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, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Posts Tagged ‘Whitworth University’

My 9/11 story

Posted by James McPherson on September 11, 2016

9-11

On Sept. 11, 2001, the first day of a new school year at Whitworth, I was getting ready to teach my first freshman seminar about media & society when the attacks came. Whitworth gave faculty the option of cancelling classes, but I decided that having an afternoon forum for discussion would be good for my freshmen and me.
Like most Americans, I spent the morning following the events of 9/11 on both television and my computer. Yet I remained strangely unmoved — perhaps partly because of my former training and experience as a reporter, but even more, I think, because of the unreality of it all.
Part of my brain just couldn’t process the pictures of a jetliner full of people slamming into a massive tower full of people, let alone the pictures of those two giant towers crumbling to the ground. And maybe the numbness of shock explains my relative lack of emotion.
Yet as a media scholar I suspect that part of my brain recognized what people at the scene kept saying: “It’s like something out of a movie.” Yet in the movies, we had often seen the sound and visuals “done better” than what live television had to offer — more “realistic”-looking explosions, from multiple angles, with music helping tell our brains how to feel.
So, though I am not proud of the fact, on that morning I couldn’t seem to make myself feel the emotions that I thought I should. Frustrated with the media coverage and myself, I walked outside into a beautiful fall day, though a door near which an American flag already flew at half staff. At the base of the flag were bright yellow flowers, planted to greet returning students and their parents. And there, a bee flitted among the blossoms. I stood and watched that lone bee, a tiny creature unaware of the events that would forever change all of our lives, doing what it was born to do.
“Well,” I thought. “Life goes on.” And then, standing there alone in the middle of campus, away from the media deluge and 3,000 miles away from New York or Washington, D.C., I began to cry.
Those tears weren’t the last I shed tears related to 9/11 — those came a little while ago when I read this story aloud to my wife. Insects play a role in Adam Langer’s story, too, and my wife and I have outlived a couple of dogs that looked like the author’s.
We all are witnesses to things we cannot fathom. And sometimes inexplicably, life goes on.

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

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 »

Media organizations: Why you should hire my journalism students

Posted by James McPherson on March 5, 2009

Obviously in many ways this is not the best time for a wide-eyed change-the-world college journalism grad to venture forth into a changing media world. Newspapers and local television stations–the two places that grads traditionally might start (and perhaps spend) their careers–are suffering. One of my students has spent a lot of time and effort blogging about the state of the industry.

Yet that blog also helps illustrate one of the reasons that the many media organizations that do need help should be trying to get my students to go to work for them. Those students realize what the current media world looks like (for proof, see their video evidence below), and yet still feel that they can use media to make a positive impact on society.

And they’re already using their skills to do so. They produce an award-winning and technologically multifaceted newspaper, the Whitworthian. Most of the members of the editorial staff have already done professional internships. They are bloggers and Twitterers. Despite heavy course loads and long hours putting out a newspaper, 10 of those students also have taken it upon themselves to do an independent study program this semester, in which they devote two hours per week to learning (largely by researching and taking turns teaching) and improving more technical multimedia skills.

Obviously, unlike some of the flabby technophobes now cluttering newsrooms (while more recently hired people with more imagination and enthusiasm are let go, under “last-hired, first-fired” policies that also reduce diversity), the soon-to-be grads bring a wide range of the kind of skills that might actually save American journalism. Exactly how they might do that remains to be seen–after all, dozens of media professionals in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have told me and my students during the past couple of months that they (the professionals) don’t have a clue how to go about it.

But counting only on middle-aged media folks (and I happen to be one of those) to fix things would be like bringing back the Bush administration to save the American economy. Those who were in charge when things fell apart–regardless of whether they were at fault–are not particularly likely to be the best pe0ple to put it back together.

Rapidly changing technology isn’t the only issue, of course. Though our students tend to have an advantage in that area over many students elsewhere, they may be a bit behind students in programs that place most of their emphasize on “tools and toys.” But the tools and toys keep changing, and the media need employees capable of changing with them. The liberal arts-and-skills emphasis of our program turns our student journalists into good writers and creative thinkers, not just technicians.

