Yellow Journalism, Orange President

The US media's commercial nature is great for business, terrible for democracy.

Donald Trump in Arizona. Gage Skidmore

The factors contributing to Donald Trump’s election are legion — racism, nativism, and misogyny; social media’s growing power as a political instrument and a source of misinformation; economic malaise caused by Republican and Democratic administrations’ neoliberal economic policies.

But the news media deserve special scrutiny for their role in enabling Trump.

Media institutions help set agendas and frame political debates each election cycle. But with Trump, they helped normalize and legitimize a candidate who never should’ve come close to attaining such power. Through false equivalence and a lack of substantive policy coverage, the media elevated a far-right politics that should’ve been delegitimized the moment it reared its head.

News media’s constant coverage boosted Trump’s visibility and popularized his message. The benefit, however, was mutual. Even as Trump attacked the press — mocking and feuding with journalists, threatening to change libel laws, holding campaign events where reporters were corralled and roughed up — he still served major media outlets well. That’s because the news organizations covering Trump, particularly television stations, reaped incredible amounts of money from their election coverage. Cable news organizations’ expected haul this election season? A record-breaking $2.5 billion.

This drive for profit helps explain news media’s fixation on Trump’s campaign over his competitors’, especially in the primary season’s early days. One study calculated that, in 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 garnered nearly $2 billion in free media coverage during his primary campaign. Other estimates place it closer to $3 billion.

Profit-seeking is in commercial media’s DNA, and the always-controversial Trump was money in the bank for ratings-driven news outlets. As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves admitted earlier this year: “[Trump’s candidacy] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He went on to say: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun . . . this is going to be a very good year for us . . . bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Such brazen disregard for the democratic role of the press lays bare structural pathologies in the US media system. Bereft of well-supported public outlets, the US media landscape stands out among liberal democracies for its acute commercialization.

So how did the US develop such a system — one that, in many sectors, is dominated by a few corporations and is only lightly governed by public interest mandates? Is this really the arrangement — one so beholden to brute market forces — that Americans wanted?

A look at the trajectory of modern media, particularly in the 1940s, shows that the US system didn’t emerge solely according to democratic criteria and the views of the American public. It arose instead from a series of skirmishes between activists, industries, and regulators over the fundamental nature and role of the American media system.

In the end, commercial interests won out.

Penny Presses and Yellow Journalism

Profit-driven media in the United States first reached a mass scale in the mid-nineteenth century, when technological changes and a growing readership produced the “penny press.” As cheap, mass-circulation newspapers commercialized and began to rely heavily on advertising revenue, sensationalistic reporting (or “yellow journalism”) proliferated.

In response to public criticism that unchecked commercialism was debasing the industry, journalists increasingly embraced professional norms according to objective and fact-based reporting. Nonetheless, the American newspaper industry still typically relied on advertising for roughly 80 percent of its revenues, much higher than its counterparts around the world.

Commercial radio developed in the 1920s, offering an alternative to print journalism. Competition for the airwaves quickly accelerated, leading Congress to establish the Federal Radio Commission in 1927 to provide regulatory stability, particularly around technical issues. The 1934 Communications Act codified the rules of this new medium, and set up a permanent regulatory agency for telecommunications and broadcast media: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

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 from practicing censorship. In addition, the standards by which licensees were judged remained ill-defined, inviting charges of arbitrariness. Any FCC attempt to establish public interest standards was met with pushback from the commercial broadcast industry, which accused the agency of paternalism and attacking free speech. Profit and public service were thus set at odds.

Through the Communications Act, Congress largely sanctioned commercial broadcasting at the expense of nonprofit 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.

In an environment barren of public alternatives and structural regulation, concentration set in. By the mid-1940s, four commercial networks dominated the industry: the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC, which was 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, proponents pointed to the United States as an example of what not to do.

These pre-television years are often celebrated as radio’s golden age, but 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. Advertisers — usually called sponsors — would buy entire time segments of programming from a commercial broadcaster, typically 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 — granted sponsors free rein to air numerous commercials and even to influence programming.

