Verbal Energy

Stop the press! It's no news conference ...

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's first-ever official session with reporters was a reminder just how useful a term 'the press' still is.

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The newspaper industry may be nearing its Götterdämmerung phase, but a slightly quaint term from the days of "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" showed a bit of new life recently.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke held the Fed's first-ever official press conference April 27. It struck me most, aside from the fact that it took place at all, by the way it was so uniformly called a press conference.

One might have thought that press, suggesting actual ink and paper, was too old-fashioned, too narrow, to be relevant, but evidently not, at least not at the Fed.

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The alternative term would be news conference. My Google News check just now shows "news conference" clearly ahead of "press conference," 35,898 hits to 28,604. But a 44 percent market share is still respectable.

"An interview or announcement given by a public figure to the press by appointment" is Merriam-Webster's definition of press conference, a term it dates to 1937.

"An interview given by a public figure to the press" is Merriam-Webster's definition for kids. Its sample sentence is, "The President will hold a press conference later today." M-W's Learner's Dictionary defines press conference as "a meeting in which someone gives information to news reporters and answers questions," and notes "news conference" as a synonym.

That was the term preferred by Richard Nixon, known as the US president who really hated the press.

As his speechwriter, the late William Safire, explained in a PBS interview in 2007, "Nixon changed the name of the press conference to the news conference. Why? Because it wasn't the press's conference; it was the president's conference to make news. He thought about that. That wasn't an accident."

Nonetheless, even though individual Founding Fathers were often no fonder of individual members of the press than was Richard Nixon, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and everyone seems to know what was meant.

"The press" is still a useful term for what we might otherwise call "the news media" or "news organizations." It's short, punchy, and bracingly concrete. It's also a clear-cut singular, unlike media, which is often, though not universally, construed as singular.

As anyone who has set up a new printer knows, "media" is what you put in the tray.

Media has the advantage of being more inclusive. But before TV reporters et al. get all hurt feelings about being left out by press, we can extend it as an umbrella term to cover them by use of one of two rhetorical devices: synecdoche or metonymy.

Letting a part stand for a whole is synecdoche: "All hands on deck." Metonymy involves representing something by mentioning something else closely associated with it: "the Oval Office" to mean the US presidency, for example.

As Michael Quinion explains in his WorldWideWords blog, "The difference between synecdoche and metonymy is that in metonymy the word you employ is linked to the concept you are really talking about, but isn't actually a part of it."

In an age of bloggers, retweeters, and revolution by cellphone, "the press" is still a useful term.

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