That same emphasis also means that our students develop needed interests and skills outside of journalism. Many have studied abroad, and most are at least somewhat fluent in more than one language. They study philosophy and math. Many double major, typically in areas such as business or political science. All take courses in literature and history (and are required to take a course in media history, so they know where the industry has been).

Within our program, we place a heavy emphasis on ethics–so much so that an ethics class (offered as an elective at some schools, if offered at all) is the senior-level capstone class for all of our majors. At a time when American journalism gets about the same level of trust and respect as Congress, journalists who understand and apply ethical considerations should be in high demand.

Obviously professional news organizations need people who can do the job of putting together meaningful and well-researched stories in various ways. To help illustrate that my students can do that, too, I’ll share a few examples of what they’ve produced (you can see others on the Whitworthian site). It is worth noting that these examples were produced by so-called “print journalists” who recogize that media are undergoing vast and sometimes scary changes–and yet still want to be involved with those media. The industry needs them–and society as a whole needs them, too.

Voices of Inauguration“:

The Journalist’s Digital Dilemma“:

“Media Impact Sights & Sounds” slideshow:

“STA World Traveler” (Note: Checking out this video may actually improved the student’s chances of getting an internship):

Posted in Education, Journalism, Personal, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Valuable lessons on ‘whom you know’ and on being in the right place at the right time in NY and DC

Posted by James McPherson on January 18, 2009

I’ve been blogging less than usual the past week or so for three reasons: because of various technology issues, because other parts of the program are keeping me busy, and because I’d rather you spend some of your free blogging moments checking out the class blog (including photos and video) for the program I’m now leading on the East Coast.

The group arrived in Washington, D.C., yesterday, and if you’ve been following their class blog you know they’ve met some interesting people and have learned some things (as have I). And despite the inconveniences of a visit from mice in New York, a broken heater here (in the women’s room in both cases), and some minor transportation issues, the students have had valuable experiences that have gone far beyond walking most of Manhattan, shopping, eating prodigious quantities of pizza and ice cream, passing Barack Obama’s train on the way from New York to Washington, and beating their professor at pool.

Perhaps most significantly, students have learned two of the most important things about how the world works, things that have little to do with the traditional education that universities typically provide.

The first of those lessons is that it really is often true that whom you know matters more than what you know. We’ve met a couple of people with great media jobs who had no formal training for those jobs, but got them largely as a result of personal contacts.

Of course the lucky recipients of those jobs had to prove themselves capable of doing the work, but the fact is that most of the six billion people on the planet–including many, many folks more initially qualified for the positions–had no chance of getting those jobs.

Most of us in our group will go to the Inauguration on Tuesday as part of the mob (which as a people-watcher with a journalistic mind I’m actually looking forward to), but three students managed to wrangle tickets thanks to a mother’s connections with a Congressman. Other connections–mine, those of colleagues, and in at least one case those of a student–also helped us get meetings with several of the great media sources we’re meeting with on this trip.

And of course all of us can cite examples (even if the meritocracy-preaching fortunate such as Supreme Court justice and affirmative action beneficiary Clarence Thomas sometimes ignore them) in which family connections or even seemingly minor incidental contacts have led to jobs.

Frankly, part of the reason I have the job I do is that I met a current department colleague while we coincidentally shared an airport shuttle in New Orleans a year earlier. In addition, I was invited to write both of my books (and several other chapters and articles) as a direct result of contacts made through the American Journalism Historians Association.

The second key lesson students have learned is that being in the right place at the right time can matter a lot. Students took in a church service at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem last Sunday, only to find that the day’s surprise guest preacher was Jesse Jackson.

An incidental contact led to two other students getting to see Conan O’Brien’s program, and because I was in the right place at the right time, I was offered two free tickets to see David Letterman last week–and am still getting grief from students because I turned the tickets down due to a conflict with one of our already scheduled class meetings.

In a terrible media market (something of which the experts we’ve been meeting keep reminding us) amid a collapsing national economy, it might be easy for students to become disheartened. Knowing that they spend most of their time in Spokane, Wash., where the “right people” rarely hang out, and knowing that most of them don’t have the kind of connections that will get them easy access to the jobs they want, has provided further moments of discouragement.

