This twitch of mine has been developing for a while. I get it whenever I hear the phrase “mainstream media” and it becomes a full blown facial spasm when I see the ugly little abbreviation. Where once I used to check that my food didn’t contain any msg, I now have to check that my news feed doesn’t contain any “msm”.
Things have now got so bad that I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. It’s why I’ve been searching lists of adages these past few days. I want to make sure one doesn’t already exist before I claim ownership of my own. In fact, if any reader knows if this is already running out there in the wild, I’d be grateful for the feedback before I trademark the following and have it stitched into my underwear:
People use the term “mainstream media” whenever they’re about to take a running leap off the end of their own reason without a flap of evidence to support them.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s begin with what we all probably think we mean by “mainstream media”.
The “msm” is the media that shapes our lives and, more specifically, the journalism that conveys conventional facts and opinions. We mean The Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the BBC, ITN, CNN, Fox News, The Spectator, The New Statesman, but increasingly also websites too, such as Reaction. The size or longevity of the media isn’t as important as its character. The “mainstream” explicitly follows the conventions of journalism. Facts are sourced and arguments are steeped in history, learning, and, more broadly, logical argument and facts. Nothing is taken on faith and everything is open to rigorous challenge. Corrections are welcomed by true journalists and the real press wears them with pride.
There was no problem with the parenthesised, italicised or otherwise-icised term “mainstream media” so long as it remained a shorthand for this scepticism of the press. We have a duty to hold media to account and that is especially true in the days of global ownership when public opinion can be shaped by a single media baron. Donald Trump is not wrong when he accuses news outlets of biased reporting. He is only wrong to assume that “unbiased” is anything he happens to agree with. Bias is inherent in everything we do because humans are sadly born without omnipresence. Our subjectivity is why we have the scientific method, which requires that experimental results repeated until we are sure there’s no extraneous factor influencing the result. It’s why journalism also has its rules and why, when followed, they negate the problems of bias or, at least, places them into a context where they are made explicit.
The “media” part of “msm” is not, then, the problem. The problem is that the meaning of “mainstream” has slipped its moorings. It no longer means “the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are shared by most people and regarded as normal or conventional”. It has become pejorative, such as with “mainstream cinema” which is somehow crass and only worthy of parody; “mainstream fiction” which is generic and lacks artistic integrity; and “mainstream music” which is derivative and contains nothing that’s new or exciting.
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It’s understandable if we fall into these lazy categorisations. I’m probably prone to it more than most people. I’m incapable of listening to Beyonce except under duress and Adele makes me want to pour bleach down my ears. Unless something sounds like Tom Waits being dragged through a Spark’s concert whilst hammering on PJ Harvey’s saxophone, I don’t want to know. Yet I do know that without a strong and healthy mainstream, I cannot enjoy the derivations from that mainstream. The mainstream contains all the things in life that we know work the best. Things enter the mainstream because they are proven to be successful.
Now, all words are capable of changing or picking up additional meaning. It’s how language works. “Dabbing” used to be the gerund of “to dab” but recently is started to mean a fashionable pose struck by daft teenagers. Then Tom Watson “dabbed” in the House of Commons and it became synonymous with even dafter politicians who have also ensured that it will soon be as fashionable as fur sandals. Fortunately, most language we use doesn’t have this slipperiness, though some theorists, usually French and the type that smoke Gauloises, would argue that all language is unstable and we never quite mean what we say. Without chasing that rabbit down that peculiarly Gallic hole, let’s just agree that we do have to monitor our words and recognise that they are always capable of shifting beneath us.
The problem is that the meaning of “mainstream” has shifted and we’ve been too slow to notice how it has changed. Whenever I hear a person drop “msm” into a conversation, I feel a yawning chasm open up as though they’ve just exposed some fundamental instability in our systems of meaning. The moment a person uses that phrase, they simultaneously place inverted commas around that “mainstream” and open up the possibility that there are a plurality of “counterstreams”. The moment they drop the “msm” bomb they are trying to bring down the barriers of my reason. They want to lend credence to the religious pamphlets, the left wing propaganda, the right wing agitprop, and those leaflets that Flat Earthers hand out to stop us wandering too close to the edges of the world.
Yet it’s worth restating: “mainstream” is not a choice we made between competing versions of reality. It is more than some establishment metropolitan hegemony. It is the very system of knowledge that gives you the life you enjoy with your computers, mobile phones, cars, cat memes, artificial hips, low fat foods, Facebook, 3D TVs, game consoles, Oscar mishaps, Twitter, cheap milk, thermal socks, law and order, and peace for seventy years. The “mainstream” means who we are, and have we really become so decadent in our postmodern superiority that we’d really want to throw it away so lightly?
Because, make no mistake, the moment you pick apart the traditions and institutions of journalism, you begin to pick the bedrock of our civilisation. You doubt the trained journalist today and then the trained physicist tomorrow. Soon you no longer believe facts supported by well footnoted sources in the academic papers. Then you doubt learning, academic, and our entire system of qualifications. Which truth do you then believe? The truth presented by the researcher at university or the more convenient truth represented on some PDF you downloaded from the web and which referenced infinitely regressing series of obscure or no-longer active websites?
So, let’s stop debasing ourselves and our culture. We need to stop giving credence to the term “mainstream media”, because every time we use that phrase we throw the well reasoned further into doubt. Because, in the way it’s now used, there is no “mainstream media”. There is proper journalism and then there’s the counter factual, the propaganda, and the rest. “Mainstream media” makes no more sense that putting inverted commas around “press”, unless, of course, you do genuinely mean that nothing is ultimately knowable and that we are no better than we were back in the dark ages, mired in superstitions. And if you do believe that then there really is no reasoning with you.