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The Myth of the "Mainstream Media"

by Michael Austin, published
The mainstream media hoped it would be a real juicy story to lead their liberal newscasts. The Democrats, they wish it would be his demise. But the Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and his administration's involvement in the closing of a couple of lanes of the George Washington Bridge that led to a traffic jam back in September, does not compare to the scandals that are plaguing the Obama administration. Now, you're not going to hear this in the mainstream media.”—Sean Hannity on Fox News, 1/10/14

I don’t want to talk about whether Chris Christie’s bridge scandal is worse than Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi scandal, and I don’t want to talk about whether or not some news outlets are biased. Rather, I want to talk about the two extremely problematic implied assumptions in the above quotation from Sean Hannity: 1) that there is such a thing as the “mainstream media”; and 2) that Fox News—which has a larger viewership than CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and Headline News combined—is not part of it.

The whole idea of a mainstream media is hard for anybody under 30 to understand. It is a term that describes part of a world that no longer exists. When I was growing up, we had three TV news programs (ABC, NBC, CBS), three national news magazines (Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report), and a local newspaper or two. There were other sources for news, of course, but you had to go to some effort to find them. The vast majority of Americans got most of their news from these sources. That is what “mainstream” means.

It doesn’t work that way now. There is no news stream that can be considered a main one. Traditional media forms have expanded dramatically, with hundreds of TV channels available through cable and satellite and thousands of newspapers and radio stations available through the Internet. And then there are the new forms of media: blogs, chat rooms, link aggregators, and social media.

But are some of the little streams main-er than others? Sort of. A recent Gallup survey  shows that about half of American adults still get most of their news from twenty or so TV news sources. Of these, however, four times as many listed Fox as their main news source than listed ABC, NBC, or CBS News combined. Among print sources, the left-leaning New York Times remains the second largest source of news. But the right-leaning Wall Street Journal has moved into first place. Yet only the former regularly gets listed as part of the “mainstream media” conspiracy.

To have a mainstream media, there has to be a main stream, and there isn’t. The term has survived solely as a term of approbation that can instantly be used to declare oneself the victim of a grand conspiracy to distort the truth. This does not mean that media sources are not biased. All of the evidence suggests that they are more biased than ever. But they are not all biased in the same direction. This means that anyone, on any side of any issue can seize upon an instance of bias in a particular media source and then pretend that it is still 1985, when it was possible to generalize that sort of bias to an entire media culture.

Welcome to the information age, where everybody has access to an inexhaustible supply of news reports, commentary, and outrage that confirms whatever he or she happens to believe. We do not have a main stream anymore; we have a hundred thousand garden hoses. If you ever come across an opinion that does not match you own in every regard, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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