‘There is no such thing’ as ‘the media’


Long ago, when my friend and colleague Warren Bolton and I were both still in The State‘s newsroom, before moving to editorial — we’re talking maybe early ’90s — Warren helped lead some newsroom discussions on race.

The idea was help us all do a better, more informed job writing about subjects bearing on that issue, or set of issues, in South Carolina.

One thing I remember in particular was a meeting in which Warren and another African-American colleague urged us to avoid the habit of referring carelessly to “the black community,” as though it were some monolithic, coherent entity that thought and acted in unison, like a colonial animal.

I took that to heart because it made a lot of sense to me, and ever since I’ve hesitated to use that construction, as well as similar ones such as “LGBT community,” “Hispanic community,” and what have you. After all, we don’t write of, say, women as “the female community,” because most of us recognize women as a set of individuals containing too much diversity for such a generalization. We should follow suit with other broadly defined groups.

(Of course, it in part appealed to me because we in the white heterosexual male community are well known to prefer to deal with people as individuals rather than in terms of aggregations, something which sometimes causes members of other “communities” to counsel us to “check our privilege” and stop trying to destroy other groups’ sense of solidarity so that we may oppress them individually. Which we, both communally and individually, tend to find maddening. Smiley face.)

I am reminded of all this because of this piece in The Washington Post urging the great unwashed out there to stop referring to “the media” as though they were a single, coherent thing with one mind, acting in unison. An excerpt:

Please stop calling us “the media.”

Yes, in some sense, we are the media. But not in the blunt way you use the phrase. It’s so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning. It’s — how would you put this? — lazy and unfair.

As I understand your use of this term, “the media” is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, “the media” is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life.

But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at CrankyCrackpot.com might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.

Fact is, there really is no such thing as “the media.” It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions….

This piece, by the way, was not written by “the media,” or even by The Washington Post. It was written by this guy named Paul Farhi who is one of many individuals who works at the Post. If you want to be properly pedantic about it (and who wouldn’t want to be that?), you would only say that “The Washington Post said” something if it was said in an editorial — an editorial being an unsigned piece by the Post‘s editorial board, not something written by an op-ed columnist or someone else whose byline appears on the piece.

Yeah, I know — confusing. But to keep it simple, you’ll sound a lot smarter if you don’t refer sweepingly to “the media” as doing or saying or thinking this or that.

And we in the media community (which includes the vast army of us who no longer have actual media jobs, and a more cantankerous crowd you are unlikely to find) will appreciate it….

27 thoughts on “‘There is no such thing’ as ‘the media’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and if you can’t bring yourself to do what Paul Farhi is saying, at least please remember that “media” is a plural noun, and pair it with the appropriate verbs. Something which Mr. Farhi failed to do (“But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that…”), but let’s give him credit and say he was doing that for effect…

  2. Burl Burlingame

    Always amused when people use Twitter or FaceBook to complain about “the media.”

    And anyone who thinks the “media” is in any way organized is delusional. We’re in competition with each other, but also have to stick to the factual. Reality does not equal conspiracy.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve always thought people who think there could be coordinated action by media organizations should try being the executive editor of one paper for one day.

      Even when you’re theoretically the boss of everybody in a newsroom, it’s impossible to ensure that your subordinates are doing what you want, because there are so many things going on at once, all done by people who are quite certain THEY know the best way to do it…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Of course, it may be SLIGHTLY easier now because there are so few people left in newsrooms, and fewer pages being produced.

        But it would still prove my point.

        Being editorial page editor was less frustrating. Just having those two pages every day, and personally proofing them before they could go, made it almost impossible I’d go ballistic when the paper came out the next morning. If there was a problem, I had myself to blame…

  3. clark surratt

    But Brad, in the second sentence of your excerpt, the writer says “we are the media.” If, only “some sense,” “we” are the media, then what’s wrong with calling “them” the media.

    In this piece, the Washington Post is the medium, one of many media, such as news media, broadcast media, advertising media, trade media, etc. . These descriptions are fairly universally accepted.

    Some words can get squishy, but to me, media does not. The word describes tools to convey information from senders to receivers.

    So in this sense, I disagree with you and with the writer. The writer (Fahri, not you) sounds a bit intellectually arrogant in arguing his case.

    1. Harry Harris

      I’m up for a little intellectual arrogance. I much prefer it to the rampant intellectual laziness that dumbs down public discourse to the level of gross generalities, straw man arguments, conventional wisdom, and lack of nuanced detail that pervades so much media expression, religious conversation, and political speech today. Sound bites satisfy too many who are content to say “I don’t know much about that, but…” Expertise is ignored or laughed at (unless it concerns making money). Deeply thought-out solutions to problems and issues (especially crises) are blown off because they take too long to explain, too much effort and patience to implement, or don’t appeal to feel-good longings. Let the intellectually arrogant rail on. I just wish they would raise their volume somewhat.

  4. Doug Ross

    “Expertise is ignored or laughed at (unless it concerns making money). Deeply thought-out solutions to problems and issues (especially crises) are blown off because they take too long to explain, too much effort and patience to implement, or don’t appeal to feel-good longings. ”

    Why are solutions possible in the real world? Buildings get built. People will treat Trump with scorn and yet he gets things done. Actual projects that take engineering, financial, and even political skill. He brings all those talents together and accomplishes things. Trump spoke of his new hotel in the old post office in D.C. the other night. Read the history on the government’s failed attempts to turn it into a hotel over many years. Trump got it done: faster, better, and on time and under budget. The skills necessary to do that are rare. I couldn’t do it. Nobody on this blog could do it. That hotel will generate about $6.5 million per year in hotel bed tax revenue and $1.5 million in sales tax revenue. It will employ hundreds of people in the D.C. area. And we’re supposed to villify Trump for taking the risk to do this??


