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Sloppy Language Breeds Sloppy Thinking On Media

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A near-universal mistake in language makes a big contribution to a common mistake in our culture – and both mistakes ought to be corrected if we mean to speak more properly and to comprehend our society more accurately.

From Barack Obama to Rush Limbaugh, nearly everyone treats the word “media” as a singular noun, employing phrases like “the media is wrong” or “the media treats me unfairly.” Actually, “media” is a plural form–the singular term is “medium.” For instance, radio is a medium of communication, but television and newspapers represent very different media.  It’s right to say “media are not one monolithic, unified entity,” but it’s wrong — and should be embarrassing — to say “the media is a destructive force in our society,” no matter how truly destructive those media (plural) may actually be.

This is important, because treating media as a unified, singular entity suggests that these very different forms of communication speak in one voice, which isn’t true anymore. One of the characteristics of the journalistic landscape in the last several years has been the proliferation of different viewpoints, outlets and services catering in some cases to very distinct niche audiences. Those who believe that every communications company follows the same leftist line of thinking must somehow explain why Fox News consistently gets a larger audience than MSNBC and CNN combined, or why all of the top 20 syndicated political talk shows on the radio are conservative. Sure, Huffington Post and Daily Kos may tilt to the left but there’s plenty of competition from Truth Revolt, Drudge, Daily Caller, Townhall, and many more.

This fracturing means that it’s more ridiculous than ever to treat “media” — including newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, the internet and more – as one unified entity. Opinions you read in leading newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post differ sharply from what you hear on talk radio, just as Christian Broadcasting Network (which has a loyal audience) hardly echoes Al Jazeera America (with its laughably limited reach). While many media outlets still tilt left, others lean right — and it’s inappropriate and self-destructive when right-leaning voices attempt to elicit sympathy by claiming that the whole world of the press and broadcasters functions to their detriment. Actually, the medium of talk radio in which I toil every day reaches a huge audience (my show hits more than 4 million different listeners in the course of a week) so it’s unbecoming to whine that we can’t get our message to the public.

It’s time to change our language to correspond to the changes in the media landscape. This happened after the Civil War, when the previously common habit of treating the United States as a plural title all but disappeared. For instance, after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Robert Livingston, one of the negotiators who had made the fateful agreement with Napoleon, proudly declared: “From this day, the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank.” To modern ears, that statement sounds antiquated and inaccurate. After Appomattox, the common locution changed in every corner of the country to register the new reality that the United States constituted one nation, indivisible.

By using the term media as a singular, rather than a plural noun, we reference a miserable reality that no longer exists, even if it once did. Sloppy use of language encourages sloppy thinking. Our speech and writing ought to catch up to reality – and to reflect the fact that media have become diverse enough for us to recognize room for multiple viewpoints.

 This column originally appeared at TruthRevolt.org on July 21, 2014.

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