At the same time, rather than becoming depressed, Whitworth University journalism students have actively sought out the people and ways to make themselves more marketable. One is doing an impressive blog about the state of the industry, and used an independent study to create and develop the blog and to discuss key related issues with a number of media professionals.

Our journalism students attend national conventions and take part in programs like this one to further enhance their chances of making the right connections. Our department requires students to complete internships, and at least four of the student journalists on this trip have already worked for newspapers or television stations.

All of the student journalists with me work for the student newspaper (comprising most of the editorial staff) and/or radio station, and a couple are discussing adding a Web “television” station linked to the newspaper site.

Last night I went to bed thinking that four students were  staying up to play cards. Instead, the three who were already bloggers helped the fourth start a blog of her own, and the two with Twitter accounts helped the other two set up accounts.

Other media-related activities not formally part of the class, but which have been undertaken by students on this trip, have included seeking and getting enhanced training at College Publisher (which hosts the Whitworth student newspaper Web site), getting up early to visit “Good Morning America,” and taking in a taping of Sean Hannity’s show, in addition to the O’Brien experience.

Even more impressive, a group of a dozen students have asked me to oversee an independent study related to new media technology during the upcoming semester. A normal independent study involves one or two students working on something not covered by traditional classes, but in this case a dozen students have agreed to show up twice a week to teach each other more of the skills that might enhance their job prospects.

Though the university will provide a computer lab for a couple of hours a week in this case, professors are not paid for overseeing independent study programs of any size. We do it because we love to see and encourage enthusiasm about learning, and because such programs teach us more about things we also care about.

In this case, I’ll sit in with the students and let them teach me some technical skills that I can then share with even more students in the future. The students are amazing in their efforts to enhance their education–but the school and I are getting the better deal.

And so will future employers, should they be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to get to know these students.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Onion and Channel Thirteen

Posted by James McPherson on January 13, 2009

We definitely saw a contrast in “news” operations on Monday.

In the morning we visited The Onion, where editor Joe Randazzo and several staffers regaled us with funny stories while at the same time telling us that they take what they do–spoofing the news media–very seriously. They even try to adhere strictly to Associated Press sylte, which I’ll be sure to point out to media writing students at home.

In the afternoon we met with folks at Channel Thirteen, where Bill Moyers tapes his show. We saw his wife, Judith, but didn’t know it was her until after we said hello while passing in the hall. The students also got to try out their teleprompter skills during a brief studio tour.

Some of the students went from there to College Publisher, which hosts the Whitworth University student newspaper Web site. And some of them are now at Good Morning America.

Today we’re on to the Nielsen Co. (the ratings organization) and the Public Relations Society of America).

Posted in Education, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Visiting D.C. during inauguration week

Posted by James McPherson on November 29, 2008

In January my wife and I will go with a dozen Whitworth University students to New York and Washington, D.C., to meet with about two dozen leaders and experts in various mass media agencies and industries. Sites and people we will visit include the Associated Press, Columbia Journalism Review, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Public Relations Society of America, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, NPR, PBS, Fairness & Accuracy in Media, the Onion, a couple of academics, a telecommunications lobbyist, and representatives from finance, newspaper, television and magazines.

The first version of this “media impact” study program went to those same two cities two years ago, meeting with some of the same people and some others. I remain impressed with how giving some very important people are of their time when it comes to helping students (and somewhat surprised at the outsized egos of some other people with jobs that are far less important).

The biggest difference between this trip and the one two years ago is that this year Barack Obama will be inaugurated during the same week that we’ll be in town, a day after Martin Luther King Day (which fell during the New York segment two years ago). As you might guess, scheduling for that week was a bit tougher this time around, and some folks we’d have liked to chat with will be unavailable. We’ll talk to a few more people in New York and not quite as many in Washington. Still, I expect the excitement of being in the city at that time, and seeing how the media cover the inauguration events, will be worth the tradeoff.

On the other hand, our group of 14 will be among more than a million extra people expected in the city during that week. Who’d have thought that of the two cities we’ll visit, New York might seem the less crowded? Fortunately our lodging was booked well in advance. One of the Washington media people I was talking to recently suddenly asked, “How did you get a place to stay?” It’s a logical question, considering that the New York Times reports today that the non-availability of Washington-area rooms has people asking for up to $60,000 to rent out their homes for the week and $25,000 for a weekend rental of a one-bedroom apartment.

