The Washington Post changes “mike,” “e-mail” to “mic,” “email”

Posted December 8, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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1-12433511551KPgDays ago in an op-edWashington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh announced some changes in the paper’s stylebook. Long after the Associated Press and even the New York Times, the Post has changed the following:
—“e-mail” to “email”
—“Web site” to “website”
—“Wal-Mart” to “Walmart”
—the short form of “microphone” from “mike” to “mic”

“Why did we wait so long to make the changes?” he wrote. “As the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual, I’ll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.”

If all copyeditors were laid end to end, would they ever reach the same conclusion? At the same time? (Oh, wait, that’s economists.) Walmart changed the way it referred to its stores—if not its official corporate name—in 2008. AP changed “Web site” and “e-mail” in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The Times did so in 2013. Walsh decided to proposed his changes only once the Post was about to move to a new building. Better late than never, I guess.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Email. We don’t say “tshirt” or “xray,” Walsh says, so why “email”? But he caved to pressure both internal and external because “yesterday’s vigorously defended norm can be today’s laughingstock.” Wrote Grammar Girl in 2011, “I asked the AP Stylebook editors why they made the change, and they said most of their writers already turn in articles with the ‘email’ spelling, and copy editors found ‘e-mail’ increasingly difficult to police. They emphasized that they don’t consider themselves to be on the leading edge of language change; that instead, they ‘bow to common usage.’ ”

My take: Don’t be fooled by the fact that tech users are early adopters; the world is not aligned on this sort of thing. AP also uses “e-book,” “e-commerce,” and “e-business”; a well-funded, global legal association uses “e-commerce” and “e-discovery.” To me, it’s about readability; do readers trip over the word? Digital readers were much quicker to give up (on) the hyphen.

Website. “I don’t know why I made such a big deal about it all these years,” said Walsh.

My take: AP still caps “Web” as a proper noun while lowercasing “website,” “webcam,” “webmaster,” etc. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) I’m fine with making it one word but appreciate the cap for clarity.

Walmart. The company is Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; it changed its logo in 2008. A logo is not a word, but readers complained. Walsh found a loophole that he said let him make the change: “The Post no longer routinely uses Inc., Corp., Co. and the like in company names. So we could keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on the rare occasion when we’d spell out the name, while otherwise referring to the company and its stores by the name everyone knows.” (Huh? What does that have to do with Walmart vs. Wal-Mart?)

My take: Just pay your workers decently, whatever you call yourself.

Mic. Walsh spent six paragraphs trying to justify his decision here. No wonder. “As a purist, I’m still not happy about mic. As a pragmatist, I feel I have to accept it,” he said.

Pro “mike”: “A bicycle is a bike, not a bic. Bic, as in the pens, rhymes with Mick.” Plus, “mic” began as an abbreviation on recording devices; it was never meant to be pronounced or used as a word. Pro “mic”: “Enough people made the error that mic gradually crept into the language.”

My take: I completely agree with everything Walsh says above, though I hate that the Post and other guides are giving in on this. As he explained well, “mic is an aberration.” And call me Irish(-American), but I’m not getting over the bad historical connections here. He’s also correct, though, that “some now-common phrases—mic drop, hot mic—would look downright anachronistic with the old spelling.” Which … is how language changes.

As an afterthought(!), Walsh stopped short of changing the rule that a person must be called “he” or “she”—but the Post now also allows the use of “they” “as a last resort.” Say what?! This one Walsh actually advocated as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” “He” is sexist, “she” is patronizing, “he or she” is awkward, and alternating and “s/he” are silly. “What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns,” he wrote, “was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.” Plus, he noted, sometimes you just don’t know the right gender to use.

Walsh claims to be surprised that people have protested this change more than the others. Seriously? “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle,” he wrote. “We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

My ultimate take: Of all the changes mentioned here, the fact that no one has brought a complaint about a newspaper of record breaking a basic rule of grammar is the saddest one of all.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

More public grammar and spelling don’ts

Posted November 17, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Ignorance, sloppiness, autocorrect (a bane if I ever saw one) … there are many reasons for poor grammar and usage. But there are few excuses.

No one writes the way they talk—see what I did there?—and few of us even write the way we’re “supposed to” in everyday writing. That is, in emails to friends and sticky notes to coworkers, who much cares how U write as long as yr understood? Emails to your boss or the board, on the other hand, call for a higher standard.

