It is a favorite American pastime — criticizing the mainstream news media.
The left uses Fox News primarily as a punch line. The right questions every motivation of CNN. But the hobby has never quite settled right with me. I just never could figure out why.
Then it dawned on me one day, a truth hiding in plain sight:
The mainstream news media doesn’t even exist.
For something to be “mainstream,” it needs to be dominant and widely accepted as normal. In our polarized political climate, there’s no such thing.
THERE IS NO “MAIN” STREAM IN THE MAINSTREAM
The following chart was created to show the bias inherent in various news outlets (and it is helpful to that end), but it is also demonstrative of a more obvious truth — there are no “main” outlets any longer. The options are incredibly vast. (There are about 75 outlets listed below, and I’ve heard of almost all of them.) Even if you took the more popular middle there are more than 25. The days of families simultaneously huddled around the evening news and their dinner plates with the major broadcast networks offering 3 choices are 40 years in the past.
There is no mainstream news because there is no “main.”
There’s also not a single stream. Most outlets utilize multiple platforms. There’s broadcast television, cable television, numerous app-based outlets, and a rainbow of websites for any color of the political spectrum.
But most people are getting their news not from the television stream (broadcast or cable), but from the social media stream. Broadcast news has seen ratings decline consistently in recent decades.
One example: In 1980, NBC Nightly News fetched between 40 and 45 million viewers each night (dominating the Big Three). It took a global pandemic to boost the same show to over a comparatively measly 2 million average nightly viewers in 2020. Even the most-watched prime-time cable news shows hovered around 3 million nightly viewers. And that’s with 100 million more people in the country that could potentially watch..
So if it’s not television, what is the main stream of the “mainstream news media” we despise so much for it’s intentional, divisive behavior? You won’t be surprised to learn it’s social media — Facebook, Twitter, etc. More than half of Americans, Forbes reports, get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes.”
All the while, we acknowledge (to the tune of 9 out of 10 people) that social media has “quite a bit of influence” in what kind of news we see. We know that what we see is based on algorithms to continued feeding us what we have already viewed, liked, and shared.
This is a key point, I think:
If we see bias in social media news, it is one we’ve created with our behavior. When we interact, it feeds us more. The bias we’re seeing (and lamenting) is one we have created.
But really, isn’t that true of all news outlets? The decried “mainstream news media” is also (and first of all) a business. They operate on revenues. Eyeballs mean advertising dollars. The major players (Fox News, CNN, etc.) are successful not because of their biases, but ours. We watch, click on, share, and talk about what we consume. They take the hint and produce more of that same stuff. They’re feeding us what we want — what we demand through our actions.
Of course, the “main” news sites get plenty of shares and views on social media, but this is also a ripe breeding ground for even more openly slanted sites to thrive. Platforms like the Daily Wire, The Washington Examiner, and The Huffington Post are just a few of the best-known “alternative” (though not so alternative any more) streams for “news.” Thousands of more small companies exist, each battling for attention via social media and offering up all manner of clickbait-y headlines to drive traffic.
So there is no “main” in the mainstream, and there is no single stream to the “mainstream.”
IT’S NOT NEWS
I think we have to be honest about what we mean when we say “mainstream news media.” So much of what is on television, social media, and the web is not reporting at all, but editorials. Especially on cable in prime time, and especially with the most-shared social websites, we are consuming and sharing opinions and not news at all. This is what sells (READ: this is what we like to “buy”). This is what captures engagement (READ: captures our attention). They are visual expressions of opinion and editorial content.
Maybe the nightly news broadcasts have tanked because people aren’t home at 5:30 to watch, but maybe it’s because they actually do report news and we prefer dramatically delivered monologues making fun of our favorite political enemies at 9PM instead.
Maybe, in the end, our problem isn’t with “news” and those who produce it at all.
Maybe the problem is with us.
Maybe we’re uncomfortable with the fact that there are people who disagree with us. It’s not a nefarious bias coming out of high-rises in New York City and Los Angelas that anger us so, it’s that everyone doesn’t think the way we think. Do these news outlets we vilify have an agenda? Of course! It’s their job to make money for their stockholders.
But we the viewer have an agenda, too, that often is overlooked.
In fact, the business model accommodates our own bias to achieve its goal. We are the tail that wags the dog.
I’m sure the lament over biased, slanted reporting will persist. I just think it’s time we are honest with our language and say “I don’t trust news outlets that disagree with me.” I also think it’s time we are honest about our own hypocrisy, demanding unbiased information from others when confirmation bias drives our own information consumption.
We can keep blaming it for all that’s wrong in the world, but these real problems can’t be the fault of the “mainstream news media.”
Real problems can’t be perpetrated by something that doesn’t exist.