Opinion: Stop blaming 'the media' for everything

Len Niehoff

When protests erupted this past weekend over the tragic murder of George Floyd, disruption and violence swiftly followed. In cities across the country, peaceful demonstrations devolved into riots. In all of these places, reporters and photographers put themselves in harm’s way so that we might know the truth. They are the First Amendment’s first responders. 

These days, it has become commonplace to make scapegoats of “the media.” We blame the media for everything: our divided country, our failed policies, our anxieties, and so on. It has become a national pastime and a drumbeat of political rhetoric. And it’s dumb and dangerous. 

The protests put this sensibility in stark display. Video and photographs from across the country showed journalists and photographers being harassed, arrested, assaulted, gassed and shot at by members of law enforcement. All while doing their jobs — a job that the Constitution enshrines. 

Of course, in many instances police and journalists were able to work productively, cooperatively and respectfully with each other. And doubtless some of the things that went wrong resulted from honest mistakes or misjudgments. 

But the images of abuses are unforgettable. Police handcuffing an entire broadcast news crew. Officers taking aim at reporters and photographers, shooting them with pellets, and drenching them in pepper spray. A bloodied journalist lying on the ground receiving medical treatment. A freelance photographer in a hospital bed, blind in one eye from her injuries. 

While live on air, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was handcuffed and led away.

The worst of these incidents reflect a clear and premeditated hostility toward reporters and photographers. But that hostility has not been limited to errant police officers. To the contrary, people in the crowds have turned on journalists and attacked them as well. 

Across the country, journalists are saying that they’ve never seen anything like it. “The norms have broken down,” declared Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I have never been fired on by police,” said a Los Angeles Times reporter who has worked as a war correspondent, “until tonight.” 

These developments are distressingly consistent with an international trend of increasing official and popular hostility toward journalists. But that upswing is not limited to developing countries or dictatorships. In the west, the intimidation of journalists and photographers has become increasingly common. Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States forty-fifth out of 180 countries for press freedom, placing it below such countries as Romania, Botswana and Chile. 

Many factors have contributed to these developments, including inflammatory statements made by political leaders. But our everyday language about “the media” has also stoked the fire. Statements that the media are biased, unreliable or dishonest have become ordinary fare in homes, workplaces and social settings. We say them as if they were self-evidently true. 

On close analysis, however, it turns out that these statements are not just wrong, they are gibberish. They treat “the media” as some sort of monolithic thing, when they are neither monolithic nor a thing. To the contrary, they are so diverse as to make it impossible to generalize about them. And they are made up of human beings. 

Dictionaries define the media as all means of communication that reach people widely. The media therefore include vehicles as different as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and online publications. The media include content providers as diverse as the New York Times and a small town weekly, "60 Minutes" and a gardening blog, the Foreign Affairs journal and Cat Fancy magazine. 

Blaming “the media” is therefore sloppy thinking. Which media entity do you mean? What are you blaming them for? Why do you think it’s their fault? 

If someone can answer those questions, then a sensible conversation can ensue. Indeed, we should have informed debates about whether a particular broadcast was biased or a specific article was accurate. But when we descend to generalized accusations against the media, we no longer have any idea what we’re talking about. 

The bigger problem, though, is that talking about the media makes scapegoating extremely easy. Precisely because we don’t know who “the media” are, we can blame them for everything, like a child who attributes anything that goes wrong to his imaginary friend. And that’s dangerous, because real human beings pay the cost for that fantasy. 

The horrific death of George Floyd has many lessons for us. An unexpected one is that that we have to stop mindlessly feeding the hate against those who work for the First Amendment and, therefore, for us. A first step would be to exorcise blaming “the media” from our language and, more importantly, from our thinking. 

Len Niehoff is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.