Gently Down the Mainstream

Here are a few classic cartoons, book covers, and online jokes which should take some older readers back about twenty years:

How quaint it is to recall such an innocent era of skepticism towards what we now consider “legacy media”- the peer-reviewed product of professional correspondents and qualified experts that’s lately upheld as a bulwark against misinformation, disinformation, and alternative facts. How na├»ve we were to think that major newspapers and television networks might ever be compromised in their dedication to giving the straight scoop for the public good.

What’s ironic here, of course, is that pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, and pre-internet, the danger to democracy from biased media and a compliant press was a staple theme of political theorists. Everything from the health risks of tobacco and the womanizing of John F. Kennedy to the futility of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq were said to be intentionally ignored by a journalistic establishment beholden to its real masters in business and government. And not just supposed pillars of integrity like the New York Times, either, but advertising, Hollywood movies, and school textbooks were commonly decried as mere propaganda for a ruling elite, reinforcing a capitalist, consumerist, patriarchal status quo so pervasive that most in the audience never thought to question it.

At first the world wide web and the exciting innovation of social media looked to promise liberation from all that. The free exchange of news and ideas between ordinary people, who were shoving aside the complacent “gatekeepers” of the giant studios, press syndicates, and state censors, was highlighted as the great potential of the new electronic ecosystem; some of that potential seemed to have been realized during the mobilization of support for presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 or the Arab Spring of 2010-12. At last, went the self-congratulations, the authority of mainstream editors and publishers would be overruled, and real Truth would speak to a suddenly vulnerable Power.

Not to give away the ending, but that hasn’t happened. Or rather, it’s happened and then some: institutional media, including decades-old local papers, iconic news magazines, and all-wise TV anchor positions, is so financially beleaguered and philosophically discredited that it can never recover the gravitas which might correct the influence of clickbait, conspiracy theories, cancel culture, Russian trolls, and Donald Trump. Sophisticates of varying backgrounds, who used to sneer at conventional wisdom dispensed to the gullible masses, have tied themselves in knots extolling the virtues of the objective and the official. There is something desperate about the Washington Post‘s webpage slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” There is something sad about how the New York Times is defended as a protector of fact in an age of falsehood, despite the paper’s own 2004 admission of negligence in investigating allegations of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, and several recent high-profile dismissals and resignations among its staff over editorial policy. And there is something sick about how CNN or Fox News are hailed as trustworthy contrasts to the irresponsibility of Julian Assange or Alex Jones. As far as the average reader or viewer is concerned, the same gatekeepers we eagerly shoved aside twenty years ago are permanently retired.

By now, as legacy networks and wire services scramble to debunk popular claims about COVID vaccinations or stolen elections, there is a sense that the rehabilitated rep of the mainstream media amounts to too little, too late: we couldn’t believe you then, why should we believe you now? You let JFK’s secret affairs and Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMDs go unquestioned, and you’re asking for another chance? All those charges of stifling dissent and manufacturing consent weren’t serious? Democracy dies in darkness, but was it really thriving under your lights? None of this is to say that a viral Facebook post is more accurate than an article in your city’s familiar daily (if there still is one), or that one fanatic’s personal website offers a fairer portrait of reality than CNN, or that you’ll get as much solid journalism from a blogger or a Youtuber as from an accredited reporter. It’s just that we have learned the hard way how imperfectly the traditional press has functioned – the imperfections were cited again and again over many years – and we can’t conveniently forget those lessons just because the latest generation of media is even less credible. No thanks, corporate news – the people are more uncontrolled than ever.