News & Politics

Vox Is the Carmelo Anthony of Bad Pop-Culture Metaphors

Understanding the news, through pop-culture comparisons that rarely hold up to scrutiny.

New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, probably about to miss another three-point shot. Photograph by Debby Wong via Shutterstock.

Vox’s Timothy B. Lee raises a fascinating metaphor in his reading of the Huffington Post’s analysis about the latest newsroom buyouts and layoffs at the New York Times. Because the Times hires younger, presumably cheaper, reporters and editors to balance out attrition caused by divesting itself of older, more expensive staffers, and stays on top of the news business, the paper is—in Lee’s estimation—the “LeBron James of the news business.”

Metaphors that equate a person or organization with a pop-culture totem make for catchy headlines, but they’re also crutches for unimaginative writing. (To wit, consider Brian Stelter’s daytime-television treatise Top of the Morning, which is riddled with enough metaphorical trusses to hold up Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge.) Such lines, though, are a frequently used device at Vox, where the objective of getting people to “understand the news” seems to be delivered in forcing similarities between newsmakers and cultural icons.

Vox takes a lot of shots at this kind of metaphor, but they rarely connect. If the Times is LeBron James, Vox might be Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks small forward who puts up decent points, but also throws a ton of bricks. Let’s review:

“The New York Times is the LeBron James of the news business”

What is the New York Times?

The Times, or “Gray Lady,” at is sometimes called colloquially, is a New York City-based daily newspaper with global reach. It is also faced with the challenges of remaining financially viable while balancing the costs of a daily, general-interest print product distributed throughout the United States and a round-the-clock digital operation accessed by internet users around the world.

Who is LeBron James?

LeBron James is a National Basketball Association forward with a peripatetic relationship to his hometown of Cleveland. James, considered the best active player in the world, recently returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers after a four-year interregnum with the Miami Heat, with whom he won two NBA championships. Since signing with the Cavs, James has also persuaded his team to make other roster moves to lay the groundwork for bringing a major sports championship to long-deprived Cleveland.

Does the metaphor hold up?

No. Founded in 1851, the New York Times epitomizes the term “legacy news organization.” It is also the namesake property of the New York Times Company, a publicly traded corporation beholden to market swings and shareholder concerns. The Times is the peak of the newspaper world, but its editorial supremacy is often contested by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Guardian, along with newer, online-only competitors. James, entering his 12th season, is a tested NBA veteran, but at 29, he is still very much in his prime and a threat to win more most-valuable player awards and championship trophies. Betting on the Cavs to win the 2015 NBA Finals is safer than wagering on the Times to sweep the Pulitzers.

“SolarCity is trying to become the Apple of solar power”

What is SolarCity?

SolarCity, according to Vox’s Brad Plumer, is the United States’ largest installer of solar panels, devices that absorb energy from the suns rays and convert them to electrical power in order to reduce dependency on expensive, dirty fossil fuels like oil and coal. The company recently purchased a solar-panel manufacturer, giving itself footholds in both the means of production and points of sale for modern electrical technology.

What is Apple?

Apple is a consumer electronics behemoth known for its computers, phones, music players, and proprietary operating systems that attract cult-like followings. Sometimes it also forces you to own a U2 album you didn’t ask for.

Does the metaphor hold up?

No. SolarCity might be a market leader in home solar-panel installations with 25 percent of the national market, but it’s no Apple, which commands 42 percent of the US mobile phone market. And before anyone points out that that’s a smaller figure than the 52 percent of phones running Android, remember that Apple’s share is based on a single family of phones, while Android devices are marketed by numerous different companies. Apple was also just crowned the world’s “most valuable brand,” at $118.9 billion. There’s not enough Vox-splaining in the world to give SolarCity that kind of monetized ubiquity.

“How CBS is like the Los Angeles Lakers”

What is CBS?

CBS is a major broadcast network that fills its prime-time lineup mostly with canned-laughter sitcoms I’ve never watched and gray-haired cop shows that, well, I’ve also never watched. While its ratings among crucial 18-to-49-year-old viewers sagged in the 2013-14 television season it still airs, according to Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, several of the most-viewed series thanks to devoted older viewers.

Who are the Los Angeles Lakers?

The Lakers are the second-most accomplished team in NBA history, with 16 championships, five of which they won between 2000 and 2010. But the 2013-14 Lakers were a bust, hobbled by aging, injury-prone players and missing the playoffs for just the second time in 20 years. But the Lakers, with their history and roster of celebrity fans sitting court-side, are always critical to the sporting zeitgeist. The team has lean years, but never irrelevant ones.

Does the metaphor hold up?

Sort of. CBS faltered as an overall network because, VanDerWerff reasons, strong showings by its legacy shows were worn down by sagging ratings for its younger seasons. The Lakers didn’t even fare that well. Besides middling performances by their younger players, the Lakers were also dragged down by lost seasons for their older, ticket-selling veterans Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. But all things being equal, CBS may one day find its way back to the top of the over-the-air charts, just like the Lakers will probably win another five titles before the Wizards or Knicks even get close.

But isn’t this the same metaphor as the Times-LeBron James headline?

Yes! Lee, author of today’s “media-as-basketball” story, should have been mindful of his colleague VanDerWerff’s deployment of the same metaphor three months earlier.

“John J. Meyer is almost the Walter White of the key lime industry.”

Who is John J. Meyer?

John J. Meyer is a lime merchant in Key West, Florida, whom Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos interviewed for a May feature about spiking lime prices. Meyer stays ahead of the market by buying frozen concentrated lime juice from California to manufacture his citrus-y wares, Abad-Santos writes.

Who is Walter White?

Walter White is the main character of the television show Breaking Bad, which follows the adventures of White, a high-school chemistry teacher who responds to a lung-cancer diagnosis by becoming a massively successful and increasingly diabolical crystal meth kingpin.

Does the metaphor hold up?

No. Walter White cornered the drug market by producing a better product than the competition—or sometimes by literally killing the competition. He also died in the series finale as collateral damage from a revenge contraption he built to kill a gang of white supremacists. Meyer, as he told Vox, is merely trying to insulate himself from lime-market fluctuations. Meyer is very much alive and in charge of a successful lime-product shop.

What is a spoiler?

Don’t even start. The show’s been over for more than a year.

Dylan McDermott: The Nicolas Cage of television

Who is Dylan McDermott?

Dylan McDermott is a veteran television and film actor best known for his lead role on The Practice, a legal drama that ran for eight seasons between 1997 and 2004. Since then, he’s had a consistent stream of roles on the big and small screens, but almost always in supporting parts.

Who is Nicolas Cage?

Does the metaphor hold up?

No way. Dylan McDermott has had a fine and serviceable career, and he appears to be doing his best to prop up the many forgettable television shows he’s cast in. But Nicolas Cage is a national freaking treasure.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.