Companies, government agencies, and nonprofits are also held to a higher standard. Any entity in business with or service to the public should respect itself and its audience enough to use proper English. If you don’t know enough to make a noun and a verb agree—and know that it matters that they do—find someone who does.

As always, I’m not going to pound on regular folks who mess with the language. Those “entities” that know better or should, though, deserve what they get. Some examples:

In direct mail from a nondenominational Maryland church, “The decisions we make can transform our lives, the lives of our families and impact our future.” As Sesame Street says, “Which one of these things does not belong?” Parallel usage, please. Though fighting “impact” as a verb may require the Almighty.

From a Washington Gas marketing flier: “Cross bores can lay dormant for months or even years, their exact locations unknown.” Cross bores may lie low—that’s an example of an idiom—but they lie dormant. And that’s no lie.

A radio ad for a timeshare-rescue company says, “How’d you like to be the person that dumped that timeshare?” Another says, “You deserve a dentist that can restore a full arch of teeth in a single visit.” If this dentist is a person and not a robot, he or she is a “who,” not a “that.”

There’s a lot of this going around: Referring to veterans, the New Mexico Department of Health website says, “We are proud to serve those that have served us.” And “Tonight we’ve learned more about the prison employee that investigators think helped the men escape ….”—With two previous mentions here, CBS’s Scott Pelley is going for the ungrammatical hall of fame.

From a Yahoo Music article: “The song lyrics warn about a wrath from God prompted by ‘the lack of raw humanity.’ ” I’ve heard of the wrath of God. Maybe this should say “a wreath”?

In an opinion column in the Washington Post: “the text of the Constitution, the legislative history, the legislative history of the civil rights statue that preceded it ….” Ooh, let’s see the civil-rights statue that preceded it. Pretty sure the Constitution came first, though.

The Hollywood Reporter, quoting Law & Order: SVU showrunner Warren Leight about an actor: “We’ve put his character through the ringer ….” No, you put his character through the wringer. My grandmother used a wringer. Being put through one would be very unpleasant. (See photo.)

From a Liberty Mutual magazine ad: “As an alumni of UVa, you could receive exclusive savings ….” Staff at the alumni association, whose logo is on the ad, should know that any graduate, alum, or former student is singular, not plural.

In the Washington Post Express, in a section on odd crimes: “After giving officers there a detailed description of the hat, police found it in a flowerbed and arrested him.” Police gave officers a description?

And in the Washington Post, those pesky vowels: “The decision does not effect the Ivanka Trump collection, which Macy’s also sells.” No. It doesn’t affect it, either, which is more to the point.

From a business coach’s newsletter on the subject of communication (irony alert): “If people don’t seem to be listening to you and reacting the way you desire, it is you, not them, that are the issue.” Oy! (Says Bill Walsh, Washington Post copyeditor: “ ‘They’ would be the quick fix, but I’d do more heavy lifting.”)

Another communicator who should know better is the writer/editor of FishbowlNY, which ran this sentence this summer: “The New York Daily News has received bids from John Catsimatidis and Jimmy Finkelstein, but neither appear to be the frontrunner.”

On a poster in Washington, DC’s, transit system: “A smart kid like you knows that eating and drinking in the system is against the law, right?” And a smart Metro knows that two subjects take a plural verb, right? (It didn’t mean only people who do these things in combination. Folks have been arrested for just the French-fries part.)

Okay, this is not strictly a grammatical error and seemed to be an off-the-cuff remark, nothing official. But it made me giggle while listening to WTOP radio: “Watch out for deer on the road in all this fog. I saw two of them driving in this morning.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

All that gleams may be a distraction from work

Posted October 27, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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time-fliesIn the late, lamented TV series Firefly, “shiny” was a futuristic word meaning “cool” (or the equivalent). For writers and other creative folks, it still is—and it’s something to watch out for.

Avoid Shiny Object Syndrome,” warns author and book marketer Sandra Beckwith in a recent blog post. To Beckwith, a shiny object or other cool thing may be helpful, or it may be a distraction. For instance, lately she’s been hearing a lot about Periscope, the Twitter video tool that can help sell books. It’s also fun, cool, amazing, and—well—shiny.

“Before you are distracted by the newest shiny object that everyone seems to be chattering about,” she writes, “ask yourself these questions:
• “Who is using this tool or service?
• “Who will I reach if I use it?
• “Is my target audience—the people who are most likely to love my book—using it?”

If not, ignore it. Back to work.

