Inside the Lines

What is ‘the mainstream media,’ anyway?

A reliable way to stir up attention is to posit that “the mainstream media” did or did not do something. Someone will invariably respond; everyone’s got an opinion on the subject. That was the draw, anyway, when, to drum up business, Nick Bacon, a video producer in Chicago, named his company, which provides technical support for events, Mainstream Media LLC. He figured it would be good for search engine optimization. “We were just two guys working out of a back room in an apartment,” Bacon said, “and we thought it was kind of funny to suggest that, like, this is where the mainstream media is.” Bacon’s strategy paid off; during the primaries in 2016 and 2020, with Trump tearing into the mainstream media on the campaign trail, people called, emailed, and tweeted at the business every week. Last year, a pair from South Carolina phoned him repeatedly for an hour. “They legitimately thought I was the mainstream media Donald Trump was talking about,” Bacon said. He tried to explain what his business actually was; after an extended back-and-forth, they asked him to convey their anti-media message—which Bacon described as “impotent rage”—to the rest of us.

It’s hard to blame the couple for their confusion. Everyone is constantly yelling about the mainstream media, and rarely are we referring to the same thing. Just take the recent whirlwind of news about Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York: A guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show said that the mainstream media, too busy hating on Trump, gave Cuomo a pass on his leadership during the pandemic. The Washington Post’s Max Boot wrote that Cuomo’s various scandals show how the mainstream media is tougher on Democrats than on Republicans. David Sirota, founder of the Daily Poster, argued that the “media machine” was too busy celebrating Cuomo to cover him adequately. The Poynter Institute weighed in: “It might be time to dispel the thinking that the so-called ‘mainstream media’ is protecting” Cuomo. Brian Flood, a media reporter for Fox News, contended that the mainstream media went easy on Cuomo while he botched the early vaccine rollout. Meantime, Cuomo’s camp apparently believed that his bad press was manufactured by “a mainstream media desperate for clicks.”

There are many ways to think about what constitutes the mainstream media, if such a thing exists at all. It can refer, simply, to any newspaper or to your local daytime talk show; at its most pernicious, the “mainstream media” represents a conspiracy of gatekeepers. “The elite media set a framework within which others operate,” Noam Chomsky wrote. “That framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power structures.” A popular academic argument describes the mainstream media as actors who wield “power over discourse,” which conjures a certain image: wealthy, white, male. As independent local news withers, and media companies become increasingly corporatized—under the control of large conglomerates and hedge funds—that critique rings all the more true. To Sheryl Kennedy Haydel, a scholar of historically Black college and university newspapers at Louisiana State, the term “mainstream media” remains useful as long as journalism has an equity problem. “The people who are the decision-makers, or even the reporters, don’t look like the nation you and I live in,” she told me.

Matthew Pressman, a journalism historian at Seton Hall University, sees it differently: “I think it’s a bad term,” he said, “because it’s so vast that it can mean anything. And is the media, you know, one random reporter who said something on Twitter? Or is it Mark Levin’s talk radio show? Is it just the New York Times? Is it some local, ad-filled, flyer-type circular that is delivered in every home in a bunch of communities?” When he’s teaching, Pressman often gets a firsthand look at how muddled the category can be. “Whenever my students are talking about things that the media does wrong, it’s always like, ‘TMZ did this sleazy or irresponsible thing.’ ”

To some, “mainstream” can be synonymous with “popular”; yet Fox News, consistently ranked the most-watched cable network, is perhaps the loudest megaphone ranting against the mainstream media’s “corrupt cabal.” In May, the Pew Research Center released a report finding “wide agreement” among Americans surveyed that a certain set of outlets are in the mainstream: ABC News, CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal; 73 percent said that Fox News belongs to the mainstream. Yet The Sean Hannity Show did not make the mainstream ranks. And among respondents who rely on Fox for political news, as well as those who tune in to NPR, majorities said they believe their preferred source to be mainstream yet different from most other outlets. HuffPost might be the mainstream media, the poll said, but BuzzFeed probably isn’t. The more one looks at the results, the more contradictory they appear.

What is clear is that those of us who use the phrase “mainstream media” have only a loosely shared understanding of reality, at best. And yet we continue to use the same term, one weighted with history, to describe a phenomenon that sounds assured and entrenched but is actually amorphous and dynamic. Perhaps the ambiguity of “the mainstream media” reveals something profound about the messy information ecosystem we’re in.

 

To understand what the media is now, it helps to look back at how we got here. “Certainly no one would have spoken of ‘the media’ in sweeping terms in the nineteenth century, when readers got their news from local papers, with all their diverse viewpoints,” David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2008 paper on liberal media. Mainstreaming, if we may call it that, was a process that worked in tandem with technological advances and the professionalization of reporting. It also reflected how American media developed alongside powerful wavelengths of social discourse.

