Americans conceive of “the media” as something of a level playing field. Liberals and conservatives talk about it as if the vast array of reporters, wonks, pundits, social media mandarins, and glib political talking heads are all aiming at the same target. It’s that notion that underpins complaints about the media from both the left and the right, along with the millions of Americans who routinely rate the media one of the country’s most untrustworthy institutions. The notion of the industry as a group of companies all following the same rules creates a baseline when thinking about the media’s place in modern America. And for most of the country’s history, this notion was true. For hundreds of years, American media consisted of a healthy mix of neutral, serious journalistic operations buffeted on both sides by partisan screamers. This paradigm allowed “the media” to be praised, loathed, or analyzed under a single umbrella.
But increasingly, this idea seems defunct, if not wholly quaint. In the present, the media has been siloed into two separate ecosystems, which operate under distinct fiscal conditions and incentive structures. In fact, the two sides can be understood almost as mirror images of each other.
The mainstream sector of the media encompasses a broad swath of news-gathering operations like The New York Times and The Washington Post and cable news networks like CNN and ABC News, along with digital media sites like BuzzFeed News and Vice. These sites all host a range of ideological viewpoints on their opinion pages, and while many skew left, the opinion sections generally comprise a secondary segment of the operation and labor force compared to the straight news divisions.
The bulk of the conservative media, however, does not work this way. Conservative media operations typically place opinion at the forefront, while news is more of an afterthought. Fox News is the largest conservative media operation, both online and on TV, by a huge margin. It dwarfs the other right-wing TV station, OANN, and its website, foxnews.com, draws in more than 100 million unique visitors per month (having doubled since 2015) — more than 10 times what competitors like the conservative Washington Examiner are pulling in. The bulk of the Fox News lineup consists of harsh partisan voices like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who outrank the few straight news voices like Chris Wallace and Bret Baier. The latter are crucial for Fox News to maintain its status as a top-tier network with access to politicians from both parties.
But even Baier, who was the network’s most-watched host in April, is not free of partisan alignment — in a recent profile of the host from The Hollywood Reporter, an anonymous source at Fox News said, "I think the partisanship comes through very slyly," while a former fellow on-air pundit said, "He leans pro-Trump now." The harshest criticism came from a former Obama administration official, who told THR that "Hannity can be more inflammatory and more conspiratorial, but Baier is pushing the agenda in a more impactful way because he's doing it under the veneer of being a newsman, and that is more insidious."
While Democrats tend to trust a variety of sources for their news consumption, no news source remotely rivals Fox News when it comes to appeal for Republicans. The station has often been described as “state TV” because of its consistent cheerleading for President Trump. And yet in reality, Fox News is on the left side of the conservative media world, simply because its straight news division still contains a handful of marquee TV hosts like Chris Wallace who deal in non-partisan facts, even if the division broadly cherrypicks stories to appeal to conservatives (and has recently forced out respected hosts like Shepard Smith). For that reason, it has increasingly come under fire from the president, who sometimes implies Fox News should be explicitly doing more to help him win this fall, and whose son has invested in competing network OANN.
“Many will disagree, but Fox News is doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected,” the president tweeted last week. “Sure, there are some truly GREAT people on Fox, but you also have some real ‘garbage’ littered all over the network,” he continued, naming journalist Juan Williams and Wallace, whom he called a “Schumerite” in apparent reference to the Senate minority leader.
No Democratic candidate would accuse, say, The Washington Post of “doing nothing” to help with their re-election campaign.
The president’s complaint that Fox News is “doing nothing” strikes at the heart of the separate ecosystems. No Democratic candidate would accuse, say, The Washington Post of “doing nothing” to help with their re-election campaign; it’s generally understood on that side of the media landscape that outlets aren’t supposed to actively support and promote one candidate, but rather hopefully be an unbiased and unvarnished source of truth. The papers of record don’t always succeed on this front, but in general the mainstream media strenuously aims for the middle ground because its mission is to appeal to the broadest swath it can in order to attract advertisers and grow subscriptions.
In contrast, the existence of an overarching political imperative affects everything that happens in the right-wing media world. Conservative media isn’t generally interested in breaking stories unless they discredit political opponents. Rather, they are trying to capture and mine an audience that responds specifically to information that already fits within a certain narrow worldview. This turns these outlets into bizarro-world versions of mainstream media operations like CNN; even if the suits are the same color, and the presenters use the same tonality, there is little formal similarity in what the businesses are trying to accomplish.
The same goes for digital news. Conservative sites tend to dominate on Facebook, where recommendation algorithms tend to push consumers toward increasingly extreme and partisan content. On any given day, the top-performing posts on the site tend to come from sites like Rhe Daily Caller, founded by Carlson, and The Daily Wire, founded by Ben Shapiro. (Notably, the only left-leaning site that routinely makes it into the top-tier of Facebook posts is a clickbait-y operation called Occupy Democrats that does zero original reporting.) The stars are the sites that can pump out as much partisan content as possible, as fast as possible. Take the aforementioned Washington Examiner; a 2019 report in Columbia Journalism Review described the Examiner’s process as such:
Each of the six journalists on the Examiner’s "high velocity" team is required to churn out six to nine stories a day — roughly one an hour — which helps the site put out more than 110 articles daily including 10-15 opinion pieces. By necessity, these mostly consist of sourcing from social media feeds and other peoples’ reporting.
These sites are trawling social media and mainstream news sites for quick nuggets to re-fit with a clicky headline for their audience. Of course, there is plenty of similar activity on left-leaning sites, like HuffPost. Still, the center of gravity of online news in the mainstream ecosystem falls with news generators like The New York Times — which are also leaders in traffic compared to aggregators. In the right-wing digital ecosystem, news-gathering is secondary to surfing the social-sharing algorithm waves with aggregated outrage-kibble.
This asymmetric relationship between the two hemispheres of news has warped what the term “media” actually means. The traditional understanding is of a collection of lumbering, sometimes-clunky TV behemoths and old-guard newspapers, a constellation of partisan voices chattering alongside straight-faced anchors and legitimate journalists. When people tell pollsters that they don’t trust the media, this is what they’re thinking of. The right-wing media ecosystem, meanwhile, is in the same weight class as the old guard when it comes to traffic and profit, even as its content is primarily the result of partisan operatives trying to boost a specific and narrow point of view. The notion of trust doesn’t factor into the equation when it comes to right-wing news sites, because they aren’t trying to earn it — they are instead trying to appeal to people for whom facts only matter as vectors for rage, expressed at will into the frictionless plane of social media.
The rise of the latter at the expense of the former is a profound shift in American culture. Whether or not these two forces find equilibrium, or instead continue rocketing past each other towards further imbalance, will be one of the dominant questions in this country over the decades to come.