The Mainstream Media

Okay, I’m making a new rule: whenever I’m reading something online and I see the phrase “The Mainstream Media,” I’m instantly deducting 40 credibility points from the author. It’s a meaningless phrase its use indicates laziness, sloppiness, or a line of thought that was only half-formed to begin with.

Worst, it’s often a cheap debating technique, best used by con men to imply a closeness with the reader. “You know that individual or organization that you can’t stand? C’mon, you know the one I’m talking about, right? Well, hey! I can’t stand it or him or her either! Why, buying an above-ground pool from me will be like buying it from your best friend!”

But chiefly let’s stick to the problem that “the mainstream media” is a meaningless term. I write a column for a great metropolitan newspaper. I’m part of the Mainstream Media, right? But what happens when I blog here? Whoops, no. I’m a Citizen Journalist. Damn, and then I screwed it all up by appearing on CBS. No! Wait! I think I saved it by doing a podcast.


Well, yes: MacBreak is sponsored by ads.

Oh, come on. At best, that makes it part of the “…am Media.”

Do you see the problem? When you say “the mainstream media” you’re not communicating. You’re just making mouth sounds.

If you have a problem with a certain journalist, publication, or newscast, then why dilute the impact of your commentary by spreading the blame? Aim both barrels where they belong: blast your target full-force. The Boston Globe is willfully ignoring a police crackdown on peaceful protests during a lucrative national medical convention, in the interests of protecting a huge advertiser: the Boston tourism industry. Wow! Well, they’ve definitely been very, very naughty. I hope you shine the Spotlight of Truth on their disgusting dereliction of duty.

You waste your shot by blaming it on The Mainstream Media instead. When I get to the end of your heroic screed I’m tempted to click the “Comment On This Post” button and ask you to explain what role, precisely, the Kansas City Star played in this hypocrisy and how they benefitted.

“Oh, all those Mainstream Media organizations behave the same way,” you counter. Ah. Is that why you won’t rent an apartment to one?

Again I say: it’s a meaningless term. Look at the state of publishing today. Does this look like an industry that’s good at working together on any kind of a common agenda?

So blame CNN for what you saw Sunday morning. Don’t blame all of professional journalism. Actually, better still: blame the producers and reporters who were involved in the Washington roundtable show that ticked you off. Leave the Saturday night sports guy out of it.

For bonus points on the Credibility Index, you should take a moment to consider if there’s an alternative explanation for this journalist or organization’s behavior that doesn’t somehow help to underscore your existing frustrations with the industry as a whole or with a reasonable point of view that you don’t happen to share. You want to know why stories don’t get published? For exasperatingly dull reasons. The reporter wasn’t able to convince his or her editor that it was worth the X inches of limited space available, in a newspaper that gets smaller and smaller with each passing quarter. In TV, it’s because they couldn’t convince a news producer that the story had enough of a “hook” to catch and hold the viewer’s interest and prevent him from changing the channel.

Is this sort of censorship a common failing of this so-called “mainstream media”? While we’re at it, is the “reliably consistent” perspective (to put it charitably) of certain news outlets an endemic problem?

Maybe. But a good story is a good story. Each outlet puts its own spin and its own lens on the day’s events. Some do so with an active agenda. Some are oblivious to their own slant. Some reporters and even some whole outlets aren’t worth a damn. But most strive for fairness and good practices. You’re committing a big whopper when you presume that the failings of each individual commercial news outlet can be quantified, summed with those of all of the others, and then averaged in a single figure of irresponsibility that represents the behavior of thousands of workers.

Oh, and one final addendum to this policy: if you write that this “mainstream media” of yours is “at it again,” “up to its old tricks.” or “still doesn’t get it,” then I get to jab you in the ribs hard with the blunt end of a Sharpie marker.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just received an IM from the Monsanto corporation. If I don’t write something positive about genetically-engineered corn in the next 90 minutes, they’re gonna take my free biodiesel Prius away.