Beckwith is talking about longer-term distractions. There are also shorter-term, day-to-day ones. I’ve written before about shiny objects in general when trying to work—things like food, laundry, a sudden need to exercise, and of course the very shiny Internet with its newspapers, YouTube, email, and other fun dalliances. Any excuse to spend minutes, even hours away from what really matters.

“When you finally get back to work—two, five, maybe 10 minutes after the initial interruption—it’s harder to focus,” Laura Entis worte on Entrepreneur.com. “You pause to check your email again, peruse news sites and look at cute kitten pictures on Instagram. Consequently, you find yourself making more mistakes.”

Entis cites a 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology “that a mere 2.8 second interruption more than doubled the number of errors study participants—300 undergraduate students—made when asked to recall precisely where they were in a sequence of tasks.” Shiny = scary.

What to do? Commenters on Beckwith’s blog offer suggestions for avoiding distractions, whether specific or general. “I’ve set up an Outlook rule so that all marketing emails from people I follow automatically go into a marketing folder,” wrote one. “This folder lets me quickly delete 95% of them and only open the true gems.”

Entis offers others. Set up chunks of time in which you refuse to be distracted. No phone, no Internet, no lunch. My previous post, cited above, includes links to apps that can temporarily block access to email and the Net so you won’t be tempted.

Figure out when you’re naturally most awake and alert, and do your most important work then. According to David Rock, coauthor of Your Brain at Work, most people can focus best only six hours a week. Even more scary!

And last, grow up. Seriously. In another post, Entis, who writes a lot about procrastinating, quotes Tim Pychyl, a Carleton University psychology professor and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “I don’t know where we learn this, but somehow we internalize the notion that our motivational state has to match the task at hand,” says Pychyl. “For many important tasks, if not most of them, getting started has nothing to do with how we feel.” (Entis also recommends deleting games from your desktop and blocking Facebook—“whatever you have to do.”)

Shiny objects are good for writers if we can corral them, tame them, shape them into article queries and blog posts and book chapters. But shiny objects are bad when they become distractions from doing that work. Few apps, games, emails, or news articles are “shiny”/cool enough to be worth losing 2.8 seconds of work over when those so often turn into two, five, or 40 minutes and errors to boot. All that lost productivity will take the shine off—fast.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Do *you* read banned books? (Probably, yes.)

Posted October 6, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Have you finished your banned book yet?

If you started reading during Banned Books Week (Sept. 27 through Oct. 3), maybe not. Some of those titles run long. Of course, so do the lists of them. If you’ve ever delved into the Harry Potter series; The Kite Runner; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; or To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ve read a book that someone somewhere has banned or restricted.

Classic? Young adult? Play? Graphic novel? Short, long, fiction, even nonfiction? Humor, historical, horror, allegory, how-to, science/medical, satirical? Doesn’t matter. There’s always a reason.

People and groups that challenge or ban books make strange bedfellows. Nationalism and obscenity are common reasons around the world. So is racist language. (Sexist language is apparently not a problem.) That’s the main basis of perpetual battles over Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Black Boy, and even Mockingbird. The keep-them side sees these classics as learning tools and reflective of their times, and each side accuses the other of failing to see what’s more damaging: reading racist words and racist depictions of people and situations or cleaning up or avoiding the same in an effort to sanitize history, literature, and thought.

Then there’s the religious argument. The Harry Potter series is godless and promotes witchcraft. Brave New World is antifamily and antireligion. Fahrenheit 451 not only uses foul language but shows the burning of a Bible. (Hello, irony.)

Another angle to the religious argument (often including obscenity) is the attempt to ban books that show “immoral” situations: extramarital sex, homosexuality, rape, and so on. That covers Forever, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, Lolita, Daddy’s Roommate, Heather Has Two Mommies, The Kite Runner, even In the Night Kitchen (Mickey the toddler is nude!).

Overlapping that religious angle but often coming from the opposite political viewpoint is the desire to shield children from books that depict violence, abuse, suicide, and general misery, especially involving other children. There go The Kite Runner (again), The Hunger Games, The Color Purple, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Ordinary People, Lord of the Flies, The Chocolate War, Blubber, Summer of My German Soldier, Catch-22 ….

Current popularity is no protection. I was surprised to find Friday Night Lights, among other most-read titles, on a Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books List. (Is it the football worship?) This is a novel that’s spawned a film and a very successful TV series. No surprise about magic-filled Harry Potter, the bestselling book series in history, which has been credited with getting hundreds of thousands of nonreaders to read; its seven print installments have been made into e-books, audiobooks, theme parks, video games, a stage play, and the second-highest-grossing film series of all time.

