“Nobody much cared about that in the mainstream media,” responded Kurtz. “I guess that Fox News is part of the mainstream media, but….”
I guess? Whoa for a moment here. This is Howard Kurtz, Fox News media critic and a longtime observer of the national media scene. And he isn’t 100 percent sure whether his employer is part of the club known as the mainstream media?
Well, there’s at least one person who joins Kurtz on this puzzle. The “Dear Mainstream Media” question receptacle snared the following inquiry from a reader. “What qualifies a media outlet to be considered ‘mainstream media’? I may be wrong, but isn’t Fox News the No. 1 cable news network? Isn’t Rush Limbaugh the No. 1 talk radio show? Why do conservatives keep saying ‘mainstream media’ when they are at the top of it?”
For the sake of this post, we’ll focus on Fox News and leave the Limbaugh angle for a subsequent effort. Also for the sake of this post, we need some kind of definition of “mainstream media.” The term itself has experienced hockey-stick growth in recent decades. A Nexis search for “mainstream news media” or “mainstream media” (under “all English language news”) yields no results in the 1970s, more than 200 in the 1980s, and then an unfetchable number of hits for decades since. Early mentions of the term appear to muster little attempt at defining it. “The needs of the 90 per cent or so of Washington journalists who work in print are not the same as those of their colleagues in broadcasting. The mainstream media have little in common with the burgeoning specialty and trade press, which now employs a quarter of the town’s newspeople,” reads a Newsweek story from May 1981.
That’s not to say there aren’t definitions to be had. Noam Chomsky, in an essay titled, “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream,” argued that corporate media organizations attempt to “divert” people’s attention from serious matters. “What are the elite media, the agenda-setting ones? The New York Times and CBS, for example. Well, first of all, they are major, very profitable, corporations. Furthermore, most of them are either linked to, or outright owned by, much bigger corporations, like General Electric, Westinghouse, and so on,” wrote Chomsky. “They are way up at the top of the power structure of the private economy which is a very tyrannical structure. Corporations are basically tyrannies, hierarchic, controled [sic] from above. If you don’t like what they are doing you get out. The major media are just part of that system.”
If you’re looking for kicks, this Urban Dictionary definition is just the thing. It defines the mainstream media as simply “major television networks and newspapers. Most mainstream media outlets are biased right or left but pretend to be neutral.”
Which outlets qualify? Well, don’t rely on the Erik Wemple Blog; rely on the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), which determines seating assignments in the White House briefing room. Here’s the pecking order for this particular flock of poultry:
Pretty impressive — Fox News was born in 1996, whereas other key front-row denizens have histories that go back generations, including into the 19th century. To judge by reach alone, the network deserves the distinction. In the roaring election year of 2016, Fox News finished as the No. 1 channel in all of cable, besting not only competitors like MSNBC and CNN, but also more general-interest destinations such as ESPN. It snared an average of 2.4 million viewers in prime-time slots, nearly twice the tally of CNN.
The argument that Fox News is a mainstream outlet just like its front-row cohort in the White House briefing room gains steam from what happens in that space. John Roberts, the channel’s chief White House correspondent, routinely pushes press secretary Sean Spicer on the issues of the day, whether that’s the qualifications of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s bogus contentions about voter fraud or health care.
At a journalism symposium last week, Roberts told an audience at the National Press Club that these days he calls on the same skills he sharpened at CNN and CBS News in generating his White House dispatches for Fox News. “My goal as a journalist is to get the facts, get them right and to be fair in my coverage,” said Roberts. At that same event, Roberts noted that the opinion side of Fox News has a “relationship” with Team Trump, though he, as a news-side worker, has to scratch and claw for stories just like any other reporter.
There are times, too, when Fox News shows some reverence toward the media organizations seated up front in the White House briefing room. When it was doing some work on Hillary Clinton’s alleged conflicts of interest while serving as secretary of state, for instance, the network was happy to bring in the expertise of New York Times investigative reporter Jo Becker, who’d done pioneering work on the topic.
