As meaningful and rewarding as journalism can be, it is also often a thankless and isolating profession, especially during a time when many with various axes to grind relentlessly demonize "the media."
Conscientious journalists have always been prepared to displease people, usually those with something to hide. And everyone else has always been all too ready to accuse journalists of blindness, bias or outright lying.
"If you're in journalism and you're looking for friends, you should get a dog," esteemed news anchor Dan Rather once said, paraphrasing a quote about working in Washington, D.C., often misattributed to President Harry Truman.
In recent years, however, antagonism toward journalists has reached frightening new depths of vitriol and violence.
Hatred of "the media" is such a staple of conservative rhetoric that one would have difficulty finding any right-leaning content that doesn't at least touch on it. A quick look at our own opinions page as I write this on Monday, for example, reveals a columnist with the conservative Heritage Foundation criticizing "the media" for supposedly mischaracterizing a piece of anti-abortion legislation.
Former President Donald Trump took it to the next level, fond of calling journalists out of his favor "the enemies of the people." Some of his followers have been photographed wearing T-shirts reading "Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED."
This bottomless pit of hostility has real-world consequences. Watchdog website U.S. Press Freedom Tracker counted 421 assaults of journalists in 2020 and 134 so far this year. Scroll through the "Physical Attack" section of the site and you'll see headline after headline using words such as shoved, assaulted, harassed, chased, threatened, struck, punched, kicked and aimed at.
In 2018, a man angry about coverage of his probation sentence entered the offices of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, and murdered five employees with a shotgun.
Such incidents have in common the dehumanization of journalists, an inability or unwillingness to recognize that we are real people. And nothing reinforces that more than the ubiquitous label "the media."
In its implication that all journalists are faceless cogs in the same undifferentiated machine, the label provides cover for those who -- for the purposes of propaganda -- would portray us not as family members, friends and neighbors, but as some evil force.
Meanwhile, "the media" is a fiction. There's no such thing.
Especially in the internet age, any attempt to generalize about the modern array of mass information media (plural) simply cannot hold true. Anyone who lumps together under one label every source of information that doesn't advocate for their own particular ideology is at best engaging in oversimplification and at worst cynically stoking hatred.
We're talking about everything from blogs to podcasts to social media videos to amateur reporting -- and everything in between -- all of which are produced by people with the normal, wide range of mindsets, purposes, methods and ethics. Even if you narrow the field to news organizations, to act as if there are no differences among such widely varying entities, as if there's something monolithic we can call "the media," obscures the nuanced truth.
Last week, we in Texarkana were provided a stark example of the contrast between rhetoric about "the media" and the reality of who journalists are.
Two-decade Gazette newsroom veteran Aaron Brand died unexpectedly, leaving a void that will be impossible to refill. As the region's most experienced and well-informed features journalist, Aaron connected us to one another with his talented, thorough, open-hearted reporting on all the stuff that makes life worth living.
Aaron was one of those people who formed a bond with almost everyone he met. When his death became known, a long list of those whose lives he touched expressed not only their shock and grief, but also how much they valued Aaron's kindness and eagerness to play a positive role in the community.
He left behind family, friends and colleagues who loved him, a farm full of animals who depended on his compassion (all now being taken care of) and a city that I suspect did not fully realize what it had in him until it was too late to thank him.
Two empty words -- "the media" -- would sweep all that away and in its place erect a straw man good only for absorbing the self-righteous outrage of the easily riled up.
If you're tempted to rail against "the media," or when inevitably you hear someone else do so, remember that journalists are human beings, with names and smiles and lives not too different from your own. And many, like Aaron Brand, are among the best of us.