Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign will likely preoccupy future historians for years to come. While a number of factors contributed to his rise—including the growing power of social media, a latent racism and nativism within sections of the American public, and economic malaise resulting from Republican and Democratic administrations’ trade policies—the media deserve special scrutiny for their role in accelerating Trump’s candidacy, most obviously because they set agendas and frame political debates each election cycle.

News media’s constant coverage has boosted Trump’s visibility and helped popularize him, even in aggressive confrontations with the candidate. The benefit, however, is mutual.

Donald Trump during an interview at Mesa Gateway Airport in Arizona in December 2015 (Photo by Gage Skidmore).

As Trump attacks the press—mocking and feuding with journalists, threatening to change libel laws, holding campaign events where reporters are corralled and roughed up—he still serves the media well. That’s because the news organizations covering Trump, particularly television news, are reaping incredible amounts of money from their election coverage. Cable news organizations are expected to make a record-breaking $2.5 billion this election season.

This profit motive helps explain the constant media exposure of Trump that greatly advantaged his campaign over his competitors’, especially in the primary season’s early days.

A study on newsworthiness calculated that, during 2015, Trump received 327 minutes of nightly broadcast network news coverage, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 121 minutes and Bernie Sanders’ 20 minutes. The New York Times reported that Trump received nearly $2 billion in free media coverage during his primary campaign. As the Republican nominee for president, he’s since become even more ubiquitous.

The stage before the 10th Republican Presidential Debate in February 2016. The debate was the only one sponsored by a Spanish language outlet, Telemundo, and CNN’s third debate. The Republican Presidential Debates brought in record audiences.

The news media’s obsession with Trump is symptomatic of a highly commercialized system. Profit-seeking is in the media’s very DNA and the always-controversial Trump is money in the bank for ratings-driven news media. This economic relationship was summed up by the now-infamous statement by Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, when discussing Trump’s candidacy: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Such brazen disregard for the role of the press in a democratic society lays bare structural problems in the U.S. media system. Compared to other countries’ media systems, America’s is extremely commercialized and our weakly-supported public media is unusual when compared to other nations. In fact, other democracies have developed strikingly different media systems, which aren’t simply reflections of taste, culture, and style.

Known as the "Big Six," these media conglomerates control 90% of the news media in the United States. One the left from top to bottom, the Comcast Corporation logo, the Walt Disney Company logo, and the Time Warner Incorporated logo. On the right from top to bottom, the 21st Century Fox logo, the CBS Corporation logo, and the Viacom logo.

This raises a number of troubling questions. How did Americans inherit such a system—one that, in many sectors, is dominated by a few corporations, is only lightly regulated by public interest mandates, and is predominantly commercial, with only weak public alternatives? Is this really the system—one so beholden to brute market forces—Americans want?

These are historical questions. A look at modern media history, particularly the 1940s, shows that the American system didn’t emerge from entirely democratic decisions. It arose instead from a history of commercial interests winning out over others. This history is marked by pronounced conflict, in which activists, industries, and regulators all fought over the fundamental nature and democratic role of the American media system.

The Historical Roots of American Media Exceptionalism

Profit-driven media in the United States began on a wide scale in the mid-19th century when technological changes and a growing readership produced the “penny press.” As these cheap, mass-circulation newspapers commercialized and began to rely heavily on advertising revenue, sensationalistic reporting became more pronounced. What came to be called “yellow journalism” in the late 19th century featured salaciousness, dishonest reporting, and sensationalism as a way to sell papers.

Two of the most infamous examples of “yellow journalism,” Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (left) and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal (right) competed for sales by sensationalizing conditions in Cuba in the lead up to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In the face of public criticism, professional norms based on objective and fact-based reporting began to crystallize in the early 20th century to prevent unfettered commercialism from completely debasing the news. Nonetheless, American journalism typically relied on advertising for roughly 80% of its revenues, much higher than its counterparts around the world.