28 thoughts on “The Mainstream Media

  1. droughtquake

    But ‘Mainstream Media’ does mean something when the Gay media uses it. It would also apply when used in the ethnic media. So there are exceptions to your rant.

  2. Pingback: Andy Ihnatko’s Celestial Waste of Bandwidth (BETA) ยป The Mainstream Media | Technovia

  3. chris crowl

    Andy, U don’t get it…the MSM are the rump swaps and toadies that support all things blindly. For instance have you seen a single story on the increase in gas prices day after day? that was once upon a time big news. now it’s not so critical for obvious reasons.

  4. Ihnatko Post author

    @droughtquake – I dunno. “Out” magazine has a circulation of roughly 190,000. Is it less mainstream than a community paper that has only 12,000 readers?

    I do take your point that a publication that focuses on a narrow community can consider the rest of the community to be “the mainstream.” But that’s not generally what people mean when they say “the mainstream media.”

  5. Ihnatko Post author

    @chris_crowl – A search of Google News for “gas prices increase” yields a couple of hundred recent newspaper articles, noting the run-up at the pump and that prices are expected to flatten a bit in advance of the July 4 holiday.

    When gas was $4.60 a gallon and seemed destined to break $5 by summer, it was all that the public could talk about and so it was the top news item in every newscast. The slow increase is still news, and it’s being covered, but not as loudly as it was when it seemed to be the bellwether of a national crisis.

    I think this is part of the problem. Each one of us is very attentive to those topics that are most important to us. We’re the first to notice when this particular story seems to have dropped off the front page. We’re often the last to consider that maybe it just fell, instead of being pushed.


    For me, mainstream media means, CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and many others. Hell even Playboy and Rolling Stone art part of the mainstream.

    The phrase has meaning to me because I see so much overlap in the presentation of the news that you’d think one person on top of some hill was writing the copy then e-mailing to all the major outlets.

    They use the same descriptions, the same adjectives, and present a unified point of view on almost every story. Surely you remember when you couldn’t read a story about Apple Computer without the word “embattled” appearing in front of it.

    This kind of thing goes on now ad nauseam. It’s creepy, and disgusting. It’s as if we have our own voluntary Pravda.

    Sometimes I Tivo all the Sunday talking head shows or evening news shows and show my friends how everyone seems to be reading the exact same copy.

    I believe there is a cultural foundation in the media upon which this seemingly fixed point of view is based. These guys come out of University journalism schools deeply culturally indoctrinated.

    There isn’t a day that I’m not thankful for the explosion in “citizen journalism.” At least there are people out there, like yourself, that give us something outside the mainstream to think about.

  7. Anthony Young

    Andy for the most part I agree with your comments but maybe a quick talk with Leo Laporte who seems to use (and misuse) Mainstream Media would be in order. It’s seems to beore of a marketing term for some people. AY

  8. Joe R


    I love you. I hope you make it back from China. I was sort of hoping you would talk about how all non-State-run media is terrible and shouldn’t be allowed to exist until after you got home from your trip.

  9. Robin

    I get why you don’t like the term.

    I was a media studies major in college and basically what I was taught was that mainstream goes along with anything that is attached to the BIG 10

    I didn’t agree with most of what I was taught, but parts of it made sense to me. I was told to go to alternative media when using sources for research because everything in mainstream media had Gatekeepers.

    I could sit here and go on and on forever, but that’s the gist of what I was told was mainstream media.

  10. Scott Gamble

    Very thought-provoking article, Andy. I especially appreciate it because I am guilty of using the term in print (and in conversation).

    As @droughtquake observes (and you acknowledge), narrower sub-components of media use the term to refer to those outlets that they consider the status quo. The gay media example is one, the conservative vs. liberal media exchange is another. Nonetheless, the point you make regarding “new” media references is an appropriate one. People like you who successfully bridge both worlds while retaining credibility in both serve as a good reminder that we can certainly do without more labels.