I gave my mother the “I read banned books” pin I received at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference this year. She smiled. “Banned books are the best books,” the career librarian said.

It’s not too late to find your own banned book and defy attempts at censorship. Try Banned & Challenged Classics (The Great Gatsby is #1) or the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2014. Then you too can say, “I read banned books.”

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Accuracy checklists aren’t just for staffers

Posted September 15, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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check_list1Many years ago, I wrote a travel article that described the Lancaster County area in contrasts: city versus country, 18-wheelers roaring down I-30 with clip-clopping black buggies just feet away on the sides of the highway. Confident in my writing, I nonetheless asked Ray to give it a read before I sent the piece off to the editor.

And good thing I did. Ray nodded at most of the draft but brought up one major objection. “Honey,” he said, “I-30 is in Texas. Route 30 is in Pennsylvania.”

I remembered that incident—still used as a cautionary tale for students—when reading about Steve Buttry’s advocacy of an accuracy checklist. Buttry has some 45 years of experience in the news business. He urges using the same sort of CYA checklist in journalism—and by extension nonfiction writing and reporting—that airline and healthcare workers use to prevent critical errors.

Buttry heard the idea from Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech and a former managing editor at PBS, at a 2010 accuracy workshop. The checklist is ”one of the simplest and most effective error-reducing tools” and has “been proven to work for pilots, doctors, nurses, and even people at nuclear power stations,” Silverman wrote in Columbia Journalism Review.

Experienced journalists don’t use checklists because they think they make fewer mistakes than a rookie, he wrote, but “research doesn’t support this idea.” Too often we wing it, going with our assumptions, depending on “logic,” conflating correlation with causation. These mistakes are even more likely to sink a story given the loss of fact checkers and editors on staff.

So what should be on a writer/reporter’s checklist? Silverman’s CJR article includes links to a few examples (here’s his own starter), and Buttry has one, too. It’s pretty basic stuff, but a tired, overwhelmed, or distracted writer can easily miss things like this:

• Have you double-checked all names, titles, and places mentioned in your story?
• Have you tested from the screen and CQ’d all phone numbers and Web addresses?
• Are the quotes accurate and properly attributed? Have you fully captured what each person meant?
• Have you assumed anything? (If so, verify, hedge, or remove.)

You wouldn’t believe the stupid mistakes made presumably without such backstoppage. The Times of London once referred to Pope John Paul II as “the first non-Catholic pope for 450 years” (it meant “non-Italian”), and the New York Times corrected a column saying that Moses had parted the Dead Sea, not the Red Sea. Better editing—or a fail-safe checklist—would have prevented those mistakes.

An assistant editor at The Washingtonian, the young woman in charge of the fact checkers, used to have a sign over her desk. “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story,” it read. We’d all do well to remember: That was a joke. You’re not infallible. Check your copy.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

A football team that (still) needs another name

Posted August 25, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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We’re in the third quarter on this one! Meaning that we seem to be getting closer to a name change for the Washington-area professional football team—and that this is the third year I’ve tracked our progress. Let’s take a look at name-related news from the past year ….

August 2014: News reports mention broadcasters who won’t say the team name on the air, including “two notable NFL analysts and former Super Bowl champions,” according to Yahoo News. “The controversy surrounding the nickname has taken on all forms, and for CBS lead analyst Phil Simms and NBC studio analyst Tony Dungy, their protest will be to avoid saying it.” As writer Frank Schwab explained, “Simms told AP he’s not taking a side in the debate about whether the nickname is offensive, but he’s just sensitive to the complaints. But the controversy has now forced NFL broadcasters to pick sides, simply by questioning whether they’ll use the name on air or not.” Tom Jackson of ESPN said he was leaning toward following Dungy’s example.

Also in the news: a CBS rules analyst and former NFL referee who says he has never used the “proper” name and has refused to referee Washington’s games since 2006.

The month’s biggest news on this front was the Washington Post editorial board’s decision to stop using the team name. “This page has for many years urged the local football team to change its name. ‘The term “Redskins,” ’ we wrote in 1992, ‘is really pretty offensive,’ ” the editorial read, continuing, “while we wait for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency, we have decided that, except when it is essential for clarity or effect, we will no longer use the slur ourselves…. as Mr. Carey noted, every time the R-word is used, something disrespectful is happening.” It was a change only for editorials, not for the sports or news pages, but it was a good step.

