The media does not enjoy an exalted position in public opinion. Polls continue to show an eroding confidence in the American media. Without question, the media deserves much of the mistrust directed toward it.
However, just as the media has become more divisive and biased in one respect, it has also acquired a certain positive trait. In one respect, the current media resembles the eighteenth-century press that reflected and energized American democracy.
The American press during the eighteenth-century, and particularly during the revolutionary era, was a highly competitive press that actively engaged its public audience. It was highly partisan and intensely opinionated, but also very much participatory, in terms of involving the public in the political debate. Readers of the pamphlets and newspapers often published their own views in the pages of the colonial press.
Objectivity was not a characteristic of the eighteenth-century press. One single newspaper could not be relied upon to give all sides of a debate. Instead, the newspapers were often affiliated with political movements and groups. These newspapers essentially became media organs for a particular political viewpoint or party.
If someone wanted to read all sides of a debate, that person would have to read the newspapers associated with all the different sides of that debate. But what the newspapers lacked in objectivity, they compensated for in igniting public participation in the political debate.
The eighteenth-century press never claimed to be objective. It never claimed to be anything other than what it was: a mouthpiece for a partisan movement. The modern mainstream media has likewise abandoned objectivity in favor of partisanship, but it has failed to openly admit that transition.
Mainstream – that is how the large media entities describe themselves. But what does that word mean? It cannot mean objective or truthful or reliable. The media has given up on those ideals. Newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post long ago deleted “objective” from the goals to which they are committed.
They claim they are “fair” or “probing” or “representative of diverse communities,” but they never claim to be objective. Indeed, in the modern liberal mindset, there is no such thing as objective truth, just viewpoints of diverse constituencies.
So when the modern media decries the downfall of the “mainstream media,” what can be meant of that term? What sets the “mainstream media” apart from other media? What sets CBS apart from Fox News? What sets MSNBC apart from CNN?
It is not objectivity. Indeed, the so-called mainstream media appears just as partisan as the eighteenth-century press. Many in the mainstream media, for instance, lamented that the reason President Biden’s Build Back Better spending program did not pass into law was that the media did not promote it well enough. This statement alone provides evidence that the media sees itself more as a political actor than a messenger of objective news.
Given that objectivity does not characterize the mainstream media, there seems only two traits that in fact do distinguish the mainstream media: age and honesty.
CBS is a lot older than Fox News. CBS came into being at the dawn of the American broadcast industry. CNN existed long before MSNBC. Consequently, mainstream must mean old … or older. But it also means something else: dishonesty. MSNBC is honest about what viewpoint it expresses. Fox News does not hide its perspectives. Talk radio does not pretend to be encyclopedias of information. They all admit to their purpose and perspective, just as did the eighteenth-century press.
It is the “mainstream media” that insists on existing in a vacuum of honesty. It is only the mainstream media that tries to claim it is something it is not, that tries to peddle its message beneath the cover of deception. Should anyone care about the decline of such a media?
Patrick M. Garry is a professor of law with a Ph.D. in constitutional history at the University of South Dakota Law School. He is also senior fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy.