The Meaning Of Mainstream

If, like me, you spend a good deal of your time reading blogs, you are all too familiar with one phrase (and its abbreviation) and the vitriol that so often accompanies its mention: mainstream media. MSM.

My personal favorite analysis on the subject comes from William Wolfe, who attempted to parse the hatred at McSweeney's:
Reasons Bloggers Hate the Mainstream Media.
The MSM is too liberal.
Professor always calls on the MSM.
Bloggers got stood up at prom. By the MSM.
But it was Franklin Foer who, in a recent piece in The New Republic, (predictably) struck a chord when he took a swing at the MSB (mainstream blogosphere) for taking swings at the MSM (got all that straight?):
"The mainstream blogosphere (MSB) is only too happy to bury the old media regime, because it has an implicit vision for a new order, one that would largely consist of ... bloggers. In other words, they envision a universe that resembles the nineteenth-century partisan newspapers or the Fleet Street model, where writers and thinkers break from the illusion of "objectivity" and print the "truth." (I acknowledge that the liberal blogosphere is hardly a monolith and that blogs don't always lend themselves to coherent thought, but common themes and arguments are clear enough.)"
Following the "flurry of responses, not all of them friendly," to the piece, Foer addressed what he felt was readers' literal-minded interpretation of his point:
"People have taken my coinage 'Mainstream Blogosphere' seriously. But I'll be the first to concede that it's a dumb, adolescent term. I simply wanted to highlight the stupidity of the ubiquitous 'Mainstream Media.' There are, of course, lots of liberal bloggers that I respect (e.g. Marshall, Yglesias, Drum) for their reporting, analytical capabilities, and writing. And they shouldn't be lumped with the likes of the ranters and cheap shot artists who I have critiqued. Similarly, CNN, NPR, and The Washington Post are very different beasts, who don't deserve to be polemically lumped together so often. That's just sloppy.
And that set off a semantic argument from Atrios at his blog:
"The silly people over at the New Republic seem to be obsessed with the use of the term 'mainstream media.' I think it is, in part, due to the fact that as is often the case the media tends to internalize right wing critiques and then get confused by left wing critiques. It's actually a term I try not to use all that much, though for a lack of a better term I inevitably do use it, and I think I've thus far managed to avoid using the conservatarian blogger term 'MSM.' I don't consider the term to be in itself an insult, but simply a general category (which may at times be deserving of insult.)"
So who is the mainstream media? Atrios continues:
"Basically I'm referring to the larger supposedly non-ideological print outlets (papers like the Times and the Post, magazines like Time and Newsweek,) National Public Radio's news/talk programs, PBS's Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, the news programs of the 3 major national networks, etc. ... It's not a pejorative. It's just a classification."
But it's a classification that is largely irrelevant, says Daily Kos, who has "recently been on a crusade against the term 'mainstream media,'" the primary reason being that blogs and other online media have themselves become mainstream:
"In fact, there are tons of blogs and wikis and email lists that have larger readerships than most of the so-called 'MSM.' If Daily Kos was a newspaper, it would rank #5 in circulation (it would've been #3 last October, in the runup to the election). The top blogs have more readers than most cable news channel shows have viewers. And while their circulation numbers and ratings fall, our numbers continue to grow. So really, why do we continue to self-marginalize by pretending we're not mainstream?"
That said, Kos has attempted to do away with that "stupid 'MSM' moniker," in exchange for something else: "the traditional media":
"It's political neutral, it has no negative connotations. It doesn't put old media on a pedestal, as though it was more 'legitimate' than new interactive media. It doesn't imply that we are tiny niches while they speak to the mainstream and the masses."
One could argue that this is a debate best reserved for linguists, but kicking around the moniker as much as we do begs the question of who the MSM actually is. Even if the term isn't meant to be disparaging, as Atrios argues, is it simply "sloppy" to lump together outlets that may well be very different? If it is a classification based purely on audience volume, and if the growing audiences of "top blogs" really are rivaling those of television news, are those blogs now considered mainstream? For example, at this writing, the Drudge Report clocks in visits to the site at "11,013,094 IN PAST 24 HOURS." That's more than what each of the evening newscasts average each night. Does that make it mainstream? Is the term less a classification and more a judgement -- for example, are partisan blogs not mainstream because they are unabashedly partisan, while the MSM claims to be non-partisan, but isn't?

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