Media Supplier of the Year: The Mainstream Media (a.k.a. "Fake News")

After four years of being incessantly marginalized as “fake news” from the highest office possible, America’s mainstream news media rose to the occasion in what would have been a difficult year for publishers and newscasters by any standard. They had to contend with not one, but a “perfect storm” of events that challenged the very newsrooms needed to cover them, including:

  • A life-threatening pandemic
  • A disastrous economy
  • An explosion of civil unrest sparked by racial injustice
  • An epidemic of conspiracy-infused disinformation campaigns
  • The most politically contentious election year in recent memory

Despite the economic, social and logistical adversity, some of America’s best news organizations dug deep to keep the world a clean, well-lighted place, not just for consumers, but of the advertising brands that depend on consumer trust amid what may well be the worst info war the world has ever seen. While the political one alone would have been enough to foment cynicism and disbelief, the tributaries of disinformation appeared to have infected every facet of society, including infections, spawning what was dubbed as an “infodemic” of mistruths and false facts about the COVID-19 pandemic, its spread and treatment.

It would have been easy to single out plenty of individual organizations as MediaPost’s supplier of the year — newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post for investigative journalism rivaling their Watergate era benchmarks, magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker for digging even deeper, or network news organizations for keeping the light on, but in the end we felt it was the overall class of 2020 mainstream news outlets that worked as a whole, albeit competitively, to counterbalance a year of epic misinformation.

“The thing about disinformation is that the bad actors often work together. They’re happy to spread each other’s misinformation. The counter to that — the free and plural press — have always competed with each other,” observes Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, the trade association representing many of the top mainstream media organizations.

While a number of research studies have shown that disinformation spreads faster than fact-based reporting, Kint says many of the best journalism organizations compete with one-hand tied behind their backs, because instead of promoting each other’s most important stories, they tend to compete aggressively.

While it could be argued that also spawned a competitive spirit of one-ups-manship with leading news organizations devoting the resources to trump each other with investigative reporting that advanced the broader stories, those very same news organizations were more challenged than ever because of the combination of economic, public safety and intense social and political pressures that they had to confront while doing it.

“I think it’s fair to say that these news publishers have been covering probably three of the biggest stories of our generation — all intersecting at the same time — between the election, the Covid pandemic, and the racial injustice/Black Lives Matter movement. And that their ability to stay true to their brands and to the public trust despite both personal and professional obstacles has been remarkable,” Kint says, adding that these very same news events were challenging their news organizations’ ability to do their jobs.

“Covering the pandemic hit them both socially and economically when they had to be out in the field creating a health risk for their staffs while covering it, while the equity/Black Lives Matter movement forced them to look inward at their own organizations and their ability to truly represent the public that they are supposed to be informing,” he cites, adding that worst of all they had to accomplish these tasks while undergoing their own economic hardships from the pandemic, as advertising and subscription revenue models were severely strained.

“And all this was going on while they were trying to cover an election in which they were being attacked and discredited every day, yet struggling to maintain their integrity and their promise to the public to inform them, despite — arguably the largest platform in the world, the President’s Twitter account — trying to undermine them in a really horrific way,” Kint asserts.

While that last challenge isn’t new, and is something the mainstream media have been struggling to address for four years, it came to more of a head in 2020 as America split into what Ipsos’ political polling experts described as “two alternate realities.”

“This is really important to understand,” Ipsos top political researcher Chris Jackson said during his last briefing prior to the election, adding, “we’re not even necessarily talking about the same reality. In a lot of ways, some of us are talking about Mars and others are talking about Venus.”

Importantly, Jackson cited research showing that regardless of their political affiliation, the alternate realities of Americans were being shaped by the news organizations they got their information from.

The studies, which asked voters of all parties whether they agreed or disagreed with two facts — the official U.S. COVID-19 death toll and whether they approve of the President’s handling of it — found alternate views of those realities even within the same party, depending on whether they relied on Fox as their source for news.