The FCC rarely intervened. Despite its mandate to serve the (always-contested) “public interest, convenience and necessity,” the agency in its early years introduced few policy challenges to American radio’s increasing commercialization. The inveterate media reformer Everett Parker, recalling the FCC’s close ties to media corporations, quipped that prior to its formation, “four commissioners were vetted by AT&T and three by broadcasters.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cozy relationship with broadcasters may have further encouraged complacency.

All this began to change in the late 1930s, as newspapers began buying up radio stations and, in some cases, exerting 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.

In July 1939, Roosevelt appointed Larry Fly as FCC chairman. A strong-willed New Dealer from Texas, Fly harbored a deep-seated suspicion of monopoly power. 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.”

With the aid of other progressive commissioners like Clifford Durr, Fly transformed the FCC from a mere “traffic cop” concerned only with technical requirements into an institution that disciplined broadcasters for failing to fulfill their public-service responsibility. Under Fly, the New Deal arrived late and stayed longer than other sectors of the federal government.

The New Deal’s Last Gasp

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 policymakers, 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: 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 banded together to democratize their media system. Driven by grassroots pressures, policymakers confronted media corporations and aggressively defended public interest principles throughout the 1940s.

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

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

Not all of these initiatives were successful, but they all sought to reorient the balance between profit and service in the American news media. Each one addressed a key question: what is news media’s role in a democratic society? Each initiative also espoused an expansive view of the First Amendment that protected the audience’s right to diverse information as much as broadcasters’ and publishers’ prerogatives.

Taken together, these policy interventions represented a broader impulse, a social-democratic vision that privileged media’s public service mission over property rights and profit imperatives. For radio in particular, the FCC tried to ascertain what broadcasters owed the populace in return for their free and monopolistic use of the public airwaves.

A prime example of the agency’s efforts was the Blue Book (so named because of the color of its cover). Officially titled the “Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees,” the document laid out programming guidelines for judging radio broadcasters’ performance at license renewal time and constituted the FCC’s first significant attempt to clarify its public interest standard. The Blue Book required that broadcasters devote time to local, noncommercial, and experimental programming, and avoid excessive advertising.

But broadcasters fought the new guidelines as if they posed an existential threat, and the Blue Book gradually fell into obscurity. Often the counter-attack took on a red-baiting hue, with industry representatives accusing their foes of pushing socialistic measures that would “BBC-ize” American radio.

Ultimately, reformers’ efforts to break up media monopolies and create a more education-oriented broadcast system failed, the victim of a fierce pushback spearheaded by corporate interests.

There were a few partial victories. News media began to adopt a notion of social responsibility, and some alternative media institutions (including Pacifica Radio) sprung up. Progressive policies like the Fairness Doctrine — which mandated that broadcasters present contrasting views on issues important to local communities — created some potential for advocating public interest programming. And some groundwork was laid for what would become America’s public broadcasting system in the late 1960s.

But while these reforms represented meaningful progress, they fell far short of the structural changes reformers had initially sought. Corporate-friendly policies for radio transferred seamlessly to television, where the same networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) dominated for a generation.

Concentration and commercialization remained the bywords of the US media system.

The Lens of Profit

The outcomes of mid-century media policy debates produced a tacit agreement between the state, the public, and media institutions that persists to this day. This postwar settlement for American media was characterized by self-regulation, industry-defined social responsibility, and a libertarian understanding of the First Amendment — resulting in a commercial media system that both lacks robust noncommercial media and suffers from severe consolidation.

The ideological formation that keeps this arrangement intact is what I call corporate libertarianism. Asserting that government has little legitimacy intervening in media markets, corporate libertarianism attaches individual freedoms to corporate entities, often elevating these rights over those of audiences, local communities, and society as a whole.

That government is an unwanted interloper 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.

