What Do You Mean by 'The Media?'

The term has been weaponized.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

On Friday evening a young Time reporter tweeted something false. Within minutes, he realized his error, corrected himself, and apologized.

The following day, the president of the United States chastised the reporter by name in an address to the CIA. “This is how dishonest the media is,” an exasperated Trump extrapolated.

Amid a flurry of real-time observations from within the Oval Office, the reporter, Zeke Miller, had written that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr., appeared to have been removed.  It hadn’t. It was just out of Miller’s field of view.

Yet the reprimanding of Miller and all of his colleagues continued throughout the weekend. Press Secretary Sean Spicer and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway also individually expressed outrage at Miller in public remarks—accusing him of lying, pointing to the error as proof that a nebulous entity is out to discredit and ruin Trump: “the media.”

Trump put it bluntly in his CIA address: “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” This echoed similar iterations  throughout his campaign. And at some rallies he paused to invite his followers to berate “the media” who were in attendance.

The sentiment capitalizes and expands upon an unprecedented divide: As of September of 2016, according to a Gallup poll, more Americans distrust “the media” than ever before.* Especially among Republicans: Only 14 percent have even a “fair amount of trust in the media.”

Yet while “the media” is a term that most Americans use, many fewer can easily define it (at least according to my months of conversational field surveys). Personally I’ve stopped using it.

Among Trump’s staff, the term has been used almost invariably in condemnation. “The media” has been applied to anyone who reports even the most objectively provable facts—from approval ratings to the size of the inaugural crowd—if those facts reflect poorly on Donald Trump. (Though people with large platforms who have not challenged Trump, like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, seem exempt.)

The term “the media” was first used as a singular, collective noun around 100 years ago, meaning “an intervening agency, means, or instrument.” The instrument (or medium) of the time was the printing press. People in the business of operating printing presses were a distinct group. Now mediums abound—many like Twitter and Facebook are still known as social media, even though the platforms have faded toward something closer to personal printing presses. At the same time, traditional media institutions are publishing on these platforms—and others like Medium and YouTube—alongside non-journalists. Everyone plays a role as an intermediary to some degree, an intervening agent in each news story, choosing what to share and how to frame it. As the term was originally conceived, many people would now qualify as part of “the media.”

So most likely when Trump refers to “the media” as the most dishonest people on the planet, he refers only to professional journalists. This is a contradiction in terms, because modern journalism is a profession predicated on conveying truth. Journalists’ currency is credibility. To quibble with a particular journalist’s motives is to quibble with their identity: Are they journalists? Or entertainers, ideologues, or advocates?

The goal in journalism is to be the best at identifying and conveying said truth. The entire concept of the profession is antithetical to lying. So it’s difficult to imagine objecting to the idea of journalism, in principle: to have people whose job is to act as dispassionate arbiters who discern truth. People who are fair, who are trustworthy, who do not slander, who are not beholden to any particular interest but seek transparency, to highlight injustice, and to hold people in power accountable.

The ideal is also clearly contingent on execution. Of course journalists are human, for now, so we make errors. Like Miller did, and as I have. We also have biases. Hard as we may try to overcome them, biases make it more likely that a human reporter will err in a way that confirms those biases. The effects of errors range from humiliating to discrediting. Errors can cost reputations and livelihoods. Usually a prompt and transparent correction is attenuating, but each mistake does damage.

This is different from a lie—willfully misleading people, usually to manipulate them to your own ends. Mistakes born of carelessness can be worthy of condemnation, but it’s another thing to accuse a person of willfully misrepresenting a situation. Some people and some institutions have failed to faithfully pursue the truth—have lied and misled. This tends to be punished severely within the profession.

(Though of course famous men have often failed upwards or been given generous second chances; for instance, Brian Williams, who admitted to exaggerating a story about reporting in a combat zone. While he is still gainfully employed, his credibility will never recover in many circles. Simply because a person is not jobless and penniless does not mean they have gone unpunished.)

When Trump claims that “the media” is a group of dishonest people, he is rather arbitrarily lumping together his critics as corrupt. When there is no check on power, a government can lie with impunity. I think it’s worth examining what we mean by “the media.” It’s worth being judicious about making sweeping claims that enable a divisive narrative.

To me it makes no more sense to refer to “the media” than to “the politicians” or “the government” or “the sports” or maybe “the athletes.” It’s not that broad terms like this are meaningless, but they confuse the point. They make it easy to write off entire institutions; to divide and polarize people broadly. If you start talking to a guy at the park and he says something like “those rat bastard politicians in Washington,” it’s pretty easy to predict the conversation’s level of nuance.

Of course, sometimes things can be said of all politicians, all doctors, or all journalists—“doctors go to medical school,” for example—but not often. The guy at the park who thinks politicians are all liars is most likely disgusted with certain things that certain people have said and done. But the logical end does not seem to be spurning the entire idea of elected officials—rejecting any iteration of the government, and to see the country as divided between people who love all aspects of government and people who hate it.

Interrogating the meaning of “the media” has become more important in recent months, as no American president has tried so aggressively to discredit all journalists. This sort of wholesale antagonism can only occur in a world that is drastically oversimplified into binaries. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t “hate the media” or “love the media,” but see it as the complex professional-commercial-personal-political ecosystem that it is. Making sweeping claims about “the media” jumbles up journalists with infotainment and partisan pundits and advocates.

Many of us see the absurdity in that type of overgeneralization, and yet we contribute to it, with every mention of “the media” as if it were some monolithic entity. That sort of usage enables the painting of this monolithic entity as either corrupt or not, trustworthy or not. It further jeopardizes what little trust remains in the profession that exists only to convey truth. The profession that grows more necessary by the day.

* This article originally misattributed the results of a Gallup poll to Pew Research Center. We regret the error.