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 ‘Vietnam War’

War on Drugs: 40 years of futility

Posted by James McPherson on June 17, 2011

Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon officially declared  a “war on drugs.” Though Nixon probably wasn’t seeking a war that would last even longer, cost even more and perhaps produce even more violent deaths than the Vietnam conflict still going on at the time, that’s what we ended up with.

This month an international commission concluded what many have known for years, that the “war on drugs” is a “massive failure” that has brought “devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”–and that it’s time to try something else.

Despite the pleas of even former cops who fought the drug war, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama–who seems to like wars as much as his presidential predecessors (with the same respect for Congressional approval and the War Powers Act)–naturally said, “Nah.”

Obama apparently will stop using the exact words, “war on drugs,” just as he gave up the “war on terror” term, but for all practical purposes the war will go on. With even more firepower on the front lines, thanks to a “catastrophic” weapons-tracking plan and American gun laws (which despite what your local gun dealer would have you believe have actually eased, not stiffened, since Obama took office).

In fact, as demonstrated by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 declaration of a “war on poverty,” perhaps the best way to guarantee that something will last forever is to declare war on it. You can imagine my dismay when when a decade ago George W. Bush declared a “war on terrror.” (Speaking of terror, perhaps someone once made the mistake of declaring war on vampires–and on insipid vampire movies–also guaranteeing them eternal life.)

By the way, speaking of the Vietnam War, Nixon declared war on drugs came just four days after the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers and two days after Nixon attempted to legally stop their publication. The Times and other publications proceeded to publish lengthy excerpts from the papers, which were finally officially released in their entirety–all 7,000 pages–this week, on the 40th anniversary of the date the Times began publishing them.

By the way, if you didn’t notice the anniversaries of the war on drugs or the  Pentagon Papers, don’t feel bad. Other than a bit of coverage of the Seven GOP dwarves, most of this weeks cable news coverage was about Anthony Weiner and Caylee Anthony, a case involving another dead white girl.

The Pentagon Papers case demonstrates why we still need newspapers such as the New York Times. As Times media writer David Carr notes in this excellent interview by Aaron Sorkin: “There’s a system and a rigor to what we do, and you can laugh at it as archaic and silly in the 24-7 news cycle, but I do think that it has significant value to have a pretty big organization that is a lot of times saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute . . . ‘ on the really big stories of the day.”

Posted in History, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Civil disobedience might bring national redemption

Posted by James McPherson on February 8, 2009

I love the United States and feel extremely blessed to have been born here, and to have worked as a journalist and an educator in a nation that offers so many freedoms. Though we progressives have been denigrated as America-haters or the “blame-America-first crowd,” in fact the National Anthem can make me weepy, I have a very large American flag on the wall of my office, and I know the U.S. Flag Code better than most of the self-described “patriots” who disagree with me on many things.

Elwin Wilson probably would have described himself as one of those patriots at the time he beat a young black man into a bloody mess in a South Carolina bus station. But the case of Wilson, who, seeking redemption, recently sought the forgiveness of his victim–now-Congressman John Lewis–helps illustrate why this country could use more civil disobedience, and why the American press should start doing a better job of covering the people and issues involved with such disobedience.

In fact, civil disobedience has never all that popular in this country, even during Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The vast majority of us have always stayed on the sidelines, aware of the protests only if we happen to drive by them or catch images on the evening news. Unfortunately those images, however striking, generally have been too rare because journalists have been among those who do the most to marginalize nonviolent protest.

Worse, the ideas of the protestors also have initially been marginalized in favor of mainstream (and often bureacratic institutional) views, slowing the consideration and eventual implementation of what in many cases would become mainstream ideals–the abolition of slavery, labor laws, civil rights, women’s rights and the environmental movement among them.

More recently, had the media paid more attention to the widespread protests against the Iraq War (including exploring the claims and beliefs of the protesters), and the resulting arrests, perhaps members of Congress wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to join George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in their soon-to-be trillion-dollar rush (what–you thought only an economic stimulus could cost nearly that much?) to war and ignominy. They might also keep Barack Obama from his apparent determination to repeat Bush’s folly in Afghanistan.

Friday night’s episode of “Bill Moyer Journal,” with guests Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald, discussed the problem briefly.

