The: 3 Little Letters Reflect a Large Divide
The cops, the protestors, the Trumpers, the Snowflakes, the media, the . . . Several years ago, Larry Woiwode was a visiting professor at the University of North Dakota. Some friends took his class, and I was kicking myself for not signing up. A fellow writer was raving about how much she was learning.
“What? Tell me! What have you learned?” I asked. “Well, for one thing, he said to be judicious about the use of ‘the.’” “The?” “Yeah. He said we don’t need it as much as we think we do.” Seriously? You paid for that advice? “The” is an essential article. How do you write stories (this was a fiction writing class) without using “the”? I dismissed the advice as pretentious. “Pff! Don’t use ‘the’?! What’s next? ‘A’?” But the advice wormed its way into my brain. I began noticing when I wrote the word and when others wrote it. What do you know? He had a point, a very good one.
Listen and look: Use of this 3-letter word can be revealing.
I say to you, “Please grab me the wine.” You say, “Which wine?” I say, “The wine.” What does this indicate? Well, it indicates that there is probably only one bottle of wine left (it must be Sunday night). If I said, “Please grab me wine,” it would indicate that there is a selection of wine from which to choose and I'm not picky (probably on Friday evening). This little word can help with clarity and ultimately communicating ideas. But . . .
The use of “the” also reveals a focus on the other. While labeling groups of people in and of itself separates us (black men, white women, disabled kids), the addition of “the” exacerbates that distance. Okay, I know this is beginning to sound like a 3 a.m. conversation while sitting around a bong with English majors. Please stay with me. Consider these:
The blacks, the whites, the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans, the Italians, the Irish, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Mormons, the Christians, the atheists, the Natives, the Trumpers, the liberals, the rich, the poor, the illegals, the immigrants, the gays, the Millennials, the Boomers . . .
(By the way, I never hear anyone around here say “The Norwegians.” I might need to go to Sweden for that.) Seriously, though, do you see what happens when we put a “the” before the noun? It may only be three little letters, but it emphasizes the chasm between us and them. There's "us" and then there's "the others".
The other day my hubby said, “’The media! The media!’ I don’t understand what people mean by ‘the media,’ like it’s this homogeneous, terrible THING.” He and I get our news from various sources. We flip between networks – MSNBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, FOX – yelling at the screen. I subscribe to Public Radio. Now and then I will go on Canadian Broadcasting and the BBC to get a glimpse of what we look like to another country. (Scary) I randomly pop onto The New York Times and Grand Forks Herald websites. He looks at the Huffington Post and Drudge Report. We both consume mass amounts of fairly diverse, news sources. So we find it perplexing when people say, “the media,” like it’s a singular, propaganda machine to get us all to buy into the same narrative.
How did we get here? 24/7
On June 1, 1980, CNN launched the first 24-hour news network. They and others that followed needed to fill those hours. You’d think we’d get news from all around the world, or maybe just all around the U.S., but we didn’t, and we don’t. It’s due to the cost of gathering all that news (I’m just guessing). Unless it’s a major story effecting X amount of people, we in Every City, U.S.A. won’t hear about it because news' producers know most people only tune in to find out information that has a chance of impacting them or those they know.
So, yeah, the major networks and newspapers do decide on which narratives we hear. The camera and photos show what the producers think is relevant. They package the news for us in slick little bites before moving onto the next Viagra commercial.
If you compare public radio/television's reporting to commercial news, however, you will find the former spends more time on a particular story. There's more diversity of content, too. Right now compare NPR's landing page to Fox News to CNN to BBC. Interesting, isn't it? NPR is also not beholden to commercial sponsors, so they can dig in and examine the nuances of a story. (If you haven't already, check out public radio. There's national and state. Not only will you like it, you deserve it. (And make a donation while you're at it. The government is always trying to reduce its funding. Hmm, wonder why?)
Let's be careful when we refer to "the" media." "The" media is the wall that protects fascism from taking over our democracy. Without legit reporting, people would not know that men in unidentifiable camo "uniforms" are shoving protesters into unmarked vans in Portland. In America. (No article needed.) Despite it's short comings, we must stop blaming "the media" for the country's ills. I hear people say that the media is simply fear mongering, and Barry Glassner in his book The Culture of Fear lays out this thesis, but -- hello! -- there is a lot to be afraid of these days. We cannot simply tune out and listen to our neighbor's take on what they heard on talk radio. In a world where news has become entertainment, we must
Work harder to tease out hyperbole
Distinguish between a news anchor delivering news and a news pundit delivering opinion
Break out the ole Google machine and do our own fact checking
Use the remote control to flip channels
Demand citations and dates and -- please, please, please -- credentials
Diversify the news outlets we tune into.
Ultimately, we must become smarter consumers of media not "throw the baby out with the bath water."
This photo was used in ad paid for by "Evangelicals for Trump" to depict protesters in Portland beating up an officer. It was actually taken 6 years ago in Ukraine when Ukrainians were demanding their freedom. With the election rapidly approaching, all sorts of deceitful tactics will be used by both sides. If we value our democracy, we will do the work required to tease apart the lies from THE facts.
Writing challenge: Go on. Listen to how frequently people use the when it’s not needed. Listen to how often you do. What does it suggest about how you feel about the subject? Do you add emphasis when you say the word the? As in “THE Republicans”? Is the word dipped in disdain? Why not just “Republicans”? Why not just Americans? Would it help tone down our rhetoric if we deleted a the here and there?