The mainstream media is to “progressive” Mendocino County what liberal bias is to Fox News—a favorite punching bag, an omnipresent boogie man who manipulates, digests and excretes a pile of propaganda.
It's a critique that makes my brain hurt. Not because I necessarily disagree with it (though I often do), but because it's lazy. "MSM" was once a sophisticated way to talk about powerful media institutions; these days, it's all but meaningless—unless you count the partisan hacks, smug ideologues and well-financed activists who wield it as political code.
Consider: Typing “mainstream media” into Google will supply a handful of stories on the recent theft of climate science emails in Britian. Predictably, it's a story that's been dubbed “Climate-Gate” by Fox News; their headline? “Climate-Gate Heats Up But Mainstream Media Ignore Firestorm.”
“The network news media have been hiding in the storm cellar,” the story says, “hoping the Climate-gate story will blow over. But the storm isn’t going away.” Right. So what's the storm? “The private e-mails showed potentially unethical or illegal behavior and a possible conspiracy to distort science for political gain. That scary list includes plans to avoid freedom of information requests, efforts to delete data and discussions of ways to intimidate the peer review process of scientific publications.”
Okay, sounds like a story, right? Not quite—at least according to another piece a few clicks down on your “mainstream media” Google search. “Mainstream media misdirected in stolen email story,” the headline—written by Jim Hoggan, on the “DeSmog Blog”—says. “While the scientific evidence demonstrating that climate change poses a very real threat to our health, economy, and planet has never been clearer, an army of climate deniers has used its extensive echo chamber to manufacture a ‘scandal’ out of this rather bland collection of email banter. The mainstream media has swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, developing an obsession with ‘Climategate,’ without ever asking the most fundamental questions this ‘scandal’ raises.”
So, according to Fox, the mainstream media has willfully supressed Climate-Gate. And on the left, Hoggan says Fox is the unsophisticated, undiscriminating mainstream media. Taken together, these are the two kinds of your typical MSM argument: The media has conspired to kill the most important story ever, or they're heard-mentiality morons incapable of critical, independent thought. (There's a certain irony to this particular example, of course. Remember the days before Gore—when climate change was still controversial? Back then, it was the climate change advocates clamoring about how mainstream media was doing the old false-equivalency shuffle, giving non-believers equal clout and thus creating the perception of robust scientific debate.)
With all this back-and-forth, perhaps it would be helpful to define our terms.
Noam Chomsky, lefty media critic par exellance, defined MSM in his '97 essay “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream” as the “agenda-setting media” — the institutions that create the framework in which we impotently toil away. “[The New York Times, CBS, etc.,] are way up at the top of the power structure of the private economy which is a very tyrannical structure,” he wrote. “Corporations are basically tyrannies, hierarchic, controlled from above. If you don’t like what they are doing you get out. The major media are just part of that system.”
These days, Chomsky's view seems quaint.
Consider: Conservapoedia—which was founded by Andrew Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist famous for mobilizing against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971—defines the MSM as the media that existed prior to 1987, i.e, before the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast outlets to provide more than one perspective on an issue. Conservapoedia goes on: “Among conservatives, the term usually refers to the overwhelming majority of news reporting and commentary as consisting of liberal bias, while presenting themselves as objective reporting mediums.”
And, for the concerned citizen, there's a handy addendum of MSM outlets so as to avoid indoctrination: the New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NPR, PBS, Fox News all make the blacklist—though Fox, predictably, comes with a caveat: “Some conservatives consider Fox News to not be 'mainstream media,' because they frequently present a different, often more fair and balanced viewpoint to the above news outlets.”
It's an odd departure from Chomsky. Where Chomsky was talking about power and the institutions that perpetuate power, Conservapoedia is talking about politics; it's a critique that's purely cosmetic.
Which pretty much sums up the problem with MSM: It's not a critque of powerful institutions anymore; it's simply a way for politicians and political organizations and powerful people to talk about poltics.