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7.2.05

On Language
(Let me preface my modest proposal with the caveat that I am a believer in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Whereas the details and the extent to which language shapes cognition is under intense scholarly debate, the basic premise is by and large accepted—and I tend believe that the power of language is very strong, indeed. If you don't agree with this basic premise, then the following will have very little appeal. Otherwise, please read on.)

In popular American culture, over the last decade, but greatly accelerated in the last few years, we have seen a near abandonment of the words "press" and "journalism" in favor of "media." Often, this takes the form of "the media," implying a monolithic entity (as does "the press," but as opposed to "the press corps" or "journalists," which refer to groups of individuals). Moreover, "the media" usually takes singular verbs (e.g., "the media is screwing our country"), further modifying and diluting the meaning of the word. If one uses its singular form, medium, then the question is begged "which medium?" Call in radio talk shows? Glossy news weeklies? Oil on canvas? But used as a monolithic singular, "the media" subsumes so many shades of meaning as to reduce itself to near meaninglessness.

This imprecise use of the term, in my opinion, has allowed for the banal Fox-ification of our major press outlets. Nowadays, very few people speak of "the press," using instead the term "the media" as if it were synonymous. It's not! "The press" implies a physicality to the dissemination of information, and "journalism" implies professionalism (or, at the very least, a craft). "Media," on the other hand, implies either nonspecific modes of transmission or, since the rise of computers, flashy graphics. By calling journalists "the media" we permit them to focus on form over content. We permit them to ignore the meaning of their messages. We permit them to be intellectually lazy—and this laziness is a major component of the problems we face societally. It underlies our inability to address topics intelligently, and it simplifies the jobs of the professional propagandists by blurring the lines between legitimate news, opinion, and outright lies.

So my request is this: stop using the word "media" except in either a technical sense or as an epithet (a la "media whores"). If enough people reclaim the meaning of the word, wresting it back from its bland non-specificity, then maybe we, as a country, will start to remember what the press is supposed to be doing. And then maybe more of the press will remember, too. And then maybe journalists will actually start doing their jobs again. And then maybe we can climb out of this hole we've fallen into. Since direct engagement with the press—calling them out on their mistakes, missteps, and lies—seems to have little effect, maybe a subtle shifting of the linguistic landscape will do the trick. It certainly can't hurt to try.


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