“We see a huge difference between Fox News Republicans and non-Fox News Republicans,” Jackson said while presenting the data shown in the chart above. He also noted the same thing was true among Independent voters, depending on whether they got their news from Fox or not.

“There’s a strong divergence about what we understand to be ground truths and ground facts,” Jackson bemoaned.

Worst of all, it has proven to be a successful business strategy, driving Fox News’ ratings and revenues. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Fox News’ ad revenues actually surged 41% during the pandemic. 

In fact, according to Fox Corp. CFO Steve Tomsic, Fox News generated a record $400 million in political advertising revenues between January and November 2020, proving that alternate realities are not just divisive, but are incredibly profitable too.

Despite the lopsided economic models of fact-based reporting during 2020, DCN’s Kint says the mainstream media had no choice but to take a hit on their margins because they were directly or indirectly reinvesting in the credibility of their journalism brands.

“They all have ROI and economic deliverables to their shareholders and their owners, but being news organizations they also have a high bar in terms of delivering on the consumer’s trust that they know their brands are beholden to,” he explains, adding that there were also some surprising unintended consequences that they had to grapple with, including a programmatic “brand safety” technology that was inadvertently handicapping mainstream news organizations for the wrong reasons.

During the year, DCN learned that many advertisers, DSPs and brand safety ad technology solutions were using certain keywords like “Covid” or “Black Lives Matters” to block ads on pages of content they were buying. The phenomenon was automated, and designed to prevent a marketer’s ads from showing up alongside controversial content, but when the DCN sent letters to advertisers explaining what was going on, they backed off using the keywords for blocking ads on news pages.

“The irony was that these newsrooms were shifting their resources toward covering the pandemic in which the advertising was being blocked because of a keyword blocking technology,” Kint recalls, adding, “That was flying in the face of the ROI and the economics. But they had to do it, because the public comes to their brand to be informed about what’s going on in society. That, in the long term, will prove to be the right decision. But in the short-term, it’s a tough decision. I don’t know who else in the media supply chain has to make that sort of decision.”

11 comments about "Media Supplier of the Year: The Mainstream Media (a.k.a. "Fake News")".
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  1. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment, January 6, 2021 at 10:26 a.m.

    Thought Joe was going to keep his political rants to the op-eds.  Please give it a rest already - or move the politics back to the commentary where it belongs. The click-baity headlines are getting ridiculous.

  2. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, January 7, 2021 at 12:54 p.m.

    Dan, please feel free to exercise your freedom to unsubscribe from MediaPost content if Joe's Op-Eds upset you. If you send the request to me at ken@mediapost.com I will take care of it immediately.

  3. Brian Pettigrew from The Visionaire Group, January 25, 2021 at 5:30 p.m.

    So is Fox News part of MSM or not? Do they share in this award? What about OANN, or Newsmax? Each reach millions of people. Personally I detest the phrase Mainstream Media. It's used in a way to dismiss legitimate media and bouy the fake news. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this award, I really dislike the use of the term. The media is better off if we don't give it credance. 

  4. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, January 25, 2021 at 6:30 p.m.

    @Brian Pettigrew: We were intentionally not explicit about which media outlets were included, but I personally would not consider Fox News, OANN or Newsmax mainstream media. We also use the term euphamistically, like "fake news." Ultimately, it's up to readers to decide which outlets are most deserving of this award. What do you think?

  5. Brian Pettigrew from The Visionaire Group replied, January 25, 2021 at 6:51 p.m.

    I totally see what you're implying, and do appreciate the euphamism. I just have to roll my eyes everytime I see MSM referenced by people who believe the Media is the 'enemy of the people.' I honestly think they just use it as "any media that doesn't reinforce my beliefs." Mainstream thinking really, instead of media. So I like to stay away from it as much as possible. There's Mass Media (National), Local, Niche, Trade media, etc. But there really is no such thing as MSM imo. The lack of media literacy in this world is stifling. That said, I personally think The Atlantic did excellent work throughout the year. The Washington Post is another standout. But to your point, there really is a wealth of tremendous media out there who did amazing work this year. Appreciate your response.

