The Postwar Settlement for American News Media

The outcomes of these debates resulted in a kind of social contract between the state, the public, and media institutions. This postwar settlement was defined by three features: self-regulation, industry-defined social responsibility, and a negative understanding of the First Amendment. This kept in place a commercial media system with little public or governmental oversight or challenges from noncommercial media.

Television rapidly became a dominant form of media in the 1950s and 1960s.

This framework continues to shape much of the media Americans interact with today. The ideological formation that keeps this arrangement intact is what I refer to as corporate libertarianism.Based on the assumption that government has little legitimate role in intervening in media markets, corporate libertarianism attaches individual freedoms to corporate entities, often elevating these rights over the rights of other groups, local communities, and society as a whole.

That government has no role in media is, in reality, a libertarian fantasy: from spectrum management to copyright protections to the enforcement of ownership regulations, government is always involved.The real question is how the government should be involved.

Edward R. Murrow at work in his office in 1957.

These corporate-friendly policies for radio transferred seamlessly to television, where the same networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) dominated for a generation. To be sure, public service exceptions persisted within the commercial landscape, exhibit A being Edward Murrow’s reporting.

And there is some evidence that the 1940s reform movement left a lasting cultural imprint on commercial news media that encouraged them to pay at least some attention to public service principles. But this ethic certainly did not come to largely define American news media as it had in other public media systems established by democracies across the globe.

Challenges to an unregulated, heavily commercialized media system nonetheless continued, especially outside the FCC’s purview.

For example, the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act and the Supreme Court’s 1969 Red Lion case, respectively, led to the formation of NPR and PBS, and upheld the Fairness Doctrine. In the latter decision, the court unabashedly articulated strong support for a positive First Amendment, determining that it is “the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.”

National Public Radio (NPR) logo from its founding in 1970 (left) and its current logo (right).

Another historic case was decided in 1969 when WLBT-TV’s license was revoked because of racist programming—one of the few times a broadcast license was ever revoked. This case was made possible after the D.C. Circuit Court forced the FCC to allow citizen groups to challenge a license renewal, thus granting citizen groups legal standing for the first time.

The FCC made other attempts at progressive content regulation during the 1960s and 1970s, like the 1960 Programming Policy Statement, which maintained that government could mandate public interest obligations, and the 1971 Primer on Ascertainment of Community Problems, which mandated broadcasters’ commitment to localism.

Owned and operated by members of the White Citizens Council (a white supremacist organization), WLBT-Jackson, Mississippi featured programs dedicated to maintaining segregation. In 1955, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a complaint over the racial bias in WLBT’s local news coverage. After years of litigation, the FCC revoked WLBT’s license in 1969.

Many of these policies, like the Fairness Doctrine and Ascertainment, were thrown out under President Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory push in the 1980s.

The Reagan-appointed FCC chair, Mark Fowler, who became infamous for saying that television was nothing more than “a toaster with pictures,” helped reorient media policy according to a market-based understanding of the public interest. While removing the Fairness Doctrine helped usher in a wave of rightwing cable television and talk-radio shows, potential alternatives like cable and satellite became dominated by a small number of lightly regulated corporations.

The deregulatory zeal that characterized media policy in the 1980s culminated with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major overhaul of the landmark 1934 Communications Act. An attempt to reform U.S. media policy for the digital era, the bill passed Congress with significant bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Deregulation of media companies in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in far fewer corporations with control over a majority of the U.S. media.

Going beyond just telecom legislation, the bill’s broad sweep also deregulated cable rates and removed broadcast ownership limits. This latter provision led to a rapid and unprecedented merger mania resulting in media conglomerates and massive consolidation, especially in national radio station ownership.

After the telecom act eliminated the 40-station national ownership cap, a series of acquisitions allowed the largest radio chain, Clear Channel, to own more than 1,200 stations nationwide, dominating most major markets and limiting the diversity of voices on the public airwaves.

The Rise of a Profit-Obsessed Media System

In understanding why media systems operate in particular ways, we rarely link patterns in news coverage to a media system’s structural components. Much popular media criticism singles out specific journalists or news organizations’ individual failures. But this suggests that the problem lies with just a few bad apples.

Of course there isn’t a cabal of media owners who meet in smoky backrooms to plot their manipulation of the masses. But shoddy news coverage is a systemic problem—one that stems from the commercial pressures and profit imperatives that privilege particular types of news coverage over others.

News coverage focuses more on horserace aspects, such as who is currently leading in the polls, than on substantive analysis of the candidates or their stances.

