Mainstream Media: No Second Helpings Please


Illustration by Meg Cuca

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

Like most of my colleagues, I am the result of an experiment. I am what happens when you take 25 million kids and raise them on a 24-hour all-you-can-eat information buffet. A buffet in which a few main courses are served ad nauseam and the dessert section emits wafts of irresistible odors. I’ve tried all the usual options—high-circulation newspapers, mainstream television, popular lit—and moved on to the buffet’s poorly traversed corners. Here I’ve found obscurantist newspapers advocating radical and dangerous ideas, films asking their audiences to withhold their expectations about narrative structure and literature existing somewhere on the periphery between high (here come the accusations of elitism) and low culture—too difficult to be widely disseminated, but too recent to be discussed in the lecture halls of academia.

But through all this, I’ve been tempted by those irresistible desserts—kittens wearing top hats, overblown action thrillers, badly written sci-fi novellas—and I’ve grown a bit of a tummy as a result. I know what I should be consuming, but like an addict, my will falls apart at the slightest glimpse of a few-week-old mammal belonging to the family felidae.

Or, well, that’s the sort of internal conflict I’m supposed to be having.

Here’s a potentially radical alternative: What if both the main courses and the desserts are making me fat? That is, what if the distinction between what I’d normally consider meaningful media and meaningless media isn’t really there and they are both harming me in equal measures? Take, say, all the coverage of the election. I don’t think it would be particularly controversial to say that most of the stuff that’s pumped out about the candidates is filler, but what if I suggested that it has more in common with eclairs than bouillabaisse? What if when I read about Trump or Clinton, really what I am seeing are fluffy nonsense phrases that have a bite but no real lasting value? I mean, when I consider the utter vacuousness of the candidates’ words (“we are going to build a country where all our children can dream and those dreams are within reach,” “It’s time for real leadership and time for change,” etc), it begins to seem obvious that most mainstream political articles—which are by nature derivative—are fated to be high fructose.

Illustration by Meg Cuca
Illustration by Meg Cuca

If this were the case, and if I cared about my intellectual blood sugar, I’d be left with one option: look elsewhere. But in looking elsewhere, how am I to know when I’ve stumbled upon media that is actually worthwhile? There are a few things to keep an eye out for, I think.

First, it should make me uncomfortable about myself. This is perhaps the most jarring difference between the mass media and some worthwhile alternatives—the mainstream media almost never presents information critical of its viewers. When, say, the U.S. supports an oppressive regime—take the Suharto regime in Indonesia—it receives very little coverage from mainstream sources like The New York Times, but often makes headlines in alternative sources like Dissent, In These Times, Z Mag and The New York Review of Books. Further, domestic policy issues and congressional deadlocks are not portrayed as symptomatic of our collective way of life, but rather as some outside attack on an otherwise ideal system. That is, the mainstream media quibbles about the minutia existing within an accepted ideology (a warped rumball of neoliberalism, republicanism and exceptionalism), while alternative media often mulls over a potluck of competing ideologies.

Second, it shouldn’t apply the principle of concision. The mainstream media will often avoid historical background and nuanced analysis in order to keep viewers hooked. If I catch myself unreflectively darting from subject to subject, I might be looking at the wrong type of media. The average word count of sources like The Wall Street Journal is between 600 and 1200 words for op-eds (which is way above CNN and Fox at a few hundred words) whereas the average word count for sources like Dissent and The New Statesman is in the 2500 word range (The New Statesman even has a section titled “Long Reads”).

Third, it shouldn’t use language restricted to a particular time and place. We see this all the time in the context of labor rights, where the mainstream media consistently avoids using Marxist terminology because of the belief that it’s passé. This aversion to historical language and complex jargon might at first appear to be driven by a desire for clarity, but anyone even remotely versed in Orwell should see the dangers lurking under the surface here. No words exist free of ideological baggage, and so the belief that simplistic language will somehow lead to objective reporting is obviously misguided.

Of course, even if I apply all three of these principles, there’s still a good chance that I’ll be wasting my time. Consuming worthwhile media might help me develop a nuanced understanding of the world, but all that understanding will be for naught unless I conquer my appetite and walk out of the buffet.