Yet! When mainstream outlets such as the New York Times are producing journalism that grinds against, say, a certain Republican president, the Fox News position on them shifts just a touch — especially on the programs of the network’s key opinionators. Sean Hannity, for example, obsessively stitches criticism of the mainstream media into his broadcasting themes. In mid-January, he kicked off a monologue by saying, “Tonight we will connect the dots and expose the cabal that is the mainstream media in America.” In a February show, he said, “But the biggest point I want to make tonight is this: The mainstream media’s audience, their viewers, listeners, readers — they are not you, the American people. They are not the forgotten men and women in poverty, on food stamps, out of the labor force, that can’t buy a house.” Top host Bill O’Reilly does the same stuff, constantly banging on the American press for this infraction or that infraction. In October of last year, he even articulated a conspiracy theory that “at least three” U.S. news organizations had sent word to their employees that “If you support Trump, your career is done done here.”
David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, captures the network’s conflicting roles: “Fox News is at once a business enterprise and a political operation with all the trappings of the mainstream media: reporters, producers editors, anchors, writers, video journalists, graphic artists, the whole gamut,” says Folkenflik, who points to Fox News mainstays such as Chris Wallace, Jennifer Griffin and Catherine Herridge as providing excellent news coverage. “And yet like a sleeper agent, at least for the first twenty years of its life, it’s sought to undermine all of those around it that it mimics in public.”
Here’s the fascinating part of the puzzle: Fox News has long used a convention of the mainstream media to justify its excesses. Like a large newspaper, Fox News maintains an organizational division between its news product and its opinion product. Both sides of the wall skew conservative, as any steady Fox News viewer can discern. Fox News programs on both sides of the divide hyped the Benghazi story; Fox News programs on both sides of the divide have propagated withering coverage of Obamacare; Fox News programs on both sides of the divide concur on the drawbacks of tax-and-spend policies.
It’s on the opinion side of the wall, however, where the atrocities fall. Have a look at the standard “Fox & Friends” interview with a Trump surrogate, or its scores of interviews with Trump himself; they’re pure sycophancy, PR, propaganda. A perfect example is the time that “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade allowed candidate Trump to promote a baseless story about Ted Cruz’s father’s alleged involvement in the JFK assassination.
Turning to prime-time embarrassments, there’s Hannity. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he participated in a promotion for Trump (earning a brushback from his employer); he paid to fly Newt Gingrich to an interview for vice president; he provided advice to the candidate; and he generated “Fox & Friends”-caliber boosterism for the campaign, at one point even orchestrating a round of applause for Trump’s Muslim ban proposal. All that notwithstanding, he’s still going strong.
Bill O’Reilly? Two years ago, a number of outlets exposed a series of embellishments/exaggerations/lies that O’Reilly had committed in boasting about his reportorial exploits in conflict zones. He got busted hard. Instead of launching an investigation, Fox News stood behind O’Reilly, who blamed the findings on “far left” actors determined to take him down for ideological reasons. Taken together with the nonsense from “Fox & Friends” and the political participation from Hannity, the O’Reilly misadventure served to clarify that when it comes to the opinion side of Fox News, there are precisely no standards whatsoever.
Around the same time as O’Reilly’s scandal, former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was getting swarmed for embellishments/exaggerations/lies in his own reportorial past. NBC News commissioned an internal investigation, suspended Williams and demoted him.
To tie all these strands together: Fox News strives for mainstream media recognition and status. It zealously promotes mainstream media stories when they support the Fox News worldview. It defines itself in opposition to the mainstream media when those stories don’t support the Fox News worldview. And it exploits and abuses a mainstream media convention — opinion pages vs. news pages — to excuse standard-less journalism. So, to answer the original question as to whether Fox News is a mainstream media organization, it depends on the day.
Robert Kaiser, a former managing editor for The Washington Post, captures this unevenness: “I can see an argument that to qualify as part of the generally-recognized community of independent, professional journalists, a news organization must follow certain basic rules: separate fact from opinion, avoid conflicts of interest, eschew ideology, put the First Amendment first, stuff like that,” writes Kaiser in an email. “Fox seems an odd duck in this context: sometimes it behaves very professionally and meets criteria like these, and sometimes it doesn’t.”