“I don’t hold with furniture that talks.”— Fred Allen.
I was reading yet another self-flagellation article bemoaning public distrust of the media in one of the multitude of industry publications that come unsolicited to my mailbox the other day, when I reached my turgidity point on that subject.
“You know,” I said to the no one in particular that was in or out of my living room after inelegantly slamming the magazine on a nearby table, “I am not the media, just like most of my buddies aren’t the media and we all made a mistake when we let other folks start calling us that.”
I am and always have been a newspaperman, first a reporter (still the most honorable job in the profession for my nickel), then a city editor, then a managing editor and for the past quarter century, an editor and publisher. My little country newspaper is a member of the Mississippi Press Association and for much of the past decade I have been honored to be a member of its board of directors.
To satisfy the requirements of good English and Latin, I will concede that my newspaper is a medium but I am not and hereafter refuse to be lumped into and thereby collectively cussed as “the media,” or more often than not, “the mainstream media,” as that term is now incessantly thrown about willy-nilly in contemporar y America.
As purely a matter of historical truth, until television wormed its way into our homes in the far less contaminated late 1950s (I was but a lad when Daddy and Cousin Montroy brought the first one, a seminally ugly black-and-white RCA console, purchased from yet another relative’s furniture and appliance store into ours one Saturday morning.), there really was no such thing as “the media.”
There were daily newspapers, sometimes competing ones, in cities large enough to support them and there were weekly newspapers in smaller towns and counties across the land. Some of those papers were really good and some of them were pretty bad and that is not really different from today, save the nigh-untotragic fact that there are fewer of both.
But for the notion of some insidious “mainstream media’s” entry into the national lexicon, we can once again thank what was until recently the most scandalous and underhanded group of folks in the history of the country—the Nixon administration. That’s right, what had up to then always been referred to as “the press,” began to be intentionally, strategically transformed into “the media” by Tricky Dick and the band of merry men in his White House.
And you know why? For reasons that should be all too evident today, that’s why.
To refer to journalists, to reporters as “the press” bestowed upon them a degree of respect and professionalism, not to mention constitutionally protected status, undesired by the pols. Nixon, who hated the press, thought that it could be diminished by referring to journalists as “the media,” and in that, he was right.
William Safire, who went on to rightful journalistic fame, was first a speechwriter for Nixon, and he described the strategic demeaning in his memoir: “The press became “the media” because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation,” Safire wrote, adding Nixon viewed reporters and their papers to be his adversaries and out to get him.
Safire recalled in his book that Nixon declared to his staff “the press is the enemy” at least a dozen times in his presence.
Now, where else and from whom have I heard that?
In the 40 years since Nixon, American political opinion has grown far more polarized, even as dueling cable network “experts” and “analysts” and “contributors” lobbing verbal hand grenades at each other nightly, have replaced the real reporting and considered editorial pages of newspapers as the primary sources from which people say they get their “news.”
In this sense, we should perhaps express less frustration at a less informed populace within an information age. With politics the now prevailing blood sport and political parties and figures reduced to the lowest common denominators of heroes and villains, more and more of us are looking for love in all the wrong places.
Because there they find reinforcement for their preconceived opinions and with the ease of a remote they can also find the new villains, who for their own interests and in quest of their own ratings, dare to express either subtle or explicit criticism of the viewers’ heroes.
The press was and never will be perfect, but it was respected and that respect had been earned. The Fourth Estate was as revered as is the “mainstream media” now reviled and by not drawing a wider, bolder line between that which we are and that far lesser thing into which so many would lump us, we have suffered mightily through an almost daily dilution of that respect.
Simply put: Once the press devolved into a far lesser mainstream media, it became both easier and more comfortable to blame the messenger.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.