Robert Fulford's column about misuse of the word "media"

(Globe and Mail, September 17, 1997)

On a recent Sunday morning, when I heard the word "media" flagrantly misused by a so-called "priest" on the CBC, my first thought was: the Roman Catholics are so angry at Michael Enright that they're sending phoney priests to torment him. As you may have read, Enright, the co-host of a radio program called This Morning, spoke a few hyperbolic words about the Catholic church to a Globe and Mail interviewer a couple of months ago. In response he received from Catholics the worst reviews since Luther. Militant secularists now fondly describe him as St. Michael the Apostate, but the Catholic bishops are praying daily that he will return to the true faith so that they can have the pleasure of excommunicating him. (That last sentence, by the way, is hyperbole--i.e., a literary device, not to be taken literally. Please do not send evidence of what the bishops are, or are not, praying for--unless you hear that they're praying for a sense of humour.)

The alleged priest interviewed by Enright was described as a specialist in a field known as "media literacy." Yet--this was the tipoff--he abused the word "media" many times. He said "the media is" when he meant "the media are" and he said "the media tries" instead of "the media try." He didn't know the difference between the plural "media" and the singular "medium"--or didn't care to know. When I discovered that this person was passing himself off as a Jesuit, my suspicions of chicanery grew even stronger. After all, the Society of Jesus is famous for insisting that its recruits spend many, many years in study. Even today this must include at least a week of Latin, during which plural versions of Latin words in English would inevitably arise. But before I had a chance to call my local cathedral and report an impostor, I was informed by an employee of This Morning that the person's bona fides had been checked and he was, in fact, a Jesuit priest.

Which made it, of course, all the more scandalous. A teacher of the young had joined the struggle over "media"--on the side of evil.

This is a long-running controversy, fiercely debated. My late friend Dennis Braithwaite once wrote a whole column in this paper perversely defending "media" as a singular noun, on the populist grounds that many people used it, he used it, and he didn't mind it at all. The next time I met Dennis for lunch we nervously avoided that subject--it was as if he had joined a particularly noxious cult. And there was an occasion, at a dinner party in the 1980s, when a Toronto Sun writer and I ruined the digestion of people seated on either side of us by engaging in a long, bitter debate on this point. I thought she was wilfully ignorant and she thought I was a snob, but we finally reached an agreement: we would eat dessert and move to a less vexatious topic, such as capital punishment or Quebec separatism.

Since almost anything can now be found in books written by professional linguists, there is probably a dictionary somewhere that declares "the media is" entirely legitimate. But the most recent Gage Canadian Dictionary, not exactly the choice of elitists, bluntly calls "media" the plural of "medium," and illustrates correct use: "Newspapers, magazines, billboards, television, and radio are important media for advertising." Gage allows no alternative. The style book of The Globe and Mail concurs. Even the ultra-permissive, whatever-makes-you-feel- good New Fowler's Modern English Usage, edited by R.W. Burchfield last year, doesn't go so far as to permit "the media is"--though in its pusillanimous way it says the question is now on the table. Then it issues a characteristically pointless warning: "Above all, never write a media or the medias, which neatly solves a problem that doesn't exist." This is the kind of helpful advice that will soon send Burchfield's book to the oblivion it deserves.

When I taught for a while in a journalism school I could never persuade my students to take this problem seriously, just as I could never win their support for the idea that there's an ethical question involved in knowing the difference between "its" and "it's." As far as I could tell, students bring to journalism school the opinion that these are niggling, pedantic distinctions, of no interest to serious people. They leave with this conviction apparently unchanged.

It's true there are rules of usage that no one should get excited about, rules that are really no more than helpful hints. It's a good idea to avoid split infinitives, but only because the unsplit infinitive produces a crisper sentence--"He determined to fight vigorously" is neater and more effective than "He determined to vigorously fight." We should not decide to casually abandon this guideline, but if we do, the worst result will be a certain awkwardness.

Misusing a word like "media," on the other hand, clouds our understanding of what the speaker or writer is saying. Turning "media" into a singular noun spreads confusion because it implies that all media are roughly the same, part of an undifferentiated mass, and that they all do pretty much the same sort of thing in roughly the same way. That's obviously not the case, as Marshall McLuhan spent a lifetime trying to tell us. Worse, there are people who say "the media" when they really mean just television- -they think "media" sounds more significant. For that we can probably blame McLuhan, whose brilliant insights opened up an ever-expanding field of study and thereby wrapped the word "media" in an aura of academic seriousness. But McLuhan, whatever you might say against him, never wrote "The media is the message."

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