It's a good thing some news organizations still have half-decent dental plans, because last week's Kony 2012 video prompted a whole bunch of journalists to gnash their teeth in frustration.
For here, at last, tens of millions of people were paying attention to an issue that those reporters had covered extensively but without wider awareness: Some journalists, yes, were envious of the ability of Invisible Children, the organization behind the viral video, to yank the issue of Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army, onto the public's radar. But it was galling, frankly, to watch the video and listen to its suggestion that the media had not covered the story. "This has been going on for years?" asks a stupefied fellow in the video, off camera, when he first learns of Kony's crimes. "If that happened one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek."
A number of videos and blogs picked up on the notion that the mainstream media had, yet again, failed us. All of which means it's time we killed the mainstream media.
The term, that is.
Because what exactly is the mainstream media? Is it CNN, which regularly pulls in fewer than one million North American viewers in prime time? Or Fox News, which positions itself as an outsider and whose pundits (including Sarah Palin) decry "the lamestream media," even as it scores an audience triple that of CNN? Is it the Huffington Post, or the traditional wire services and legacy media outlets on which that popular website bases so much of its content? (More new media-old media confusion: On Monday, rumours swirled that CNN was negotiating to buy the blog Mashable.) What do we call The New York Times or The Guardian newspaper when they work with the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks?
Earlier this month, after the right-wing publisher Andrew Breitbart died suddenly, some of his obituaries suggested he'd shaken up the U.S. media landscape with his collection of blogs dedicated to tearing down big government and exposing a left-wing media bias. But when he scored his biggest scoop – finding the woman that congressman Anthony Weiner had sent naughty pics to over Twitter – he worked with ABC-TV to get her more publicity.
Once upon a time, you could identify the mainstream media by its proximity to power: Reporters working for those outlets had special relationships with those who pulled the levers of public life. Often, that meant an old boys' club, whose disappearance isn't a bad thing.
But now, those running for public office no longer feel the need to cultivate those relationships. They know they can transmit their message through outlets whose friendly coverage is guaranteed. Many major news organizations in the United States have yet to land full-length, comprehensive interviews with the Republican candidates for president, even as those men regularly have happy chats with other outlets and anchors who share their political leanings. Here in Canada, during last year's election, Stephen Harper refused to meet with most newspaper editorial boards, though he found lots of time in his schedule for ethnic media and student reporters.
It's the same in the commercial sphere. Apple is only the most obvious example of a company whose every product or service announcement is greeted breathlessly by a squadron of slavish stenographers (online and off) competing for scoops on exactly how many millimetres thick the new iPad will be. Blogs began as an oppositional force, a way for individuals to challenge media and companies. And yes, many are still animated by that spirit. But countless bloggers are only too happy to be mouthpieces for brands in exchange for a few free products or special access to "company insiders." Many blogs are now supported by brand advertising.
Meanwhile, scores of those early bloggers are now running or employed by so-called "mainstream media" companies; the two former solitudes regularly swap talent. And just like the journalists I know in the "mainstream" who began their careers 20 years ago in what was then known as the alternative press, or the dissident press, they didn't change their view of the world when they changed outlets. The DNA of the alternative press is now baked into the mainstream: journalistic gene therapy.
The least that critics can do is come up with a new name.