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What Do We Mean By ‘Mainstream Media’?

Theo Wayt, Staff Writer

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Recently, in my journalism class, our professor assigned us a final project about a marginalized group. We were supposed to consider whether this group is subject to bias or discrimination and whether the public is getting a fair, accurate and reasonable portrait of them, among other things. “We are more interested in a critique of mainstream coverage — if the group receives any mainstream coverage,” the assignment read.

In class, our professor listed suitable mainstream outlets: CNN, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NPR and a couple of others. He didn’t mention Fox News or Breitbart News, but at the time I did not notice. To me, those barely qualified as news outlets. Though I sometimes enjoyed gawking at their stories — like this Fox News segment pointing out that “99.6 Percent of ‘Poor’ Households Have A Refrigerator,” or Breitbart’s article titled “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy” — I never took them seriously. But as I conducted my first interview, I realized my professor and I had made a major oversight.

To David Schiminow, a conservative graduate student at NYU, Fox is the television station closest to the center. “Not to sound corny, but their slogan is ‘Fair and Balanced,’” he said. He also reads Breitbart News regularly, describing it as “true conservative Republican … not alt-right by any stretch of the imagination.” I must look skeptical, because Schiminow laughs and admits, “They do lick Trump’s tushie a little bit. There’s no question that the mainstream media is biased to the left.”

Schiminow is not alone. In a 2017 Gallup poll, only 14 percent of self-identified Republicans said that “media get the facts straight,” compared to 62 percent of Democrats. This polarization is a relatively recent development: less than 20 years ago, over 50 percent of respondents from both parties responded affirmatively.

Whether those of us in college lecture halls acknowledge it or not, right-wing news organizations like Fox and Breitbart are feeding off conservative discontent. According to Google Analytics, Fox News website gets tens of millions more monthly views than The Washington Post; Breitbart’s web traffic is roughly equal to that of NPR, and double that of The New Yorker. My professor often says David Remnick is the most important person in journalism, but could it actually be Steve Bannon?

Of course, journalism professors should not tolerate the terribly misleading reporting styles of Breitbart and Fox. But to not address the fact that these news outlets, which are definitely mainstream, are informing millions of people — plus the president himself — is to misrepresent American journalism and to encourage the right-wing cliche that universities are bubbles of liberal fantasy.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Theo Wayt at [email protected]

A version of this appeared in the Monday, Dec. 4 print edition. 

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What Do We Mean By ‘Mainstream Media’?