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.

  • Archives

  • June 2021
    S M T W T F S
     12345
    6789101112
    13141516171819
    20212223242526
    27282930  
  • Categories

  • Subscribe

Posts Tagged ‘war crimes’

Beating the Bushies to investigate war crimes

Posted by James McPherson on March 29, 2009

Those of us who believe that the Bush administration should be convicted of war crimes might be heartened by a Spanish judge’s order to investigate whether Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and others should face charges, especially since the judge in question is the same one who issued an arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet more than a decade ago.

Unfortunately, though Pinochet was arrested, he died without being convicted of any crimes, still a millionaire from the proceeds of his evildoing. I suspect the same–though without the arrests–will be true of senior Bush administration officials. After all, I can’t see Barack Obama–who has already been following too much of the Bush strategy (including the use of independent contractors to supplement American troops) in international affairs–endorsing the Spanish judge’s actions.

Obama likely will ignore the issue, just as he has been creatively ignoring tough press questions while pretending to provide unprecedenced access, even if an investigation finds what already seems to be obvious–that actions at Guantanamo and much of the rest of the Bush administration “war on terrorism” violated international laws.

Since as a nation we selectively concern ourselves with human rights abuses in countries that we see some reason to demonize or invade (Iraq, perhaps Iran, sometimes Libya), but ignore those abuses elsewhere (Saudi Arabia, China, Darfur, sometimes Libya), I doubt that the Bush/Cheney underlings will be called to account.

Even less likely is that Bush and Cheney themselves will be held accountable for their crimes. Congress, mindful of how the Clinton impeachment circus went over–while forgetting that important investigations such as Watergate and the Church Committee actually increased respect for Congress–remains largely gutless and clueless.

The one hope for justice might be if a declining press suddenly figured out that a way to save themselves might be to somehow make themselves relevant again by serving as a voice and guardian for the American people (and people elsewhere, for that matter). By bringing enough attention to the issue, and investigating the Bush administration’s false claims in a way that they failed to do before the Iraq War began, the media might bring enough pressure to prompt the sort of  investigation that would send the weasels to jail–or at least scurrying to countries from which they couldn’t be retrieved.

In other words,  if those in charge of news media–along with those of us who care about democracy–would do more in the words of Poynter’s Roy Peter Clarke to “feed the watchdog, euthenize the lapdog.” But I suspect the media will continue to mostly roll over and play dead–until they’re no longer playing.

The one bright potential bright spot: As mainstream media continue to abdicate their watchdog role until most of them finally sink largely unnoticed beneath the waves, perhaps more people will find their way to sources such as the Nation and Mother Jones.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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 »