Moyers:

On my computer upstairs, I have a lot of photographs from around the world this week, of protests, demonstrations of people who feel desperate in the midst of economic collapse and calamity. And they’re taking to the streets. We don’t see that in this country. Will Washington ever get the message unless they feel the pulse of people who are saying we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more?

Greenwald’s response:

I think the idea of street demonstrations is probably the most stigmatized idea in our political process. There were huge marches, for instance, prior to the Iraq war, against the war. There were hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people throughout Europe marching in the streets against the war.

And yet, the media virtually excluded those demonstrations from the narrative, because they’re threatening, and because they’re considered to be the act of unserious radicals and people who are on the fringe, and I think that in some sense, that’s reflective of the fact that that level of agitation is probably the most threatening to the people who have a vested in having the system continue unchanged.

Some areas of American life are particularly ready for civil disobedience. Democracy Now! has reported on the prospect of homeowners who might refuse to leave their foreclosed-upon houses and on how creative protest foiled wilderness land sales.

I think that teachers and students (and their parents)  who have been forced by education funding inequities to deal with crumbling schools should consider marching into and “taking over” nicer suburban schools.  Sick people who cannot afford health care might “sit in” in medical facilities until they get the care they need. The hungry might move, in large groups, into supermarkets–not necessarily eating anything (and therefore facing theft charges), but drawing attention to the fact that we live in a nation where too many don’t get enough to eat.

Workers laid off from companies where  managers (or mismanagers) are getting bonuses might just refuse to leave. The workers of Republic Window and Doors showed that protest can be effective. But as anyone in a 12-step program (or who has seen a portrayal of one on television) knows, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that the problem exists.

It would be helpful if the news media would look to protests as a meanings of helping society recognize concerns before they become full-blown crises. But for that to happen, protests might need to become as popular here as they are in some other nations–where, by the way, citizens also love their countries.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Legal issues, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

A ‘stimulating’ Limbaugh lesson, and battles in Afghanistan and Tampa

Posted by James McPherson on February 1, 2009

Normally I have about the same respect for James Carville that I do for Rush Limbaugh. But sometimes it is interesting to watch a contest in which you wish both sides could lose, such as when a skinny bald blowhard gives the pompous drug-addicted blowhard a lesson about history and government.

Carville is making fun of Limbaugh’s supposed call for bipartisanship regarding the stimulus bill being considered by Congress. In the meantime, in a true show of Senate bipartisanship, Maine Republican Susan Collins (whom some Republicans think should be a Democrat) and Colorado Democrat Ben Nelson (whom some Dems think should join the GOP) are working to create a stimulus package that majorities in both parties could support. Mostly what they’re trying to do is “slash what they call wasteful spending from the bill.”

Republicans, many of whom consider almost any spending not related to killing someone to be wasteful, continue to call for the least effective means of stimulus (tax breaks) while rejecting the most effective (programs for poor people). Regardless of the outcome, a big stimulus package will be passed and much will be spent on infrastructure–a good thing except for the fact that too much of it will go to reinforcing a car-centric culture and not enough to mass transit (the benefits of which I greatly enjoyed last month in New York and Washington, D.C.).

Related to the economy, the stupidist spending under the George W. Bush adminstration was, and continues to be, expensed related to the Iraq War. While I am encouraged that President Barack Obama will likely reduce our presence there, I am troubled that he may be aiming toward creating his own Vietnam/Iraq-style quagmire in Afghanistan.

Obama probably will double the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which might have been a good idea seven years ago. But keeping in mind that the current U.S. presence is smaller than the number of police deemed necessary to patrol friendly, celebratory crowds without guns in our nation’s capital on Inauguration Day, Obama’s plan seems mostly like a way to temporarily look semi-strong on defense while accomplishing no clear goals. Among those continuing to pay the price will be American soldiers and their orphaned children, and American taxpayers and their bewildered grandchildren.

Incidentally, Senators Collins and Nelson and I do have something in common, if the two really are working through the weekend to fix the stimulus package–we’ll be among that distinct minority of Americans not watching today’s Super Bowl. I’ve skipped viewing most Super Bowls, often other matchups in which I hope both sides lose, though I did hang on every second of the Seattle Seahawks’ 2005 loss to the Steelers (part of why today I’m rooting for the Cardinals–another area in which I disagree with Obama).