  11. TUAWSteve

    We in the non-liberal world no longer refer to it as the “mainstream media”. It’s now called the State-Run Media or State-Controlled Media.

  12. Eric

    As a journalist who worked for a traditional news outlet (the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi) I have dealt with the subject many times. Most of the responses don’t get the point. Their own little agendas (whether it be “OMG TEH LIBRAL MEDIA IS SATAN” to agenda-driven anti-news pubs like OUT) show that clearly.

    I agree that the term mainstream media doesn’t mean much and hasn’t since the big three TV networks acquired real competition. My first day in j-school, our writing teacher gave us a list of the top 14 ambiguous words we should be very careful about using. (Facility, issue, case, basis, field, activity, experience, question, situation, condition, character, process, nature, problem.)

    Maybe there needs to be a list of phrases that serve the same goal? Mainstream media, citizen journalist (sorry Dan Gillmor), The Liberal Media…

  13. Phil Earnhardt

    I think that has it pretty well nailed. There is very little diversity on the news of his five video sources. And the commentary is about the news organizations — not the commentators on gadgets and widgets. And even people in news organizations can blog or otherwise converse as individuals.

    I think the WSJ is a source that’s not in the MSM. They do not parrot the other sources, and report on many stories that many of R1’s list either don’t cover at all or only cover superficially somewhere deep in the bowels of their media. Something like Kimberly Strassel’s article about the growing worldwide skepticism about global warming just didn’t seem to have made it onto “Blue Room” ABC — or any of the other broadcast networks — last week.

    Good luck on your China trip and cruise, Andy. Enjoy.

  14. Danielle Alberti

    This is the best post I came across today in my reader. Some really fantastic points! My blood boils anytime someone blames all societal ills on “the media.” Let’s face it, there’s no such entity. We get our news from literally millions of sources these days, and there is no way that we can blame every one of those sources for all of earth’s problems. Even the term “mainstream media” only narrows it down to a few thousand sources. You’re absolutely right–it’s a completely meaningless term that serves no purpose but to shift blame. Bravo on a wonderful, thought-provoking post!

  15. thebanite

    While I have seen some definitions I still wonder what “mainstream” is other than meaningless. I can follow Mac news all day, everyday and ignore everything else–without the internet to help–thereby narrowing my focus to what matters to me. Most don’t speak out about what they’d really like to see, or know about, or object to, or are concerned with the homogenization of the news overall. They’re just quiet for various reasons. The stream in question is one of attention and attention is personally focussed for the most part. I suppose there is a gestalt, but it seems to me we act personally first. If the gestalt gets my attention I investigate, otherwise, if I do nothing, or pay momentary notice, it did not get my real attention– I was not impelled to act.

  16. Lamar

    It’s quite simple, really: the “mainstream media” is any media outlet that doesn’t clearly and unambiguously support whatever it is that one wishes to believe is “the truth.”

    It’s rather like “political correctness,” another term that basically means any idea that differs from the speaker’s point of view, whatever it happens to be.

    It may well be inherent in human nature to assume that one’s own prejudices and beliefs define “reality,” and that anyone who expresses disagreement (and lack of agreement can only be interpreted as disagreement, after all) only does so for malicious purposes.

  17. droughtquake

    Out Magazine is a fashion magazine, a Gay(er) GQ. Its sister publication, The Advocate is the Gay news magazine.

  18. Christopher

    I like Lamar’s point and think it ties directly back to Andy’s opening statement, “…its use indicates laziness, sloppiness, or a line of thought that was only half-formed to begin with.”

    Inciting emotional protest is different from inspiring intellectual criticism. Both can be true of the same object, of course, but the former only requires an instant and the jerk of one’s own knee while the latter requires rigor and the willingness to engage in actual debate.

  19. Buzz Lightyear

    I’ll go one further or great one, by saying “mainstream media” what one is really saying is that they’re somewhere on the lunatic fringe of society since, by definition, mainstream refers to something that appeals to the majority of society. By definition they are in the minority and marginalizing themselves. The labels we use oftentimes say more about us than about that which we are trying to label.