  6. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, January 25, 2021 at 6:54 p.m.

    @Brian Pettigrew: In that case, I regret we didn't put that term in quotes the way we did with "fake news." Thank you for pointing that out.

  7. Steven Spear from Cyndica Labs replied, January 26, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.

    @Kenneth Fadner - having regrets about launching a non partisan trade industry publishing? Saw CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post have all the fun poisoning America from the inside out and wanted to get in on the action, too? As it happens it's not too late for you, Buddy. Tons of historically "non partisan" brands have decided to go "full retard" and wear their ideology on the sleeve (remember when that idiot CEO from expensify sent an email to his 10 mm customers begging them to vote for Joe Biden?!?!?!). As it happens you too can also be a partisan publication overnight as well (it's a free country) but PLEASE for the love of God STOP PRETENDING to be fair and objective. Have some self respect and stop masquerading your leftist propaganda around as fair and balanced commentary. It truly insults the intelligence of your readers. 

  8. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment replied, January 26, 2021 at 4:46 a.m.

    @kenneth Fadner - it's telling how often someone from MediaPost tells subscribers to "unsubscribe from MediaPost content" if we don't like something.


    I do not unsubscribe from things that I disagree with and the continued recommendation from MediaPost staff telling subscribers to unsubscribe instead of engaging in debate and digesting opposing viewpoints is ridiculous.  We expect articles to keep us informed and help us make decisions.  Without a doubt, the amount of political commentary from MediaPost has been elevated dramatically over the last couple of years with the sole purpose of driving its own political narrative. 


    How convenient that Joe intentionally decided not to disclose what sources he is referring to.  He praises mainstream media for providing a "clean, well-lit place" but purposely covers his own rationale in a cloak of darkness. 

  9. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, January 26, 2021 at 7:53 a.m.

    @Dan Ciccone: Actually, if you read my comment, I explicitly said what I thought:  "I personally would not consider Fox News, OANN or Newsmax mainstream media."

    I never hide from expressing my personal beliefs, when asked.

    What I said, was that we used the term "Mainstream Media" as a catch-all for those outlets that helped keep America a clean, well-lit place -- you know, informing the public with good journalism based on uncovering facts -- and that it was ultimately up to our readers to decide which outlets were most deserving of that.

    One news organization we singled out explicitly was Reuters, which conducted some objective research with Ipsos showing that even among Republicans, those who got their news from Mainstream Media vs. Fox News have different beliefs about provable facts. Guess which Republicans didn't believe the facts?

    I'm sorry you have been irritated by the volume and frequency of our political media and marketing coverage and commentary, but we cover it like any other marketing category. And like some others, this one has cycles of activity.

  10. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, January 26, 2021 at 8:55 a.m.

    Dan, you said:


    " ... it's telling how often someone from MediaPost tells subscribers to "unsubscribe from MediaPost content" if we don't like something. "

    I think I've done that 3 times. You must be reading carefully to find those comments.

  11. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, January 26, 2021 at 9:01 a.m.

    Steven:

    MediaPost is committed to publishing factual information in our news articles and we allow our editor, writers and others to publish their opinions in our commentary and awards articles.

    As to our joining the supposed campaign to "poison" America, let me recommend these articles about the poisoner-in-chief in case you've not been paying attention these last four years:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veracity_of_statements_by_Donald_Trump

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-fact-checker-tracked-trump-claims/2021/01/23/ad04b69a-5c1d-11eb-a976-bad6431e03e2_story.html

    https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/16/politics/fact-check-dale-top-15-donald-trump-lies/index.html ( This is the Big One: "Trump won the election" )


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