Towards a Media That Is “Good and Just“

Cambridge University Press(Image: Cambridge University Press)In understanding current policy battles around net neutrality and concerns about the future of journalism, it is instructive to look to our past to understand how we got to this point, but to also recover forgotten alternatives and glean important lessons. America’s Battle for Media Democracy chronicles a key historical moment in the development of our media system, one that witnessed the rise and fall of a vibrant reform movement that aimed to democratize American media. Although reformers were able to realize some victories in the name of the public interest, they ultimately were overwhelmed by a corporate libertarian logic that continues to define much of the American media system today. The following excerpt provides an overview of the book, and drives home why this history is especially important for us now.

Introduction to America’s Battle for Media Democracy

The Policy Origins and Normative Foundations of American Media

To live in modern society today is to be immersed in media. We spend much of our waking lives reading, viewing, listening to, and interacting with the products and processes that we refer to generally as “media” or a “media system.” Yet most of us know little about the policies that structure the media surrounding us. Particularly in the United States vast sectors of communications are heavily commercialized, dominated by corporate duopolies and oligopolies, with relatively little public input or oversight. How did Americans come to inherit this particular media system? More specifically, when and how did the U.S. polity determine media’s normative role in a democratic society – its social responsibilities and commitments to the public interest? Every student learns in school that an independent press is necessary for democratic self-governance, but American citizens rarely pause to reflect on what this means. How did American society decide upon media’s public service obligations? Commercial media institutions receive many benefits, from indirect subsidies and tax breaks to monopolistic use of the public airwaves; what do they owe society in return?

This book shows that many of these answers lie in the 1940s, when core constituencies fought over questions about the American media system’s governance and design. The following historical analysis retraces policy trajectories, ideas, and discourses to a moment before received assumptions about media’s role in society took on an air of inevitability. By uncovering a key chapter of this history, this project is as much about the present and future as it is about the past. Once we realize that the status quo was contingent, that there were other options, other roads not taken, we can begin to imagine that a very different media system was – and still is – possible.

This book shows how specific arrangements shaping many of American media’s core foundations, particularly its dominance by commercial interests and unusually weak public service obligations and regulation, trace back to policy decisions made in the 1940s.

Contested and constantly renegotiated, policy arrangements are always in flux to varying degrees. At any given point of development, resistance to a commercial media system is usually detectable. However, not all kinds of resistance are equivalent, whether in terms of degree or impact. During specific moments – what previous scholars have termed “critical junctures” and “constitutive moments” – inordinate disruptions occur, usually caused by sociopolitical and technological turmoil, as status quo relationships are jolted before settling into new, path-dependent trajectories. Therefore, policy decisions during these periods can carry tremendous weight, often determining a media system’s contours for generations to come. The Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci referred to these recurring patterns as “conjunctural moments,” marked by shifting historical blocs and fleeting political opportunities. Describing hegemonic processes by which an elite consensus comes to dominate commonsensical notions about how society should operate, a Gramscian framework also allows for constant conflict and challenges from below. Often characterized by crisis, these conjunctural moments create openings into which radical ideas and experimental models – banished to the far reaches of acceptable discourse during less tumultuous times – are suddenly treated with serious consideration.

This book focuses on one of these pivotal moments. It shows how specific arrangements shaping many of American media’s core foundations, particularly its dominance by commercial interests and unusually weak (compared to other advanced democracies) public service obligations and regulation, trace back to policy decisions made in the 1940s. During this period, political elites, social movement groups, and communication industries grappled over defining media’s role in a democratic society. In the 1940s, alternate media trajectories differing from today’s market-driven system were still in play. Recovering these forgotten antecedents and lost alternatives denaturalizes the commercial status quo by underscoring its contingency. Furthermore, though drawing parallels is an inherently fraught and risky enterprise, this historical work yields fresh insights and potential lessons applicable to contemporary policy challenges. Then, as now, vexing policy questions faced a still-new medium – commercial radio broadcasting was at approximately the same stage of development as the internet today – as well as a newspaper industry in structural crisis. This book, based on extensive archival research, historicizes media policies and reform efforts by contextualizing them within ongoing struggles for a more public-oriented media system.

The 1940s was a decade of transition and reform. As American society converted to a peacetime economy, national and geopolitical power relations were in flux. Although New Deal liberalism had begun to falter, a window of opportunity arose in the early to mid-1940s, when structural reform of the American media system still seemed viable. Elements of the 1930s Popular Front – uniting radical leftists, Progressives, and New Deal liberals – persisted, and American power centers like Washington, D.C., were not yet dominated by anti-communist hysteria. Until the late 1940s, many social movements, especially those supporting labor and civil rights, continued to advance a reformist agenda. During and immediately after World War II, a three-pronged assault against commercial media arose from above and below, led by grassroots activist groups, progressive policy makers, and everyday American listeners and readers who were upset with specific aspects of their media system, especially its excessive commercialism. This disenchantment gave rise to various forms of media criticism and activism as coalitions composed of labor unions, civil rights organizers, civil libertarians, disaffected intellectuals, progressive groups, educators, and religious organizations sought to reform their media system. Media reform activists helped advance policy interventions and experimental models, ranging from nonprofit ventures to strong public interest mandates for commercial news organizations.

These initiatives prioritized the collective rights of the public’s “freedom to read, see, and hear” over the individual rights of media producers and owners.