    1. bud

      You’re right Doug sending a man to the moon pales in comparison to building a hotel. If Trump had been in charge we would have done it 10 years sooner. Sorry Doug I’m not buying into this business skills meme. Forbes has downgraded his wealth another $800 m. Once everything is known about his debt I wager he’ll be worth less than his dad.

      1. Doug Ross

        Elon Musk has done what NASA can’t do in far less time and for far less money. Smart, motivated people will outperform the government every time.

        So Trump is now worth “only” 3.5 billion. Poor guy.

        I’ll take your wager. How much do you want to bet?

        1. Doug Ross

          How much do you estimate Trump’s father was worth in today’s dollars? Wikipedia estimates his net worth at $250-300 million in 1999. According to an inflation calculator, $300 million in 1999 would be worth $486.57 million today. Are you REALLY willing to bet that Trump is worth less than that? Even Forbes was show evidence that Trump had a couple hundred million in cash a few years ago. With the big gains in real estate in the past few years, it is highly unlikely his assets have lost money.

          You can wish Trump wasn’t a successful, elite businessman but it’s not true. He’s in the 1% of the 1%.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            It amazes me how you guys talk about that like it matters. Why would I ever CARE how much money Trump has managed to accumulate?

            I’m just glad we know how much of it he’s paying in taxes — oh, wait. We don’t.

            How did we get on this from media?

            1. Doug Ross

              How much tax revenue do his businesses generate? The post office hotel was estimated at 8 million by itself. Nobody else was going to generate that money. ..

              And if you have an example of the government doing anything THIS century and not 50 years ago, please let me know.

            2. bud

              Of course it doesn’t matter. But Trump’s entire campaign is prefaced on the notion that he’s a spectacular businessman AND that those “skills” are transferable to governing. I don’t believe that is true. He’s certainly scammed lots of people. What wealth he has amassed is based on (1) his daddy’s inheretance, (2) his daddy’s connections and (3) his knack for cheating everyone, including the taxpayers. Now we have evidence that he did business with Cuba in violation of the law. So not only is he a scam artist but he’s a crook. If being a good businessman means you have no moral compass then I’m thankful I’m not a good businessman.

          2. bud

            The only thing I “wish” is that Trump never becomes president. If he does fail I suspect the value of his name will come crashing down.

      2. Claus

        Has anyone outside of NYC ever heard of his dad before Donald started his business? Sending a man to the moon and turning an old post office building into a hotel is like comparing apples to Hungarian shoe inserts.

        Carrying debt can be a good thing and likely a smart business practice. Why would I pay off my 3.125% mortgage or 0% car loan when I can use that same money in investments and bring in 5+%?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yes, debt can be a good way to go, when rates are low. Which is why it’s crazy that some politicians seem allergic to the state borrowing money for infrastructure needs.

          I wouldn’t fault Trump for having debt. I WOULD fault him for routinely going bankrupt so he doesn’t have to fully pay the people he owes money to — while he walks away with millions. That makes a businessman a sleazeball…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Note that I am NOT in general criticizing people who get into a bind and have no choice but to seek protection under our bankruptcy laws. The laws exist for a reason, and they are very humane.

            What I object to is a guy who views going into bankruptcy as just another routine tool in his bag of tricks, and congratulates himself on how he uses it to benefit himself…

            1. Doug Ross

              Like M.B. Kahn? His company is going to get a lot of the penny tax dollars. Should be have been disqualified from that? His bancruptcy is much more recent.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Did anybody read what I said? I’ll repeat: “Note that I am NOT in general criticizing people who get into a bind and have no choice but to seek protection under our bankruptcy laws. The laws exist for a reason, and they are very humane.”

                No one should be ashamed for going bankrupt, nor should he be barred from doing business in the future (such as work funded by the penny tax).

                But, as I say below, you don’t file for bankruptcy and go around boasting that filing bankruptcy shows what a great, savvy, terrific businessman you are. And ask people to vote for you on that basis.

              2. bud

                Doug you have the attention span of a 2 year old. We’re talking about Trump. Clearly this gets uncomfortable when your preconceived notions of the infallibility of capitalism is challenged. To suggest that Elon Musk is in ANY way as competent as NASA at putting things in space is beyond ludicrous.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Trump said of McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

              Well, I like people who, when they find themselves in bankruptcy, don’t boast about it…

              1. Bart

                Without getting into naming individuals, I know 2 who have become very wealthy by using bankruptcy as a tool to increase their wealth. One has an estimated income of approximately $6 million a month now and I am not sure what the other one is worth. The one with the high monthly income is probably worth several hundred million if he liquidated his holdings. While they were building their fortunes via bankruptcy laws and legal maneuvers, they left a lot of people “holding the bag”, an empty bag.

                When my business went under, instead of declaring bankruptcy, I encouraged anyone I owed money to file a bond claim so they wouldn’t lose what was rightfully theirs. We, my wife and I, sold everything we had and walked away with practically nothing. I made it a point to go to everyone I owed and sat down face to face and told the truth. Almost everyone told me that if I ever decided to go back into business, I had unlimited credit.

                It is not that I am morally superior over anyone, I am anything but. However, it isn’t difficult to do the right thing and that is all I did. Nothing heroic or exceptional about it at all. I refused to hide behind the legal way of avoiding paying what one rightfully owes. Integrity cannot be bought and therein is one of my problems with Trump and Clinton.

                IMHO, neither one has enough to cover the head of a pin.

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