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Weekly reads from CJR for June 24, 2021

What is the mainstream media”?

“Everyone is constantly yelling about the mainstream media, and rarely are we referring to the same thing,” Savannah Jacobson writes. Case in point: Nick Bacon, a video producer in Chicago, decided to name his company Mainstream Media LLC—he figured doing so would be good for search engine optimization. Bacon received attention, if not always the kind he wanted; last year, a couple from South Carolina phoned him repeatedly for an hour, teeming with “impotent rage.” (“They legitimately thought I was the mainstream media Donald Trump was talking about,” Bacon said.) Last month, the Pew Research Center released a report finding “wide agreement” among Americans surveyed about which outlets are in the mainstream media, but the poll also had odd inconsistencies: 73 percent said that Fox News belongs to the mainstream, yet The Sean Hannity Show does not. “What is clear,” Jacobson observes, “is that those of us who use the phrase ‘mainstream media’ have only a loosely shared understanding of reality.”

Past the cross-talk, you can hear the echoes of history—mainstreaming as a function of technological innovation, industry professionalization, and social shifts. “Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, a public turn against the Vietnam War, and a broader cultural revolution, Richard Nixon entered the White House and, seeking the rhetorical upper hand against a critical press, began using ‘the media’ to obscure the valor of the Fourth Estate and set an agenda on his terms,” Jacobson writes. In the years that followed, “claiming a position apart from the American ‘establishment’ while speaking to a ‘majority’ of like-minded citizens has since become a trademark of conservative media.” Now that trust in the press is near an all-time low, she finds, “with the right cable account and digital subscriptions, we can buy whatever facts we want.” Going outside the mainstream may be scary, or liberating. “It’s easy to conclude that we’re now in a period of extreme upheaval—a collapse of consensus on the nature of reality,” Jacobson writes. “But there are also signs that we’ve swung back to the pole of the nineteenth century, with one key distinction: the fractures that were once local are now individual.” —Betsy Morais, managing editor


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