Within this political and intellectual landscape, a number of policy debates rose to the fore in ways rarely seen, calling into question the implicit laissez-faire relationships among U.S. media institutions, the public, and the state. A nascent media reform movement set the stage for a cluster of progressive court decisions and policy interventions, including the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 1943 antimonopoly measures against chain broadcasters, which forced NBC to divest itself of a major network; the Supreme Court’s 1945 antitrust ruling against the Associated Press, which affirmed the government’s duty to encourage in the press “diverse and antagonistic voices”; the 1946 “Blue Book,” which mandated broadcasters’ public service responsibilities; the 1947 Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, which established journalism’s democratic benchmarks; and, finally, the 1949 Fairness Doctrine, which outlined key public interest obligations for broadcasters.

Not all of these initiatives were successful, but they all sought to ensure that profit was not the sole imperative of the American news media. They also all shared an expansive view of the First Amendment, one that protected the audience’s “positive” right to information as much as broadcasters’ and publishers’ “negative” rights protecting their speech and property from government intervention. In other words, these initiatives prioritized the collective rights of the public’s “freedom to read, see, and hear” over the individual rights of media producers and owners. And, as important, they all assumed a proactive role for government to guarantee these rights affirmatively. Had this trajectory not been averted, much of the American media system might look very different today.

Taken together, these policy interventions composed a broader impulse, one defined by a “social democratic” view of media, what I refer to as “media democracy” in the title of this book. More established in other advanced democracies, “social democracy,” like the term “liberal” in many nations, refers to both a type of political party and an ideological project. Drawing from the normative foundations of the latter, a specific policy framework comes into focus, one that emphasizes media’s public service mission instead of treating it as only a business commodity. Privileging social benefits over property rights, this perspective assesses a media system’s value by how it benefits all of society rather than how it serves individual freedoms, private property rights, and profits for a relative few. As Thomas Meyer wrote in The Theory of Social Democracy, two normative premises unite all versions of social democracy: “First, ‘libertarian particularism’ … is rejected in favor of a universal conception of liberty that ranks negative and positive liberty on par. Second, the identification of freedom and property is jettisoned in favor of a universal conception of liberty that balances the liberties of all parties.” That is, social democracy elevates a positive liberty in which universal and collective rights – pertaining to publics, audiences, and communities – are at least as important as the individual freedoms most cherished within libertarianism and classical liberalism.

Social democracy legitimates an activist state that allocates resources in an egalitarian fashion.

Reaching its greatest expression in the United States during the New Deal era, social democracy legitimates an activist state that allocates resources in an egalitarian fashion. Skeptical of unregulated capitalism and wary of “market failure,” this ideological project values a mixed economy and structural diversity. It sees crucial services like education as public goods that warrant special protections and subsidies. Instead of leaving the public sector entirely dependent on the market’s mercy, social democracy seeks to reinforce civil society’s foundations by promoting public investments in critical infrastructures and institutions like strong labor unions, universal health care, public media, libraries, and schools. The historian Tony Judt observed that a social democratic society’s normative foundation begins with determining whether a policy is good or just, not whether it is profitable or efficient.

This book uncovers a paradigmatic challenge in the 1940s. When a social democratic vision that major news media should not be organized primarily by market relationships was buoyed by social movements and a New Deal ethos. By focusing particularly on case studies of policy formations around the Blue Book, the Fairness Doctrine, and the Hutchins Commission, the book charts the rise and fall of a reform movement that envisioned a different media system. It shows how these reform efforts were largely coopted and quelled, resulting in a “postwar settlement” for American media. This settlement was defined by several overlapping assumptions: that media should remain self-regulated, adhere to a negative conception of the First Amendment – a freedom of the press privileging media producers’ and owners’ individual rights over the collective rights of listeners, readers, and the broader public – and, in return, practice a mostly industry-defined version of social responsibility. Within this framework, press freedoms were understood as primarily protecting commercial media institutions, a logic perhaps best described as “corporate libertarianism.” This ideological framework attaches individual freedoms to corporate entities and assumes that an unregulated market is the most efficient and therefore the most socially desirable means for allocating important resources. An apotheosis of market fundamentalism that combines the exaltation of absolute individual liberty with the delegitimation of redistributive policies, the logic of corporate libertarianism encourages media self-regulation and relatively weak public interest standards.

The resultant changes from these policy debates in the 1940s were subtle but significant. Under the guise of “social responsibility,” media were now nominally accountable to the public interest, but government would play only a minor role in defining and mandating these obligations. The implicit social contract that emerged among the state, the polity, and commercial media institutions consolidated an industry-friendly arrangement that contained reform movements, foreclosed on alternative models, and discouraged structural critiques of the U.S. media system. The failure of a social democratic challenge to an increasingly corporate libertarian policy orientation left a lasting imprint on much of the media Americans interact with today.

Legacies from these debates, particularly the delegitimation of public policy interventions in media, continue to straitjacket discussions about the future of news media. For example, the retreat or absence of the regulatory state – a turn usually pegged to 1980s “deregulation,” but that had already begun by the late 1940s – is a key assumption in contemporary discourse about how we as a society can sustain journalistic media that are no longer market supported. This book shows how this deference to the market was not natural, inevitable, nor necessarily ideal; it was first and foremost the result of policy decisions and political struggles. Therefore, such market centrism should be subjected to rigorous interrogation and debate. Indeed, given the frequent and ongoing failures of America’s crisis-prone news media system, the history of these foundational normative debates is central to questions about the future of journalism and news media more generally. This history helps explain how American society came to have a particular media system largely defined by commercialism and self-regulation, and it can clarify policy options moving forward.

Reprinted with permission of the author.