Tracing the History of America’s Media Infrastructure; Annenberg Professor Says Policy Debates in the 1940s Shaped Media

 The media system in the United States is dominated by large corporations with relatively little public input or regulatory oversight. These companies receive many benefits, from indirect subsidies to their use of the public airwaves; what, if anything, do they owe society in return?

Victor W. Pickard, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, addresses these questions and traces their answers to the 1940s in his new book, America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform (Cambridge, 2014).

Based on Pickard’s ongoing research into the history and political economy of media institutions, America’s Battle for Media Democracy examines a number of key policy debates that helped shape many of the features in our current media system. By understanding the roots and outcomes of earlier policy battles, we can understand why the media landscape looks like it does today. Pickard’s research delves into important but perhaps forgotten issues such as:

  • How the FDR-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Larry Fly, became a beacon for progressive thinking that the FCC has never been able to replicate.
  • Why the failure of the “Blue Book,” where the FCC tried to make the privilege of holding a broadcast license contingent upon meeting substantive public interest requirements for programming, is so instrumental to how broadcast licensing is managed today.
  • How the rule known as the “Fairness Doctrine,” which is often invoked by progressive thinkers as a high-water mark for an enlightened media policy, was actually a kind of consolation prize for postwar liberals who were advocating for strict media regulation.

America’s Battle for Media Democracy provides historical context for many of the most pressing media issues facing us today, from net neutrality to the future of journalism. As much about the present and future as it is about the past, the book proposes policies for remaking media based on democratic values for the digital age.

“Today’s media didn't have to be so bad. Pickard tells a riveting and heretofore largely unknown story of how corporate media had its way with the public interest and trivialized our country’s civic dialog, despite the efforts of reformers and a once-heroic FCC. Bringing the story right up to today’s high-stakes battle for an Open Internet, this is 'must-must' reading for anyone interested in putting our democracy back on track,” said the Hon. Michael J. Copps, FCC Commissioner from 2001–2012.

Media Contact: Julie Sloane, jsloane@asc.upenn.edu, 215-746-1798