Can We Please Stop With the “Mainstream Media” Label?


Zachary Johnson, Writer

Ever since the election in 2016, traditional, trusted news organizations have been labelled as–often negatively–“mainstream media.” The term usually refers to major news networks like NBC, CBS, CNN, BBC, etc. These networks have each been around for nearly a century and are the largest in the business. Yet, suddenly, so many Americans have just decided in the last year and a half that these news networks are untrustworthy, out of touch, and just plain fake. The growing distrust for age-old news outlets does have some merit, as the advent of 24 hour news coverage has forced political spins on nearly every single news story featured on CNN and Fox.
The biggest problem with the “mainstream media” label isn’t the merit of the label itself. The big issue here is the idea that “mainstream media” is somehow suddenly untrustworthy, and that their newer, less reputable counterparts are beacons of journalistic integrity and truth.
When you listen to someone complain about CNN (or the Communist News Network as many of my family members call it), or any 24-hour news network, for that matter, it’s easy to understand that there’s a fundamental difference in what both parties believe are facts, and that difference is the driving force between hostility towards “mainstream media.”
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic senator from New York, is famously quoted as saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Today, because of 24-hour news coverage, news outlets are increasingly incentivized to skew and spin facts towards their own partisan bias. Take CNN or Fox, for instance. Everyone who has ever watched either broadcast knows that Fox skews quite conservatively and CNN quite liberally. It doesn’t take more than five minutes before either news outlet takes a major national event and makes it about politics and uses it to not-so-casually use that event  as evidence to support their viewpoint.
When 24 hour news outlets become 24 hour opinion outlets, the line between the two quickly blurs. In this clip, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson has science guy Bill Nye on as a guest to discuss climate change. While the discussion opened with a debate on cognitive dissonance and its role in climate change skepticism, it quickly devolved into havoc featuring the world’s greatest interruption fest.
These clips aren’t uncommon anymore, whereas this kind of thing would have been pretty rare before 24-hour news. These clips becoming more common is exactly what’s killing the reputation of large news outlets. So far, most of the “mainstream media” hate has gone towards generally liberal 24 hour news organizations, like CNN and MSNBC.
In the last few months, this famous chart has been circulating through the Internet. It attempts to categorize popular news outlets by what they post (i.e. “original fact reporting” down to “contains fabricated/inaccurate info”) and their partisan bias (most extreme liberal to most extreme conservative). The chart does a good job of showing the difference between any two news sources outside of their political leaning. This difference, however, is almost always glossed over in discussions on the trustworthiness of media, and of all things to gloss over, that should not be it.
The distinction between news outlets like Fox and the Associated Press lies in their type of reporting, which may be hard to spot to the untrained eye, but it is incredibly relevant. While Fox reports on news stories and may do some investigation, the Associated Press heavily relies on its own investigations for articles. When consumers fail to recognize this distinction and lump outlets like Fox and the Associated Press into the same category, the political biases of one reporting outlet will negatively effect the reputation of another investigative outlet.
The real threat is to the general trustworthiness of tried and true media sources. With the advent of the internet, fringe media outlets have had a much easier time with getting circulation than they may have had with print. A hundred years ago, when most news was passed via print publications like newspapers or magazines, fringe publications would have a very hard time distributing their ideas outside of their local area. With the internet, however, anyone can start up their own “news” outlet (news in the highest of quotations) and potentially reach millions of people.
When these digital fringe outlets–Breitbart or InfoWars, for instance–are able to reach a mass audience, their warping of facts ruins any chance of civil debate between people of different views, due the fundamental difference in what each side believes are facts.
Ultimately, when we bash “mainstream media” simply because those outlets are mainstream, we end up promoting fringe and untrustworthy news outlets simply because they’re the only other option. The mere use of the term itself invokes a sense of distrust towards already proven news outlets, and the integrity of journalism should never be damaged solely because of a news outlet’s success, or by the biases of another news outlet
If we continue on this path of degrading our trusted news sources, soon we’ll just be left with thousands of tiny news outlets in a race to the bottom of how sensationalist their articles can be. Eventually, we may look back and tell our grandchildren about our memories of large, trusted news outlets like our grandparents tell us about cheap gas.
This term, “mainstream media,” may not seem like much. Maybe you’ve never noticed how often the word is used or the negative connotation that accompanies it. Let the term serve as the canary in the coal mine, warning each and every one of us that, maybe, possibly, the American press may not be in as good of a situation as we believe.
The future of news may not have to be as bleak as it seems. If we, as Americans, hold freedom of the press as vital as we claim, we must pay more attention to our news. Not the stories and articles themselves, but the outlets we get them from. We can all be better at checking our facts; we can all be better at supporting proven and trusted news outlets. Maybe disable that ad blocker, or give a few bucks a month to a subscription for an actual investigative outlet. Pay attention to which outlet says what, and consider your opinions on topics you care about.