  20. Lamar

    Good point, Buzz. I might expand that, however, to say that those who use the term “mainstream media” are not necessarily on the lunatic fringe (although they often are), but want to portray themselves as an oppressed minority. This feeds into the siege mentality that seems unfortunately common to any number of social and political subcultures today — everyone else wants to destroy us, but we’re fighting the good fight, standing on principle, blah, blah, blah.

    Basically, “mainstream media” is just a code phrase that means “Them,” whoever “They” are.

  21. Whit

    Would you accept MSM? This week both Newsweek and Time have Jackson on the cover. How are we suppose to know who our President is?

    Enjoy you on Leo’s show.


    Like it or not, there is a “Mainstream Media.” The phrase is the most accurate way, next to “Mass Media” of describing it. Those who deny the existence of mass or mainstream media are delusional elitists. Seriously. How can anyone deny “Mainstream Media” in the face of days of horrendous Michael Jackson coverage.

    Some say the mainstream media no longer exists because there are so many outlets. Oh yeah it does, It’s there and it’s designed for US.

    I submit that at best the outlets are an illusion. CBS, ABC, NBC, BBC, CNN, MSNBC, The LA Times, The NY Times, The Guardian, The Independent (ha ha), The Morning Start, et. al. appear to be separate but they represent a monolithic, uniform, circle jerk, echo chamber designed to broadcast garbage to the mainstream, i.e. the lowest common denominator, the largest audiences they can garner. Second to that they seek to perpetuate their political views which, like it or not, are almost uniformly leftist in nature.

    You see, WE are the mainstream who’s eyeballs they are after. They believe we are the “unwashed masses.” They believe we are generally stupid. They believe we are incapable of reason. We do not, in the mass media’s collective opinion, have the ability to learn, process what we have learned, and make use of it. So it is their job to tell us what to think. Simply providing us with information and fuel for discourse would be irresponsible, like giving a sharp object to a toddler.

    Please do not misunderstand me. These are not evil people running the mainstream media. They represent a journalistic subculture and like all subcultures, if you attempt to go against it, you won’t be a part of it. So it’s no wonder they all sound exactly the same.

    Except FOX. Fox is in a category of its own. To me they are sort of a circus mirror reflection of the already distorted mainstream media. It always fascinates me how much liberals hate Fox without realizing how their hatred of this one specific network underscores the fact that all the others must support their beliefs.

    Earlier Phil Earnhardt mentioned The Wall Street Journal and I have to agree. Often reading The Journal is a relief from the American Idolesq coverage of news delivered by the mainstream press.

    I think it’s time for people to go back and reacquaint themselves with Marshall McLuhan and also see Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network.”

    In other words, it’s time to realize that “the medium is the message” and turn off your televisions and open your windows and scream “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

  23. Sven V

    So, I take it that the author would be offended if I lumped him into the ‘MSM’ label. That if I have a specific problem with him, I should point out said specifics and identify that HE is the one that I’m upset at for “THIS” problem. Yet, I should accept with an open heart a post sent to everyone (including me) that they shouldn’t do. Even though this post has no specific subject to focus on, nor any specific offense to discuss. In other words, don’t lump HIM into the unwashed masses of the MSM, yet accept that he will lump ME into the masses of those that do what he’s offended at.

    The irony just begs for a spotlight don’t it?

  24. Timothy Liebe

    ::eyeroll at TUAWSteve, and Phil Earnhardt:: And I’m sure you all feel blessed with Teh Truth that The Libburul Media Isn’t Telling Us (excepting Faux Noize, of course!) – just as I’m sure you all consider wearing teabags on your trucker caps and muttering about seceding from the Union, and how President Obama Isn’t A REAL Ammurikan, makes you feel somehow “brave” and “heroic”….

    Fine. History is passing you by – and you will have no more credence in the long, or even not-so-long, run than Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest or Selma’s Sheriff Clarke.

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