Thursday, January 7, 2016

What is the "Mainstream Media"?

Times Change - Some Things are No Longer True
When the foul and odious GW Bush was 'elected' President in 2000, the media landscape in the United States was wildly different from what we see today. In April of 2001, 6% of American households had a broadband connection, while 41% accessed the internet through a dial-up connection such as AOL. Television, print and radio represented the media in the early years of the 21st century, and they had begun to break apart into ideologically specific silos. Fox News was five years old at the time of the 9/11 terror attacks, and Rush Limbaugh's radio show had been operating pretty much in its current iteration since 1988. Internet news sites were primitive and not terribly useful, but they were immediately recognized for their ability to drive and reinforce ideologically specific narratives in a way that television, with their sponsors' sensitivities, could not. Right wing pundits such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh began to regularly denigrate what they called 'the mainstream media' for their unwillingness to use the same kind of outrageous and over-the-top rhetoric.

During the Bush years and even into the 2008 election cycle, this concept of a 'mainstream' media channel mostly delivered by television, radio and newspaper, and a second media channel, delivered by the internet that existed outside of that mainstream was quite valid. The real question being asked by consumers of media was 'how was the ideological worldview and market positioning of a given outlet influencing what they covered and how they covered it?' Although they disagreed radically on who the specific culprits and malefactors were, both left and right were in agreement that this division existed, and even on what it was intended to accomplish.

But now it's 2016. Internet delivered media content is every bit as mainstream as any other delivery medium. It's equally accessible to most, and the production quality and attention to detail is competitive with cable news. Aggregators like Google and Yahoo News sit alongside services like Reuters, CSM and McClatchy, while MSNBC, CNN and Fox have equal presences across both delivery platforms. The question that needs to be asked is not which outlets are mainstream and which are upstart truth-tellers, but rather which can be trusted to tell the truth no matter what - and, of course, if we even want to be told the objective truth. Movement Conservatives in America have made a point of shutting themselves off from any information they find contradicts their pre-existing worldview. But liberals often bristle when someone from their 'side' asks hard questions or even simply considers a heterodox position. Bright, talented writers and thinkers like Matt Yglesias and Jon Chait have fallen victim to this narrowing of the discussion parameters time and time again.

At this point, I think we can dispense with the whole 'mainstream media' construct. The question we need to ask should be applied to all media resources equally: Can what they say be trusted to reflect an objective reality, or are they starting from a given worldview and building their content in such a way to support that initial conclusion? And be well advised - people aren't going to agree on the answer. We are all conditioned to believe that information that supports our beliefs, and reject that which does not. The only answer is to avoid dependency on any one set of sources, but to examine every viewpoint in terms of that which we can determine is objectively true, to avoid conflating opinion with reporting, and to seek authoritative, primary sources whenever possible.


  1. At this point, I think we can dispense with the whole 'mainstream media' construct.

    We'd like to, but they still have far more influence than they merit.

  2. Whether or not they have influence isn't the point - and it is one that can be deeply debated. The question is what constitutes 'mainstream', and I submit they no longer do. Newspapers are mostly irrelevant, podcasts offset terrestrial radio, the internet is as easily viewed as television. To whatever extent they have 'influence', it's over people who don't spend a lot of time and effort learning about their world, while those of us who think more deeply about public policy and governance issues can find hundreds, even thousands of intelligent, honest, reliable sources. If anything is 'mainstream' in 2016, it's internet resources...