Who is the MSM?

Who is the MSM?
Photo by Pinho . / Unsplash

I’ll be honest, I don’t know.  

If that’s an odd way to start this, then I apologize.  But the question is not entirely rhetorical.  I see the phrase “mainstream media” or its zippier abbreviation, “MSM” in all sorts of criticisms, yet the definition eludes me.  

I spent most of my career working for what I imagine most would consider to be the MSM, going from intern to news producer at a national television network.  But that experience left me even less convinced there is a meaningful distinction between a mainstream media, and everything else  

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In a world where YouTube and TikTok stars count their fans by the millions, it seems like a quaint notion to believe that national cable networks who average just over one million daily viewers are somehow more mainstream.  

So is the definition of MSM based on audience? Americans as a whole cannot seem to agree who is on the “MSM” list.  The Pew Research Center asked this question in a 2021 poll.  Is the New York Post, whose website boasts more than 83 million unique monthly visitors – 90% of whom are not in NYC - somehow less mainstream than the Wall Street Journal, who claims a similar audience, and is owned by the same company?  Apparently, 10% of Americans think so.

Is it about access?  Looking at the January 2023 White House Pool rotation – the schedule that dictates which news outlet’s reporter will be the eyes and ears for the whole White House press corps – lists not only the NY Post and WSJ, but also HuffPost, which only 37% of America considers mainstream.

Peeking into the archive, we can also see representation from Buzzfeed, which 22% think of as being in the MSM, and Newsmax — at 12% – has an assigned seat in the White House Briefing Room, which is quite a coup for a news organization.

Maybe, then, the “MSM” designation is not about reach, it is more about agenda.  Fox News – itself considered to be included in the mainstream media by nearly three quarters of the US –  repeatedly publishes articles and videos calling out the MSM’s “missteps”  and its “agenda”, implying a liberal slant.  

Although I won’t evaluate each of these claims individually, I have trouble with the idea that all of the members of this group – the mainstream media – whose membership is so ambiguous, could establish a shared agenda.

If you’ve ever worked for a big company, you know how many different people work there, all with different opinions, different goals, different everything.  News agencies are no different.  

Multiply that by the sheer number of news agencies, and add in the tight and unforgiving deadlines and you can see how improbable a broad, coordinated agenda would be.  

So, I have no idea who the MSM is.  The definition seems very similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, discussing obscene material.  “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” he wrote.  “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

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