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An early push toward mainstreaming came in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the invention of the telegraph. “Some journalists,” Richard Allen Schwarzlose writes in The Nation’s Newsbrokers (1989), “quickly grasped the new technologies’ possibilities and pitfalls and moved to master them.” One of those journalists was Moses Yale Beach, the publisher of the New York Sun. Following the Mexican–American War, Beach helped coordinate an effort to share the costs of transmitting information among a group of New York newspapers. They called the cooperative the Harbor News Association; eventually, it morphed into the Associated Press. The AP, which can be viewed as an early effort in mainstream journalism, helped set a standard for modern notions of “objective” reporting and newswriting, with its pithy sentences and lack of flair.

Still, newspapers remained, for the most part, highly localized, disconnected, and unflinchingly partisan. Michael Schudson, a historian and sociologist of journalism at Columbia, told me that, for most people, “if they read a newspaper at all, they read their local newspaper”; the media comprised their city’s and region’s outlets. That included the Black press, which wrote “with conviction against white racism, violence, and hypocrisy” and “covered the ticktock of African-American life.” The Chicago Defender, one of the most influential Black papers, encouraged families to move north during the Great Migration—a subject largely overlooked by white-owned outlets. (Isabel Wilkerson has called the Great Migration “perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century.”) In Haydel’s view, Black newspapers defined the mainstream press, in their way, by operating outside of it. “If they referenced the papers, it would be—maybe not the term ‘mainstream’—but the ‘white press,’ ” she said. “There was that very clear distinction.”

In the twentieth century, nationally distributed newspapers and magazines gained prominence, as did radio. During the First and Second World Wars, the United States and its allies aimed to garner broad support for their actions, using the press as a tool. “Radio news was immensely influential in shaping public opinion because of its unique qualities as an information medium and because it was untainted by the legacies of earlier propaganda,” Gerd Horten writes in Radio Goes to War (2002). Walter Lippmann, the celebrated American journalist, coined the phrase “the manufacture of consent” to describe the influence of mass media, which Chomsky and Edward S. Herman later borrowed for a book of that title, on the propaganda model of communication. (The US media, they argue, permits “spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness.”)

Television, and the introduction of three major news channels, marked the start of a new era, when Americans’ consumption of news became a shared experience, transcending geography. By the fifties, Greenberg wrote, “the constituent parts of the national media”—the New York Times and other papers, Time and Newsweek, the networks—“were attracting readers on the basis of their avowedly disinterested news coverage,” claiming to present unbiased, authoritative reporting to a wide audience. In 1957, over two-thirds of American homes had televisions; by 1963, more Americans turned to television than any other medium to get their news. As Schudson told me, “That allows Walter Cronkite to sign off with ‘And that’s the way it is’ ”—the promise of a singular, shared truth acceptable to an American mainstream.

During the sixties and seventies, when Cronkite was the anchor of the CBS Evening News, he gained a reputation as “the most trusted man in America.” But it was at the same time that the term “mainstream media” entered the discourse, uniting all types of journalism as one sinister entity. (As Jonathan M. Ladd writes in his 2011 book Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters, “The existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment is an historical anomaly.”) Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, a public turn against the Vietnam War, and a broader cultural revolution, Richard Nixon entered the White House and, seeking the rhetorical upper hand against a critical press, began using “the media” to obscure the valor of the Fourth Estate and set an agenda on his terms. “The press became ‘the media’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation, and the press hated it,” William Safire, the columnist and former Nixon speechwriter, wrote in his memoir Before the Fall (1975). Or, as Schudson told me: “Nixon wanted people to hate the media.”

 

During the height of the civil rights movement—as footage of anti-Black violence aired nightly in American living rooms—the press helped sow support among white people for the cause of Black liberation. The rise of “the media,” as a term, provided a conservative counterattack. “White supremacists were growing increasingly frustrated in finding themselves losing the battle for national public opinion,” Greenberg wrote. “Blaming the messenger became a reflexive response.” The more journalists showed sympathy with civil rights activists, the more the idea became ingrained in right-wing thought: powerful media outlets, suffused with liberal bias, were operating against American interests.

That line of argument boosted a generation of conservative outlets that disingenuously, but capably, depicted themselves as operating outside the mainstream. Chief among them was the National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955, which “cultivated doubts about the fairness of the mainstream media,” as Julie B. Lane, a mass-communication historian at Boise State University, writes for the anthology News on the Right (2020), “and argued that these media served as propagandists for a liberal power structure intent on maintaining its control.” The word “media” doesn’t appear in the founding statement of the National Review, but there is discussion of “liberal orthodoxy”; mention of the Times as being “in place” with the United Nations, League of Women Voters, and liberal intellectuals; and ample insistence that the magazine sat outside the mainstream.

Claiming a position apart from the American “establishment” while speaking to a “majority” of like-minded citizens has since become a trademark of conservative media. In a 1981 episode of Firing Line, Buckley’s debate show, which aired on PBS, he addressed this by raising the question: “Should press rights be limited?” William A. Rusher, a conservative activist who was the publisher of the National Review, discussed his time on the National News Council—a media watchdog group formed out of concern over “media bias.” Buckley asked, “Who constitutes the council?”