The Yellow Press” (1910). The illustration depicts William Randolph Hearst as a jester tossing newspapers to the eager masses with headlines such as “Venom, Sensationalism, Attacks on Honest Officials, Distorted News, and Appeals to Passion.” The message in the left corner comes from Mayor William Jay Gaynor’s letter to the New York Evening Post: “The time is at hand when these journalistic scoundrels have got to stop or get out, and I am ready now to do my share to that end. They are absolutely without souls. If decent people would refuse to look at such newspapers the whole thing would right itself at once. The journalism of New York City has been dragged to the lowest depths of degradation. The grossest railleries and libels, instead of honest statements and fair discussion, have gone unchecked.”

Commercial radio developed in the 1920s, offering an alternative to print journalism. And while there are parallels between the two, there are also important differences.

The rules of this new media were officially codified by the 1934 Communications Act, which established the main regulatory agency for broadcast media, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC was preceded by the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), a temporary agency founded in 1927 to provide regulatory stability, particularly around technical issues, for the increasingly contested airwaves.

Like the FRC, the FCC was tasked with granting licenses and ensuring that broadcasting stations served the public interest. But programming regulation was thorny terrain because the FCC was forbidden by law to practice censorship. Moreover, the standards by which licensees were judged remained ill-defined, thereby inviting charges of arbitrariness.

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) seal.

Any FCC attempt to establish public interest standards invited conflict with the commercial broadcast industry, drawing accusations of paternalism and attacks on free speech. Profit and public service were set at odds.

Through the Communications Act, Congress largely sanctioned commercial broadcasting at the expense of non-profit alternatives pushed by educators and reformers. As a result, a strong public broadcasting system did not take root during American radio’s early days as it did in many other democratic nations.

American radio was quickly subsumed by the oligopoly of large networks. By the mid-1940s, the broadcast industry was dominated by four networks: the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC, which had been NBC’s “Blue Network” until 1943). Whenever the social mission of public broadcast systems in other countries—like the United Kingdom’s BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)—was questioned, the U.S. model served as a cautionary tale of what not to do.

The National Broadcasting Corporation's first logo in 1943 (top left). The Columbia Broadcasting Corporation logo from 1927 to 1931 (top right). Mutual Broadcasting System's 1934 logo (bottom left). American Broadcasting Corporation logo from 1964 (bottom right).

Although these pre-television years are celebrated as radio’s golden age, the medium’s public service responsibilities remained vague. Most broadcasters viewed their primary role as selling airtime to advertisers who developed programs and promoted their products.

A child listens to the radio during its heyday before television.

Advertisers—usually called sponsors—would buy entire time segments of programming from a commercial broadcaster, usually an affiliate of one of the major networks. Shows like soap operas, the term given to 1940s radio serials due to their frequent soap company sponsorship, gave sponsors free rein to air numerous commercials and even to influence actual programming.

The FCC at this time was reactive rather than proactive. Despite its New Deal origins, the agency didn’t pursue a reformist or public agenda, and its early years saw few policy challenges to American radio’s increasing commercialization.

The inveterate media reformer Everett Parker, recalling how the FCC’s genesis was characterized by close ties to media corporations, quipped that prior to its formation, “four commissioners were vetted by AT&T and three by broadcasters.”

Although the 1934 Communications Act gave the FCC a mandate to serve the always-contested “public interest, convenience and necessity,” the commission was largely non-confrontational toward commercial broadcasters. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cozy relationship with broadcasters may have further encouraged complacency.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the taping of one of his “fireside chats” from 1933 to 1944 in which he addressed the nation in a casual manner through radio.

But this all began to change by the late 1930s when newspapers rapidly bought up radio stations and, in some cases, exerted editorial authority over programming. FDR saw this media consolidation as a threat to democracy and a political challenge to his New Deal agenda. He needed a proxy to make an intervention.

James Lawrence Fly (back left) and FCC commissioners inspect the first lightweight television in 1939.

James Lawrence (Larry) Fly’s appointment to the FCC chairmanship in July 1939 marked a turning point for the commission. Fly initiated a nearly decade-long progressive regulatory orientation for American media policy.