While I like football (I played in college, and still prefer the college game), with a few obvious exceptions the Super Bowl generally is not a particularly good game. With every key play to be shown endlessly in coming days, the halftime show a watered-down performance by a popular star provided with poor sound, and (thanks to YouTube) every commercial worth watching available anytime after the game, there is little reason to tune in.

I also don’t think the game will be close. My prediction: 34-13, Steelers. I figure today might be the perfect time to finally brave the mall and exchange the shirts I got for Christmas, since there will be few other guys there.

Same day update: So much for my career as a sports prognosticator. I walked into the house and flipped on the TV just in time to see the last play of the first half–the longest play in Super Bowl history. I then watched Bruce Springsteen in a halftime show that was every bit as weak as I expected, and then turned the TV back off until just before the Steelers gave up a safety to let the Cardinals get within four points.

To my credit, I did then have enough sense to watch the rest of the game, which the Steelers probably deserved to lose–after all, how do you NOT cover Larry Fitzgerald closely enough to prevent the last Cardinal touchdown? On the other hand, can you cover Santonio Holmes any better than he was covered on Pittburgh’s last TD? Who knows, after the last couple of years, I may have to start watching Super Bowls again.

Posted in History, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Walking miles to get to–and then avoid–the best Inauguration of my lifetime

Posted by James McPherson on January 20, 2009

Some students and I left our hostel before 4:30 this morning to join the masses on the National Mall for the Presidential Inauguration. After quite a bit of walking, and getting conflicting information from two police officers (believing the second, who told us more what we hoped to hear–and who turned out to be wrong), we joined a large and rapidly growing crowd of people waiting to get into the mall at Third Street.

After an hour of standing in bitter cold, my lower back was already cursing me, and we knew we had at least another hour before the gates opened to (we hoped) let us go stand for another five hours or so before and during the Inauguration.

I quickly decided on an alternate plan, and as a result had pretty close to a perfect Inauguration Day. I gave the students some advice on how to protect themselves in case of a crowd surge (take up as much space as you can, keep your feet wide, hold onto one another) and fought my way to the back of the crowd.

I walked to 18th street, on the far side of the Washington Monument from the Capitol, where I knew that people without tickets could enter the mall. I also thought I’d make a detour to the Lincoln Memorial, since my brother had once recommended it as a great spot to take in a quiet sunrise.

I didn’t quite make it by sunrise, walking past the Vietnam Memorial in appropriately gray light. Hunched against the cold in my leather jacket, hat and hood, I noticed a woman taking photos of me as I walked past the monument. Perhaps she figured I was a vet (which I’m not), or just someone paying a bit of tribute to those who died in an earlier senseless war (which I was).

From there I went to the Lincoln Memorial, unfortunately still fronted by most of the massive stage that had held the performers for Sunday’s concert. Perhaps a hundred people already sat on the steps. I climbed past them into the Memorial, taking a couple of photos of the impressive seated Lincoln statue, then a couple of shots of the mall from the top of the steps.

I went next to the Korean War Memorial, my favorite of the three in the area that honor war dead. Next was the World War II Memorial, my least favorite of the three, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is as grandiose as the American memories of that war.

I turned into the mall itself, joining throngs of people headed forward–not to anywhere other than to a spot as close as they could get to the Capitol stage on which the Inauguration would take place. By now that was probably three-quarters of a mile away.

I stopped near an area where an NPR reporter was interviewing people about why they were there. I took her picture, and when glancing up toward the jumbotrons I noticed  the portable watchtowers. Tinted windows made it impossible to tell whether they held snipers or just watchers. A helicopter flew overhead, and two armed men stood on a nearby roof. The ceremony itself was still more than two hours away.

The space had quickly filled around me, and I realized that I no longer had any reason to be there. I had already experienced the crowd, and now realized that if I was going to wanted to watch it on television, I would rather do it with my wife (who had decided not to brave the cold and crowds).

After a brief stop at the Washington Monument to watch the area in front of me fill up, I hiked back toward the hostel. For my entire walk back, the streets were filled with an endless sea of people going the opposite direction. I also noted some irony in the fact that K Street–famous for lobbying abuses that helped Republicans lose Congress–was now filled with venders hawking Barack Obama-related merchandise.

After six miles or so of walking, and about five hours after I had rolled out of bed, I grabbed breakfast and plopped in front of the big-screen TV. My wife and I quickly were joined by others, and by the time the ceremony began more than two dozen people filled the room (which has 20 chairs).

