Has the election of Donald Trump spelled the end of mainstream news media? Probably not – at least if you dig down into the structures of media.
What the newspapers did
Research by the American Presidency Project shows that of the major US newspapers, 57 endorsed Hilary Clinton, 26 did not endorse, 5 went for “none of the above”, 4 endorsed the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, 3 had a line of “not Trump” and just 2 endorsed Trump.
In rough circulation figures, 17 million Americans read papers that were against Trump, 6.5 million read papers that did not endorse, and only 300,000 read papers that did endorse him.
Despite these stark figures, Trump got elected. It’s amazing, apparently, that Trump trumped the media. Some have gone so far as to claim that Trumps victory spell the end of mainstream media. No longer are they able to sway opinion or voting intention like they once did.
But what about television and radio?
Well in the first instance, they never really did decide elections. But more importantly, newspapers aren’t The Media. “Mainstream” media also encompass television and of course radio. I’ll come to the internet later. Whatever the impact of the internet, the Pew Research Center reports, 57% of Americans often get their news from television (including cable) against 20% who often get their news from print newspapers.
Where the vast majority of newspaper circulation did indeed oppose Trump, the most widely viewed cable television news station was vociferous in its support for the Republican candidate. Fox News registered an audience of 2.48 million in 2016, which is more than the combined viewership of the next two stations, CNN and MSNBC, put together
It is not through just through immediate reporting that media have their influence, but rather through the long-term exposure to particular views and ideas. To the first quarter of 2017 Fox News held the position of most watched Cable TV news station for 61 quarters. It had laid a discursive frame through which Trump would be comprehensible long before he announced his candidacy.
In addition to Trump’s support from Fox, it is worth attending to the audience of radio shows. In 2016 the inimitably right-wing Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows drew a combined 29 million listeners each week.
Unorthodox as they might seem, Limbaugh’s and Hannity’s shows are carried by Premier Networks, the largest syndication company in the US, and both play out on major corporate radio stations. They are as mainstream as you might find.
Is digital media any different?
But, we are told, it is social media and the internet that carried the 2016 election. Breitbart has been singled out as the main non-mainstream news web site, but the Alexa’s list of the “top” news web sites reads like a who’s who or the corporate media – the top 5 are CNN, New York Times, The Guardian, and the Washington Post. Alexa’s ranking does not take account of just visits, but other indicators such as inward links.
Where there is certainly a big audience for “digital native” news web sites, they are hardly cottage industry radical outlets. Huffington Post is owned by the media giant, AOL. Incidentally, Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart news was also one of the founders of The Huff. Another example of “non-conformist” digital native news outlet, Buzzfeed, whose investors include Comcast, NBCUniversal and venture capital firm Andressen Hotowitz, has annual revenues that surpass $150 million annually.
Of course social media shares account for a huge amount of traffic, but social media firms are among the biggest capitalist corporations, and shares tend to circulate stories from corporate media companies.
In other words, digital news services are mainstream news. As Robert McChesney put it in 2002, the corporate media giants walk on.