A strong-willed New Dealer from Texas, Fly had a deep-seated suspicion of monopoly power, believing that capitalism foundered without competition. Having cut his teeth on progressive policy battles during the mid- to late 1930s while heading the Tennessee Valley Authority’s legal department, Fly developed a reputation as a tough liberal who relished a good fight and did not fear provoking powerful industries. Corporate attorney and Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie called Fly “the most dangerous man in America—to have on the other side.”

Fly helped transform the FCC from being a mere “traffic cop” concerned only with technical requirements into an institution that disciplined broadcasters for failing to fulfill their public-service responsibility. He believed that such programming objectives required government-driven structural interventions. Under Fly, the New Deal arrived late and stayed longer at the FCC compared to other areas of government. As the New Deal foundered elsewhere, Fly and the FCC represented social democracy’s last stand.

The New Deal’s Last Gasp

Under new leadership in the early 1940s, the FCC confronted media corporations and aggressively defended public interest principles while facing considerable political opposition. Its mission aligned with the objectives of various social movements and was buoyed by growing criticism, especially public distaste for radio commercials.

Even as early as 1928, television’s capability to sell goods was anticipated in this depiction of the ideal television of the future.

While the commercial system was fairly well established by the 1940s, during and immediately after World War II, a three-pronged assault against commercial media arose from above and below, led by grassroots activists, progressive policy makers, and everyday American listeners and readers who were upset with specific aspects of their media system.

Much of their criticism sounds familiar to us today: concerns about excessive commercialism, misrepresentations of marginalized people and ideas, lack of minority-owned media, media concentration, and a loss of local journalism.

These critiques gave rise to a nascent media reform movement as coalitions composed of labor unions, civil rights organizers, civil libertarians, disaffected intellectuals, progressive groups, educators, and religious organizations sought to reform the media system.

The 1940s were a critical juncture for American media.

In 1943, the FCC took anti-monopoly measures against chain broadcasters, which forced NBC to divest itself of a major network (which became ABC). Two years later, the Supreme Court issued an antitrust ruling affirming the need for “diverse and antagonistic sources” against the Associated Press.

In 1946 the FCC published its “Blue Book,” which mandated broadcasters’ public service responsibilities. The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press established journalism’s democratic benchmarks in 1947. And finally, in 1949, the FCC issued its Fairness Doctrine outlining key public interest obligations for broadcasters.

The FCC's 1946's "Blue Book," officially titled the "Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees." 

Not all of these initiatives were successful, but they all sought to reorient the balance between profit and service in the American news media.

They addressed a key question: What did commercial broadcasters owe the public in return for their free and monopolistic use of the public airwaves? They also all shared an expansive view of the First Amendment that protected the audience’s positive right to information as much as broadcasters and publishers’ negative rights protecting their speech and property from government intrusion.

Taken together, these policy interventions composed a broader impulse, one defined by a social democratic vision of media that emphasized its 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.

A prime example of this project was the Blue Book (so named because of its blue cover). Officially titled the “Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees,” it defined substantive programming guidelines for judging radio broadcasters’ performance at license renewal time and was the FCC’s first significant effort to clarify its public interest standard.

Its purpose was to mandate that broadcasters devote time to local, noncommercial, and experimental programming, and cut down on excessive advertising. But broadcasters fought it as if it posed an existential threat, and the Blue Book gradually fell into obscurity.

Senator Joseph McCarthy questioning attorney Joseph Welch during Congress’s Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.

Ultimately, reformers failed in their attempts to break up media monopolies while creating a more education-oriented broadcast system. This was largely due to McCarthyite hysteria and Cold War anxieties, which became a favorite political tool used by corporate interests to beat back regulatory interventions. Reformers were accused of trying to “BBC-ize” American radio, and were denounced for being socialistic.

Nonetheless, there were at least a few partial victories.

For example, news media began to embrace a notion of social responsibility, and some alternative media institutions like Pacifica radio were established. Public interest policies like the Fairness Doctrine—the rule that broadcasters had to present contrasting views on issues important to local communities—created some potential for advocating public interest programming.

While these reforms represented meaningful progress, they fell far short of the structural interventions reformers had initially sought.