At least three countries and several states were represented in the small room. About a third of them were black, and having lived in the South for a couple of years, I wasn’t at all surprised that some of them kept talking to the screen.

The youngest person in the room was a small energetic African American boy who blurted out “Barack Obama!” every time Obama’s image appeared on the screen, making the rest of us chuckle. The oldest may have been “Manny,” who immigrated from Iran 19 years ago and who couldn’t relax until he finally reached his daughter by cell phone to find that she was safe on the mall and hadn’t been crushed by the crowd.

We all watched the Inauguration intently, and several of us cried at various times (when Aretha sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” among others). When the National Anthem began, Manny began softly singing along. My wife and I joined in. And when the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery said, “Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say Amen,” most of us said, “Amen.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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 »

“W” and “An American Carol”: losers left and right

Posted by James McPherson on October 11, 2008

Two politically oriented films have been released just before the election. One has an obvious liberal bias, the other an obvious conservative bias. Interestingly, these are entertainment films, not documentaries along the lines of “Farenheit 9/11” or the equally slanted ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11“–which means their success will be determined as much by box office dollars as by political influence.

Oliver Stone, who has done some very good films (“Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Wall Street,” “World Trade Center“) and some bad history (“JFK” and “Nixon“), tells Maxim that his latest film, “W,” is being released this month not to influence the election but “because Bush is still around.” He also questions his potential influence: “I did three Vietnam movies, and what good did they do? People still lined up in support of the Iraq War. People don’t remember. It shows you the futility of what we do.”

The other film is largely an attack on Michael Moore, the creator of “Farenheit 9/11” and “Sicko.” The new film, “An American Carol,” is produced by another well-known filmmaker, David Zucker (“Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun,” from back in the day when we thought O.J. Simpson was funny). Zucker, who in 2004 produced anti-John Kerry ads, and who in an interview with the neoconservative Weekly Standard compares Barack Obama to “a really clever virus who adapts”–says he hopes his film will persuade people to vote against Obama.

That seems unlikely. In fact, neither film is doing particularly well, despite the unpopularity of President George W. Bush or the heavy promotion on Fox News for “An American Carol.”

Early reviews of “W” from Variety (an “unusual and inescapably interesting” movie that “feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years”) and Hollywood Reporter (“a bold but imperfect film about an imperfect man”) are obviously mixed. And it seems to me late-night TV hosts have skewered the president pretty thoroughly. Besides, watching the real Bush flounder is bad enough–and no longer particularly funny, considering the state of the nation thanks to the Iraq War and the economy.

Of course conservatives quickly and ludicrously complained that liberal bias and “ticket fraud” (?!) were keeping “An American Carol” from doing well, but judging by the preview, I suspect that the primary problem is the combination of unsubtle political commentary combined with even less subtle juvenile slapstick humor. It is notable that the filmmakers refused to release the film for critics, usually a sure sign that the filmmakers know they have a dud on their hands (though in this case they spun it as a defense against liberally biased critics).

It’s difficult to imagine whom “An American Carol” is trying to reach. After all, most of the college-age males that the preview seems to want to engage likely will turn to something equally goofy, but which also offers the prospect of nudity.

Young people look for Adam Sandler and David Spade, not Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper, and for Angelina Jolie rather than her father, Jon Voight. And even moviegoers who like Kevin Farley, the film’s star, want to laugh with their lovable losers, not at those losers, and they want to see their heroes win in the end. That doesn’t happen here. Instead–ironic spoiler alert–the end of the film apparently has the character intending to do a new, more accurate version of “JFK.”

Older audiences need a stronger reason to go watch a film than do older audiences, and I can’t see Farley being such a reason. The film is broadly obvious–and therefore uninspiring–in its intent, and apparently lazy in execution. And anyone who wants to see Bill O’Reilly acting stupid can do so five nights a week on television; there is little reason to pay 8 or 10 bucks to do so.

This won’t be an election turned by film fiction, or even by based-on-a-true-story depictions offered in movies (or in political ads, for that matter). The fact that soon perhaps no one will be able to afford to go the movies, anyway (though escapist entertainment films were popular during Depression), will play a much bigger role in the probably election of Barack Obama. By then you’ll probably be able to check out both of these films on video.

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