Over the past few decades, government typically has intervened to aid corporations’ interests, not the public interest. Policies girding potential alternatives like cable television and satellite communications put them under sway of the same commercial interests, and the Reagan administration jettisoned public interest protections like the Fairness Doctrine. The deregulatory zeal that characterized 1980s media policy largely continued under subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations.

Exhibit A was the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major overhaul of the landmark 1934 Communications Act. Purportedly an attempt to reform US media policy for the digital era, the bill passed Congress with significant bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The legislation replaced structural regulations with market incentives, deregulated cable rates, and removed key broadcast ownership limits, leading to an unprecedented “merger mania” and massive consolidation. The Telecom Act eliminated the forty-station national ownership cap, which allowed Clear Channel to acquire more than 1,200 stations nationwide, dominating most major markets and limiting the diversity of voices on the public airwaves.

Such run-amok concentration underscores the structural nature of American media’s failures. But it is the underlying commercial logic that best brings systemic problems into focus. Rather than the malfeasance of a few bad journalists or news organizations, irresponsible journalism results from commercial pressures that privilege particular types of news coverage over others.

Campaign coverage exemplifies these patterns. 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 the candidates’ latest outrageous insults are the stuff of standard election news commentary — not historical context or information about substantive policy differences.

While it’s tempting to blame audiences for lapping up this coverage, commercial media do not simply give people what they want. The problem is more on the supply side. Media are primarily designed to satisfy advertisers’ and media owners’ profit imperatives. Trump’s screen-to-screen exposure during the campaign season didn’t just reflect audience desires; rather, it served as bait for their attention.

Audience eyeballs are the coveted product that media deliver to advertisers. And to keep our attention, media must entertain us. Trump performs this role wonderfully. He keeps ratings high and ad sales strong. He is pure gold for commercial media’s bottom line, no matter how vacuous their coverage.

Is There an Alternative?

For the past hundred-plus years, the United States 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 principles.

Today, as Donald Trump’s ascendance shows, any vestige of that always-porous divide is quickly disappearing. While television news media are the most blatant example, various forms of digital journalism that expose readers to invasive and deceptive advertising are also part of the problem. As revenues for hard news continue to plummet, the increasing emphasis on ersatz journalism and clickbait is deeply troubling.

What we need is a structural overhaul of our media system, one that uncouples journalism from commercial imperatives. Alternative models, both from the American past and from other countries, show us that different systems are indeed viable. But they require conscious policy interventions that establish structural safeguards and incentives for responsible and informative media.

For example, the United States could follow other democracies’ lead and create a stronger public media system. Research has shown that public service media correlates with higher political knowledge.

So why not introduce a “public option”? The public subsidies needed for such an expansion could be raised through any number of creative means, including revenues generated from spectrum sales or merger conditions. Recently, British media reformers demanded that Google and Facebook help pay for public service reporting.

We could also experiment with nonprofit news models, especially as the market renders print news media increasingly unprofitable. While nonprofit outlets are beginning to gain momentum, we could spur their growth by passing reforms that bolster public service journalism. This 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 could provide additional opportunities for experimentation.

Another avenue for reform is leveraging already-existing public infrastructure. One possibility is to transform post offices into local community media centers. In addition to providing public internet access, these spaces could help facilitate the actual production of local reporting through various platforms — including print, digital media, and low-power radio stations — that adhere to meaningful public service obligations.

Combined with a revitalized antitrust program to prevent and break up media oligopolies, these initiatives could curtail the power of corporate media and help restore journalism’s public service mission. And they could help prevent commercialism from trumping democracy and corrupting the Fourth Estate.

As Trump’s campaign made abundantly clear, today’s press coverage of life-and-death social issues 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 profit motives to everyone else’s detriment. The history behind the “Trumpification of the media” exposes the underlying commercial logic that ultimately seeks to entertain, not inform.

This history also reminds us that the current system was not inevitable — that there were other roads not taken. In the 1940s reformers championed an alternative to the corporate libertarian model. By recovering this forgotten movement, we can begin to imagine that a very different media system was, and still is, possible.