“Eighteen people,” Rusher replied—some media figures, some outsiders, no partisanship. “I was deep in the minority as a conservative,” he said. “But where were we not, among things of that sort in those days?”

“Except,” Buckley interjected, with a chuckle, “among the people.”

In addition to being a publisher, Rusher had a syndicated column, “The Conservative Advocate,” that ran in newspapers across the country; he also appeared on radio and television. Buckley, too, wrote a column, with an even wider reach. The environment was ripe for conservative thinkers—presenting themselves as unheard and unrepresented—to take up space in major newspapers, networks, and magazines. Their platform was vastly larger than that of most civil rights activists, who remained on the fringes of public discourse.

By 1987, under Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing, and effectively repealed, the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to reflect contrasting views on matters of public interest. Talk radio and cable news shows, unhindered by speech regulations, proliferated: The Rush Limbaugh Show made its debut in 1988; Sean Hannity hosted his first radio program in 1989. Cable networks built out twenty-four-hour news cycles, including debate shows featuring the same talking heads who appeared in national newspapers and magazines and formed the basis of mainstream opinionating: “a tiny group,” as Eric Alterman writes in Sound and Fury (1992), his history of punditry—but one with “a healthy dose of self-promotional talent.”

Fox News Channel premiered in 1996. Its founder, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul, sought to compete with the major networks; in hiring Roger Ailes, a veteran of Republican politics and conservative media, as the founding chief executive and head of the network’s news division, he positioned Fox as an antidote to press coverage friendly to liberals. Ailes branded the network with a slogan that lasted twenty years: “fair and balanced.” By day, Fox reported on the news; at prime time, its opinion programming spanned from moderate to deeply conservative—and shifted rightward as the years went by. “There’s a whole country that elitists will never acknowledge,” Ailes told the New York Times in 2001. “What people deeply resent out there are those in the ‘blue’ states thinking they’re smarter. There’s a touch of that in our news.” He added, “If we look conservative, it’s because the other guys are so far to the left.”

Painting the rest of the press as out of touch and elitist continues to win Fox favor, and the Buckley view—that conservatism is inherently non-mainstream, despite its occupancy of nearly all halls of power—persists. (“Fox News has long used a convention of the mainstream media to justify its excesses,” Erik Wemple, a Washington Post media columnist, wrote in 2017. “As to whether Fox News is a mainstream media organization,” he concluded, “it depends on the day.”) I asked both a Fox News media reporter and a company spokesperson if the network considers itself part of the mainstream media, given its overwhelming popularity; neither got back to me. But in general, characters within the Fox universe, including Donald Trump, reconcile such contradictions by referring to audience members as a “silent majority”—a term that was, like “the media,” borrowed from Nixon.

 

“When people think of ‘the media’ as an abstraction—and as some big, powerful, maybe malign force that’s very distant from them—then they’re wary and mistrustful,” Pressman told me. Trust in the press is near an all-time low, but according to Gallup polling the numbers have been declining for decades. The reason is not simply political polarization. A recent study from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between two think tanks, found a split in values espoused by the press and the public: “Rather than distrust toward the media being tied only to the perception of partisan bias, the problem at the heart of the media trust crisis may be skepticism about the underlying purpose and mission journalists are trying to fulfill in the first place.”

Many Americans express a desire for alternatives to the mainstream media—or at least seek to balance out their media diets. The Pew report indicates that the mainstream media is believed to be credible, but individual outlets must be held in equilibrium with those of a similar caliber. Familiarity counts, in other words, but people like to perform their own degree of research. As Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, told me, “I don’t love the term ‘mainstream media,’ but it’s somewhat useful because people seem to know what it means—the national media, including the large newspapers, the Associated Press, the broadcast networks, and the major cable networks.”

What does it say about American media consumers that we swing between different half truths, that we read past one another, that we build our own miniature knowledge bubbles? With the right cable account and digital subscriptions, we can buy whatever facts we want. It’s easy to conclude that we’re now in a period of extreme upheaval—a collapse of consensus on the nature of reality. But there are also signs that we’ve swung back to the pole of the nineteenth century, with one key distinction: the fractures that were once local are now individual.

Even in a marketplace with more choices, I’d argue that a mainstream media does exist. There is a collection of agenda-setting channels and publications—ABC, CBS, NBC, the Times, the Washington Post, those in the Pew report—whose coverage is influenced and reinforced by one another. Collectively, they create a mainstream point of view, to which others must react. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. To Haydel, where there is a mainstream, there is always room around the edges for different kinds of expression. “As somebody who believes in alternative media, I would never want them to lose that term,” she told me. “It’s another access point for people who feel left out of the ‘mainstream’ to have a place to learn to grow. It is vital.”

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR and a reporter and writer based in New York.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Stephanie Kubo