September 2014: More than 100 Native American and social justice groups asked thousands of broadcasters to refrain from using the team name. The coalition cited ESPN’s Lisa Salter and CBS’s James Brown as well as Simms and Dungy as among those who do not use the name on air.

The same story mentioned an ESPN survey of 286 NFL players finding that 58 percent think the name should stay and 42 percent think it should go. In a separate survey of 51 players on the team in question, 26 said keep it, 1 said change it, and 24 “declined to answer.”

Then there was the opening episode of South Park that took on owner Dan Snyder, the team, and its name. A startup company needs a name, and which name is available after losing trademark protection? Snyder: “You cannot let my people be belittled like this.” Bwah!

October 2014: The National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, joined the call for the team (and the NFL) to change the name. Last year, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whose members include the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, did the same and urged the team to “refrain from the use of any other images, mascots, or behaviors that are or could be deemed harmful or demeaning to Native American cultures or peoples.”

November 2014: Another month, another protest, this time 3,500 to 4,000 people (mostly Native Americans) chanting “not your mascot” outside the Washington-Minnesota game in Minneapolis. It was perhaps the largest such protest, ensuring lots of media coverage. Another reason: The stadium was built in part with a $10 million donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and a plaza honors the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes. “Controversy had swirled around the Vikings game since August because of demands by the University of Minnesota to limit use of the team name and logo inside the stadium,” the Washington Post wrote. “But school officials insisted that they could not dictate behavior to the Vikings organization, which is paying the university $300,000 a game to use the stadium while its new facility in Minneapolis is being built.”

Does it count as news if it’s a surprise to no one? Maryland governor-elect Larry Hogan immediately announced that he liked the current team name and saw no need to change it.

Capping the month, Rolling Stone named Dan Snyder—“the staunch defender of an unambiguously racist name”—the worst owner in all of sports. The magazine spent a long, detailed paragraph on his “invoking tradition to defend the indefensible” before even alluding to the team’s abysmal playing record.

December 2014: Proving that some supporters are at least as tone-deaf (to put it kindly) as the owner and his team, a group raising funds to fight cancer organized an event it called Scalp Out Cancer: Because Bald Is Beautiful. “That’s insane. Really? They’re that clueless?” said Tara Houska, who pulled together a rally against the team name near its own stadium at month’s end—just as the fundraiser was to take place. The fundraiser was renamed Shave Out Cancer, though its coordinator, Michael Kennedy, told the Washington Post the event’s original name had not been a reference to the Native American mascot.

February 2015: Members of the Sandy Spring Friends School student government researched the issue and decided to ban the local pro football team’s name throughout campus, including on clothing. The ban applies to faculty as well. Lately students have been wearing apparel with the logo but not the name: “They still want to support their team, which I totally am behind,” a co-clerk of the government told the Gazette, which has since ceased publication. “But they also want to support Native Americans.”

May 2015: The whole team lives in Virginia, two-thirds of season-ticket holders do too, and Virginia’s governor wants the team to move there. Now Arlington County’s board has passed a resolution calling on the team to change its name, calling it “objectionable … a racist slur and derogatory.” The board’s vice chair, J. Walter Tejada, said the current name “serves to divide us, diminishes our humanity, and erodes our integrity”—but a change would be “a fresh start” were the team to relocate. Hint, hint. (Tejada said he also considers the name a personal insult, as he immigrated from El Salvador as a youth and is descended from Mayans.)

June 2015: The United Church of Christ is the latest religious group to call on the team to change. According to the Washington Post, UCC asked its nearly 1 million members to boycott games and merchandise until that goal is achieved. “The church has condemned the use of Native American imagery for sports teams since 1991,” the story said. “It has also asked the Cleveland Indians to change its name and controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo.”

Meanwhile, “a bill at the state Capitol would make California the first state to ban public schools from using ‘Redskins’ as their nickname or mascot,” according to Capital Public Radio. The bill has passed the Assembly and its first Senate committee.

July 2015: The Washington team has made noises about coming back to the city, maybe to the site of RFK Stadium, where it played for years before decamping for Maryland. But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has told DC Mayor Muriel Bowser that the National Park Service (which owns the RFK land) would not allow a new stadium there without a new name. “I think we would never consider naming a team the Blackskins or the Brownskins or the Whiteskins. So personally, I find it surprising that in this day and age, the name is not different,” Jewell had told ABC News.