Critiques of campaign coverage are well known. Election-related news typically focuses on the horse-race aspects of politics, with an emphasis on who’s ahead and what the polls are saying with each changing minute. Campaign strategies, the most recent embarrassing gaffes, and outrageous insults that one candidate hurled at another, are the stuff of standard election news commentary—not historical context or information about substantive policy differences that may affect voters’ daily lives.

Typical news coverage often treats the election like a dramatic football game to be consumed by passive audiences instead of a democracy-sustaining act of citizenship.

While it’s tempting to blame the audience for lapping up this coverage, it’s actually more of a supply-side problem. Media do not simply give people what they want. They’re also produced to satisfy advertisers’ and media owners’ needs. Screen-to-screen coverage of Trump does not just reflect audience desires; rather, it serves as bait for their attention. Because the audience’s attention is the coveted product that media deliver to advertisers. And to keep our attention, media must entertain us.

Former Republican Vice-Presidential nominee and former Fox News political commentator Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump in January 2016.

Trump performs this role wonderfully. He keeps ratings high and ad sales strong. He is pure gold for their bottom line. Conflict and controversy attract eyeballs, and our hyper-commercialized media system cares most about what sells advertising, not what informs or enriches our democratic discourse. Most commercial media organizations—cable news, broadcast news, newspapers, and digital news outlets—profit most by serving up audiences to advertisers who pay handsomely.

Is there an alternative?

The “Trumpification of the media” exposes the commercial logic behind these processes and how news media became first and foremost businesses. It also reminds us that the current system was not inevitable—that there were other roads not taken—and we can begin to imagine that a very different media system was, and still is, possible.

Graffiti on Trump’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star in April 2016. His star has been vandalized numerous times since he started his presidential campaign.

In the 1940s there was an alternative vision to the corporate libertarian model, and recovering this forgotten reform movement may help show the way forward. For the past 100-plus years, the U.S. has tried to sustain its experiment in commercialized journalism by treating news as both a commodity and a public service. Although a perfect division never existed, the news industry (often out of fear of public backlash and government intervention) has long sought to prevent commercial imperatives from completely overwhelming democratic necessities.

Today any vestiges of that always-porous divide are quickly eroding. While television news media demonstrate this most blatantly, we are seeing similar trends with the rise of “clickbait” and other forms of digital journalism that expose readers to invasive and deceptive advertising. With ever-diminishing revenues for hard journalism, this trajectory of increasingly degraded journalism is troubling.

What these problems actually call for is a structural overhaul of our media system where it’s no longer rational to serve up fluff in place of actual news.

Alternative models, both from the American past and from other countries, show us that different systems are indeed viable. However, they require policy interventions to establish structural safeguards and incentives for responsible and informative media.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a quasi-autonomous corporation partially funded by the British government. It is the world’s largest broadcast news organization.

For example, the United States could follow other democracies’ lead and create a stronger public media system that actually behaves differently from its commercial counterparts. Research has shown that commercialized media correlates with low political knowledge. The required public subsidies for such an expansion could be generated through any number of creative means, including revenues generated from spectrum sales or merger conditions.

We could also experiment with nonprofit news models, especially as print news media are rendered increasingly unprofitable by the market. While nonprofit experiments are beginning to take root, we could encourage proliferation via reforms geared toward expanding public service journalism that might involve tax incentives for struggling media institutions to transition into low- and nonprofit initiatives. Government-sponsored research and development efforts for new digital models and public/private hybrids could provide other opportunities for experimentation.

Another area for potential reform is to leverage already-existing public infrastructure to help support the production of local news content. Specifically, the U.S. could transform post offices and public libraries into local community media centers. These would not only provide news and internet access but also enable the actual production of local reporting through various media that adhered to meaningful public service obligations and high journalistic standards.

Combined with a revitalized antitrust program that would prevent or even break up media oligopolies, these initiatives could reduce market pressures and help restore journalism’s public service mission. In essence, they could help prevent commercialism from trumping democracy. But these reforms cannot happen until counter-narratives, with substantial grassroots support for policy interventions, can help bring about actual structural alternatives to profit-obsessed media.

Protesters outside the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. in July 2015 (left) and in August 2016 outside a Wilmington, North Carolina campaign event (right).

The Fourth Estate’s democratic purpose affords it special protections and responsibilities. But the irresponsible news coverage that now surrounds us doesn’t comport with basic democratic ideals. Even if it’s “damn good for CBS,” the news media shouldn’t be permitted to recklessly pursue commercial interests to everyone’s detriment. History shows that this was not the media system that many Americans wanted. History also shows that we can fight for—and sometimes even win—alternatives.