And folks thought it was expensive to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton administration. I guess yet another area in which Democrats are better for the economy than Republicans is real estate prices.

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

2008 Election: the biggest TV night in four years, and why I’ll miss it

Posted by James McPherson on November 4, 2008

Considering the name of this blog, obviously election night is bigger for me than the Super Bowl and the World Series combined (and not just because I cheer for two Seattle pro sports teams that have never won a single championship). Normally tonight I might be at an election party, or hunkered down with my wife in front of the television from mid-afternoon on, sometimes yelling at the screen (much like I do during Mariner and Seahawk games), making occasional derogatory remarks about the comments coming from various spin rooms.

But as much as we love/hate election night television, my wife and I both have chosen in recent elections to be more involved in the process. We voted early by mail; as with most years, I voted for mostly Democrats and a couple of Republicans. She is volunteering with a get-out-the-vote effort that runs through the afternoon, then will be watching the election night coverage on her own or with a friend. She and most of you will know results before I will. (If you want some good tips on how to watch the coverage, check out Thomas Edsall’s Huffington Post piece.)

For my part, a bunch of my Whitworth University students and I (along with students and a few faculty from Gonzaga and Eastern Washington University) will be immersed in a small part of the electoral media process, a part in which no other universities in the nation outside of New York can participate.

Here in Spokane County, we’ll be working for the Associated Press keeping track of results of every race in 31 states. Those of us working in downtown Spokane will be the first to hear the results from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, among others. If you hear the networks make a call for one of those key states, they’ll do so largely based on the numbers from here, which will be updated via computer and sent to major news organizations every 30 seconds. (Incidentally, the Associated Press may have been the only news organization not make a faulty projection call during the 2000 election.)

Those of us in the call center, though, will hear the results one county at a time, and will be immersed in keeping track of numbers given to us over the phone for individual races. We won’t have time to check out who is winning overall, or to listen to the talking heads on the various networks. I will videotape the coverage, though with my home technology it will have to be from one of the major networks–I don’t have TIVO and my old machine can’t record from our CNN, MSNBC or Fox News stations.

I’ll tape coverage on the local ABC affiliate, KXLY, mostly because one of my Whitworth colleagues (academic vice president and political science professor Michael Le Roy) will do election night commentary for that network and I know that he is very good at it. KXLY has also invested quite a bit in technology for this election. You can see a preview of it at the station’s Web site. Le Roy has done the KXLY gig for years, though I did get the opportunity to fill in for him when he had to be out of town during the 2006 election.

I won’t be on television tonight, but if you’re in the Spokane area you can catch me on AM 790 radio with local journalist Rebecca Mack from 8 to 10 p.m. I’ll take a break from the AP call center and walk a block to the studio for the two-hour live show, then hustle back afterward to rejoin the call center.

I’ll get home in the wee hours of the morning, check out CNN, Fox and MSNBC before I go to bed, then teach three classes tomorrow morning. Since several students from the various classes will be with me at the call center, I assume they won’t expect me to be particularly coherent in class. Assuming, of course, they ever do.

I hope you, too, have found meaningful ways to be involved in this historic election. The American electoral system has numerous flaws, and the past two presidential elections have cause many to become cynical about the process. For that reason alone, we’d probably all benefit more from a Barack Obama landslide (which even Karl Rove predicts) than from a narrow John McCain victory (though even if Obama wins Virginia and Pennsylvania, indicating a landslide is in the offing, don’t expect an early McCain concession speech–both parties learned in 1980 how Jimmy Carter’s early concession affected other races in the West).

Frankly, unless you’re in a “swing state,” your individual vote for president won’t matter much. But you have a much greater chance of affecting local races, so take a bit of time to study the issues and local candidates, or to discuss them with trusted and more knowledgeable friends. Regardless of your favored candidates, you’ll probably feel better if you vote–and it might actually make a difference in the outcome. As Sarah Palin and I would agree about whether voting matters: You betcha.

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

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 »