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Mixed media diet supplements interdisciplinary approach to teaching future journalists for Whitworth professor

Jim McPherson’s media diet includes liberal and conservative radio, blogs and news sources.

It supplements his interdisciplinary approach to teaching future journalists at Whitworth College, complementing training in professional skills with background in history, political science and faith.

Jim weaves those threads into his classes, which also include media history, media criticism or literacy, and alternative media.

He believes journalists need to understand who has power and who benefits from wars, so they report what matters rather than being caught in pressures to entertain and play to fears to create an addictive interest in news.

Jim McPherson2
Jim McPherson with a 1953 TV - part of his historical collection

“For too many young journalists, if something did not happen in the last year, it never happened, and whatever happened in the past year is a trend,” Jim observed.  “If journalists do not know about history and political science, we end up in unnecessary wars.”

“Today, many mainstream media support big business, big government and the two big parties,” he said.  “Concerned about making a living, many journalists do not want to offend anyone.”

In reality, they offend anyway, so “they might as well do their job,” he said, and explore issues important to people’s personal and public lives.

If mainstream media do not inform people adequately, internet and computers now make it possible for alternative media to address concerns that matter, he said, cautioning that some people read and hear news just from those who share their views.

“I listen to both liberal and conservative talk radio and blogs.  Both are important,” said Jim, who finds mainstream media increasingly conservative, contrary to the myth of “liberal” media.

“Much daily reporting reinforces conservatism by promoting fear,” he said, for example, repeatedly telling stories that make consumers feel crime is rampant, heightening fear, even though they report statistics about the decline of crime.

He captures those concerns in two books, The History of Journalism at the End of the American Century: 1965 to the Present, published in 2006 and The Press and the Conservative Resurgence:  Getting the News Right, set for publication in 2007.

Jim McPherson
Jim teaches media history and media literacy.

“In America, the closest we came to liberal media was in the 1960s and 1970s, when reporters and editors challenged systems,” he said, noting that concepts of “liberal” and “conservative” today are distorted.

He defines liberal as open to change, concerned about justice and equality, and conservative as reaffirming the status quo of existing power structures.

As he makes students aware of what happens when big press aligns with big government and big business, Jim appreciates that Whitworth encourages bringing faith discussions into classes. 

However, faith was not always part of his life.

Believing early he could never meet expectations his childhood church set for entering heaven, he decided to “have fun” in high school and college.  While excelling in sports and studies, he developed a drinking problem.

The son of a principal in Weippe, Idaho, Jim left the logging town and went to Idaho State University in Pocatello, where he earned a degree in journalism, advertising and public relations in 1980.  His goal then was to run a small weekly paper.

Jim reported and edited for weekly papers in Mesa, Ariz., and Sun Valley. Then he and his wife, Joanna, decided to take a year’s break, living in a bus near Brookings, Ore., where he produced a weekly shopper.

While there, he decided to quit drinking, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, which reintroduced him to God.  One day, when he was tempted to go out to buy a six-pack, he received a letter from a friend of his father, who was also a recovering alcoholic.

“He described what I was going through,” said Jim, who knelt and genuinely prayed for God’s help.  “I felt lighter and never desired a drink again.”

He and Joanna began attending church regularly.

Jim noted that after the year of not reading media, he found little had changed when he returned to reading news: “There was still strife in the Middle East, people still killed people and local government still focused on petty matters.”

In 1989, they went to Phoenix, where he did public relations and then they moved to Moscow to be near Joanna’s three children.

Jim did freelance writing and editing until he was accepted into the interdisciplinary communications graduate program at Washington State University.  He earned a master’s degree in 1993 and a doctorate in 1998.

Wanting to teach in a small liberal arts college with a religious base, he taught two years at Peace College in Raleigh, N.C., before moving to Spokane in 2000 to teach at Whitworth.

In Spokane, they have attended Knox Presbyterian and the Spokane Friends Church. 

As volunteers for feeding and shelter programs and as anti-war activists, Jim and Joanna connect faith and politics. 

In those activities, they often met Quakers, who led to their connection with the Friends church.

Jim appreciates Whitworth’s dual focus of teaching “on the narrow ridge between the heart and the mind,” and finds a stimulating intellectual community there for engaging in conversations with colleagues of differing political perspectives in mutual challenges that engage each in further research and thought.

Finding that the Quaker tradition of silence meets his personal needs, he incorporates silence into his life and teaching.

To invite a layout class to consider creativity, he encouraged them to turn off their computers, turn their chairs away from each other and take 10 minutes in silence to “reflect, meditate or nap,” thinking about creativity.  Then they talked about their experience.

Jim also takes five to 10 minutes for silence before classes, sitting and doing nothing.  Sometimes it changes what he teaches.

He finds that balancing quiet time, community action and work tasks gives him perspective.

“The day the war in Iraq started, I put on a black armband and wore it until Memorial Day.  It prompted conversations with students who didn’t know that wearing a black armband represented opposition to war,” Jim said.

Even in his searching years, Jim said he believed that, if Jesus was real, Jesus would be concerned about making life better for the downtrodden.  In line with that, he believes the major purpose of politics is to serve people.

“Politics is a way to practice faith.  It’s great to think we’ll have a reward in heaven, but I believe we are here to make life better for others and to learn what we can about God and ourselves,” he said.  “I believe the Bible calls us to speak out against war, to shelter the homeless and to educate.”

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