Trump, the “Mainstream Media,” and the “No True Scotsman” Fallacy

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The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy. As long as everybody understands what they are doing, that they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda, we can easily work through them to GREATNESS!” — Donald J. Trump, May 31, 2020

The ostensible fact that the mainstream media is in the tank for Democrats — and wants nothing more than to embarrass and overthrow Donald Trump — has been repeated so often in various echo chambers over the last three years that it no longer seems absurd to the people who say it. It is, however, fundamentally absurd for two very important reasons. In the first place, there is no such thing as a “mainstream.” In the second place, there is no such thing as “the media.”

Let’s break this down a bit.

The whole idea of a mainstream media is hard for anybody under 30 to understand. It is a term that describes part of a world that no longer exists. When I was growing up, we had three TV news programs (ABC, NBC, CBS), three national news magazines (Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report), and a local newspaper or two. There were other sources for news, of course, but you had to go to some effort to find them. The vast majority of Americans got most of their news from these sources. That is what “mainstream” means.

It doesn’t work that way now. There is no news stream that can be considered a main one. Traditional media have expanded dramatically, with hundreds of TV channels available through cable and satellite and thousands of newspapers and radio stations available through the Internet. And then there are the new forms of media: blogs, chat rooms, link aggregators, and social media.

Social media is especially important. In a recent Pew survey, more than 60% of American adults reported getting at least some of their news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This is important to understand, since these sites don’t generate news themselves. They simply permit users to share news feeds with each other, which, unfortunately, means that most people will end up seeing a highly curated news feed with links to stories that confirm their existing political beliefs.

And, because the news sources have become fragmented along largely partisan lines, people who rely on them — or on their Facebook friends to keep them up to date on current events — need never encounter a presumed fact or a political opinion that may make them uncomfortable. Among the voices most critical of the “mainstream media” is Fox News, which has the largest market share of any news network in the country and is owned by one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. If there were a mainstream, Fox would definitely be right in the middle of it.

But, of course, there is no mainstream media because there is no such thing as the media. Or, at least, there is no one such thing as THE media. Media is, grammatically speaking, a plural. There are media, many of them, and there are thousands of media outlets — and they do not act in unison. Ever.

Are the media (plural) biased? Of course they are. All of the evidence suggests that they are more biased than ever. But they are not all biased in the same direction. The New York Times leans to the left, The Wall Street Journal leans to the right — and both Fox News and commercial talk radio lurch to the right in a way that no comparably influential left-lurching medium has ever managed to match.

There will always be biases to point to. Pure objectivity is impossible, and nobody even tries much anymore. This means that anyone, on any side of any issue can seize upon an instance of bias in a particular media source and then pretend that it is still 1985, when it was still (barely) possible to generalize that sort of bias to an entire media culture.

The sort-of official name for this kind of labeling is the “no true Scotsman fallacy,” a colorfully named concept that imagines a conversation like this:

Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person A: “But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

The no true Scotsman occurs when the arguer tries to get away with an unsupportable generalization by removing specific counter-examples from the general argument. Imagine the conversation going like this:

Person A: The mainstream media is biased against conservatives.
Person B: Fox News is overwhelmingly conservative.
Person A: But Fox News is not part of the mainstream media.

Now, of course, it would be possible to quantify, however tentatively, the degree of bias in various media outlets and then try to tease out which of them reach more people as primary news sources and as secondary news sources (i.e. as forwarded social media posts) — and really try to come up with a schema for measuring the weighted impact of different media biases on the electorate. But that is hard. Yelling “LAMESTREAM MEDIA” anytime a news outlet reports a fact that disagrees with one’s ideology is much easier and much more promising as an electoral strategy.

Welcome to the information age, where everybody has access to an inexhaustible supply of news reports, commentary, and outrage that confirms whatever he or she happens to believe. We do not have a mainstream anymore; we have a hundred thousand garden hoses. If you ever come across an opinion that does not match your own in every regard, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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