The presidential election has lit a fuse on discussions about the present and future of the mainstream media (MSM). Opinions are hot and heavy, and predictable for the most part according to the political mindset of the commenter.
Some people, for instance, attribute Trump’s win to the media’s extensive coverage of him during the primaries, while others see the influence of so-called “fake news” as a factor. People of these and kindred opinions tend not to see, or acknowledge, any significance in the election results for the future of the MSM.
Other people think that Trump won precisely because he characterized the media as being part of the “corrupt establishment,” with Michael Wolff, for instance, writing in the Hollywood Reporter that the election was not between the Republican and Democratic parties but between the Trump Party and the Media Party. As Wolff puts it, “The media turned itself into the opposition and, accordingly, was voted down.” Many such people, Wolff excluded, tend to see (indeed, hope for) a dismal future for the mainstream media.
Yet other commenters see in the election results the damaging effects on the MSM and the country as a whole of the social media, which are seen as supplanting civil and curated journalism.
Like most things, there is some truth in all of these opinions, but the view from here is that the pessimists have it right, and that, in fact, the mainstream media have been to the conservative media what Arabian horses are to thoroughbreds: the very bloodstock.
Not that they meant to be, of course. But after decades of peddling the soft bias of American-style liberalism (and in the 2016 presidential election an anti-Trump bias that obliterated journalistic conventions), the mainstream media positively invited the creation and growth of right-of-center media. Worse still for the MSM, it’s now arguably the case that the conservative media wield more political power than they do.
Just look at the numbers: FOX News Channel ranks number one in cable viewers, and it’s not even close; talk radio is dominated by conservatives; Breitbart.com is ranked 47th in the United States, as of January 4, while, according to Alexa, the Washingtonpost.com is ranked 53rd; and the Drudgereport.com is the leading source of referrals (excluding social media and searches) to the top news organizations. Indeed, Drudge provides over half of all referrals to the Associated Press website.
The outlets of the right don’t, of course, have the same cultural influence as the legacy media, and probably never will. But cultural dominance without political influence equals precisely…what?
Apart from the fate of the MSM, there is the vastly more important question of what becomes of journalism itself. Judging by the performance of the leaders of the journalistic pack — the New York Times and the Washington Post — the answer is a future in which the MSM abandon any pretense of separating news from opinion, and instead go “all in” on a combination of the two, thereby giving vent to their reporters’ political views and, not incidentally, stimulating the social media traffic that is the preferred metric by which the MSM sell themselves to advertisers.
Independent corroboration of the decline of the MSM is so widespread it’s threatening to come in the windows. But perhaps the Gallup poll, published in September of last year, tells the story best:
- Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media.
- Republicans who have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years. Democrats and independents trust in the media has declined only marginally, with 51% of Democrats and 30% of independents expressing trust.
So there’s the lugubrious truth. Despite the denials of the media and their academic toadies, the MSM have lost the confidence of over half the people in the country, and over 80% of Republicans and conservatives.
If the media operated editorially in a way that was consistent with the notion of rational markets, they would steer their news coverage toward objectivity, and be rewarded by the markets. But they don’t, they can’t, and they won’t.
Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of speech, a competitive communications industry, and journalistic excellence. The opinions expressed are those of Maines alone and not of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.
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