Later, a headline: “Judge upholds cancellation of Redskins trademarks in a legal and symbolic setback for the team.” This time it’s a federal judge in Northern Virginia. Says the Washington Post, “The cancellation doesn’t go into effect until the Redskins have exhausted the appeals process in the federal court system”—though the team can use the name and logo under state law regardless. And yet another high school team is dropping the name it shares with the Washington team.

And in August: In a controversial move, team owner Snyder has been donating through his Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Now South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux council has voted to reject the funds—and ordered its chair and the 8,000-member tribe to “cease all unsanctioned communication with the Washington Redskins and any group or person associated with them.” Before the vote, Councilmember Ryman LeBeau posted online a photo of an uncashed $25,000 foundation check and wrote, “Sold our souls. Price was cheap.”

Whew! On that note, here’s to a 2015-16 season of more activism, fewer trademarks, more protests, and less name use for the Insultingly Named, Obnoxiously Hyped Washington NFL Franchise.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Blame the media? Keep looking.

Posted August 4, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Everyone blames the messenger. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do it, former president Richard Nixon did it (not to single him out), the National Rifle Association and antigun groups both do it; heck, even some Founding Fathers did it. Reporters Without Borders is tracking 363 official or unofficial journalists killed or imprisoned this year alone, so a lot of people, movements, and regimes are acting against messengers as well.

About the June murder of nine South Carolina churchgoers, amNY columnist Liza Featherstone wrote in the Observer, “The mainstream media gave us all the tragic facts about Charleston last week and promptly became a scapegoat. People felt angry and sad about what happened and didn’t know what else to do besides blame the messenger. Media criticism stood in for politics—since gun control is seen as hopeless and racism (in isolation from other problems) has no policy solution. The travesty, though, was not the news coverage but that [admitted shooter Dylann] Roof’s awful crime happened at all.”

There’s commentary—opinion—and then there’s news. In all reputable media operations, they don’t mix. A newspaper or radio station can run opinion pieces, of course, but they must be clearly labeled and separate from news. (Before cable, television stations sometimes ran opinion pieces, which held to the same rules. Then came entire channels devoted to commentary.) Some official media opinions, such as this Des Moines Register editorial, have called out Trump for cheapening political discourse. Not recognizing the line between news and opinion (or possibly not caring), Trump is now refusing press credentials to the paper’s reporters. Dan Snyder has pulled the same thing with sports reporters from the Washington Post, for obvious reasons.

You can complain about media bias; we know, for instance, that unintentional racial, gender, and other bias occurs in coverage. (Stylebooks aim to avoid language such as “a 60-year-old grandmother” when the description is irrelevant and, in DC, “across the Anacostia River” when it assumes readers are downtown/to the west.) You can complain about overcoverage, as when TV stations from Philly to Richmond focused on a burning Baltimore block hour after hour recently. You can complain that local and even national TV goes by “if it bleeds, it leads” or “if we have video, it really leads.”

But complain about the fact of coverage? No. “The mistake we make when we blame or excuse the media’s role in tragedy is in missing the fact that the media play a role rather than running the whole show,” wrote social psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford in Psychology Today. News coverage should be looked through, like glass, rather than glared at, like a picture. That way you see what you’re really upset about.

“When activists complain about the nature of media coverage, they are actually demanding that the media abandon an independent journalistic stance and champion their cause by reporting what they want reported,” William Domhoff, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote online. “This is in effect what people from the left and right constantly do: attack the media with the hope that they will bend in their direction, then blame the media if their program fails.”

The right, generally speaking, believes in a “liberal media,” in part because despite long-held and long-taught standards of neutrality in journalism, some polls have shown that more journalists personally lean left than right politically. The left, generally speaking, distrusts corporate media because companies are owned and run by very wealthy, often very conservative groups and individuals for whom advertising dollars outweigh balanced coverage.

Domhoff warned fellow radicals that “the media can magnify the message of the powerful and trivialize and marginalize the claims of the powerless. But the media don’t cause some people to be powerful and some people to be powerless.” And no side in any argument has a monopoly on confusing cause and effect.

Benjamin Franklin set forth probably the Colonies’ first explanation of freedom of the press and equal time (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1731): “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter ….” Decades later, Thomas Jefferson added, “Information is the currency of democracy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to hear such reasoning over the din of media blamers on all sides. But the Framers’ words have lasted two to three centuries; I imagine they too will be an overmatch for the latter.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.