ll examine any of the other almost 800 other people sent to Guantanamo?

Al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” on Sami al-Hajj (2 parts)

 

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