The tragedy that occurred in Washington, DC., on January 6, 2021 was described by commentators as one of the darkest moments in our national experiment with democracy.
As has been well documented, the violent incursion of the Capitol by thousands of white nationalists, armed militiamen, and a who’s who of MAGA-faithful was sparked by widespread, yet false claims about a stolen election, promoted for months by the most powerful man in the world in his public pronouncements and his social media channels. These lies found a reliable echo chamber in the right-wing corporate media ecosystem—Fox, affiliates of Sinclair Broadcasting, One America News, and a countless array of local and national voices that rhetorically agitate listeners every day on political talk radio. Nevertheless, it was social media that received the majority of the public backlash after the riot.
The resulting poll numbers showing upwards of 80% of the Republican base believing the 2020 elections were rigged against Donald Trump should not be surprising. It is the lucrative dividend of a recurring investment in an apocalyptic narrative by right wing media that began more than three decades ago, one that explicitly indicts the “corrupt” liberal establishment for its unpatriotic assault on fundamental U.S. values. The belief that Satan-loving Democrats, “femi-Nazis,” tree-hugging environmentalists, the Clinton family, and a good chunk of black and brown folks will unrepentantly take over the country someday—unless righteous, freedom-loving Americans stand up and fight—has been the relentless mantra of the most extreme yet successful commentators of the right, including the late Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Levin and countless others who were unleashed by the deregulatory media policies of Ronald Reagan. The commercial success of their uncompromising, hyper-partisan approach, loose on facts but heavy on rage, was eventually emulated on prime-time cable, specifically on Fox News in the 1990s, filling what its defenders described as a market demand to “counter-balance” the “liberal” news media. In other words, the current disconnect from reality by a large percentage of the population should not be seen as a phenomenon resulting strictly from what today is erroneously called “fake news.” In many ways, given the history of our media regulatory policy, we should have seen this political crisis coming long ago.
True, the storming of the Capitol by Trump-inspired mobs marked a new low-point in the downward trajectory of our decaying political culture, and although the collapse of our democratic system did not fully materialize on that January day, clearly there is still potential for more damage to occur and things to get worse in the foreseeable future. But maybe there is a silver lining in the current crisis: the sudden realization amongst a broad cross section of the U.S. public that the rupture in our public sphere is so profound, we will never recover from it, unless we fundamentally shift our way of communicating to one another, and take steps to address the structures that have the United States “drowning in lies.”
It’s useful to use the broader concept of the “Public Sphere” in demonstrating how advocates of the anti-regulation, pro-corporate, consumer-driven commercial system—in the name of free speech and anti-government intrusion in the media—essentially got what they asked for in today’s political and cultural crisis manifested most visibly in the rise of “fake news.” The growing emergency engulfing our media system, which is characterized by a brutally tribal distrust of the institution of journalism and a complete collapse of open spaces for deliberative dialogue and engaged debate based on verifiable actions, scientific evidence, and rational, reasoned arguments, ie, the public sphere, allows for propaganda, “fake news,” and outright lies and distortions to dominate the public discourse and shape our politics.
This is not simply about responding to the explosion of so-called “fake news”—that is, the troll-driven, deliberately false, often hateful implicit and explicit narratives flooding social media and inevitably echoed by the traditional, “legacy” media channels of cable networks, newspapers, and talk radio. Our problems stem from something much bigger. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the entire market-based model of communication that is considered sacred in the U.S., which since its consolidation in the 1930s, has had a gradual but consistent corrosive effect on the nation’s public sphere.
For 100 years, an array of scholars, educators, journalists, regulators and media reform activists has warned us about the potential threats that the hyper-commercial, for-profit, market-based media system posed to democratic communication. Their concerns have been coupled by an open and consistent call for a public service-oriented media system in the U.S. that would function as a guarantor of a sustainable, vibrant democratic political culture where deliberative dialogue about the major issues facing the nation would be the foundation of our collective welfare. Unfortunately, their warnings have been ignored, muted or openly rejected by assertions of corporate executives, media titans, and politicians that free market principles must be at the heart of our media policy, even as evidence of the market’s failures are all around us. Media scholar Victor Pickard calls them “structural pathologies” that prioritize “profit over democratic imperatives,” leading to an embrace of dangerous politics in the interest of capturing audiences.
I make this observation not to ignore the unique, very dangerous levels of misinformation that we’re now susceptible to today due to the exponential rise of social media as a vehicle to disseminate straight up lies on such a wide scale. Clearly, the nefarious practice of spreading conspiracy theories, false information, and hate speech through these new channels have detrimentally impacted many aspects of our everyday lives in ways we could not have imagined even ten years ago, when, as Thomas Edsall writes in the New York Times, “the consensus was that the digital revolution would give effective voice to millions of previously unheard citizens.”
Given its rapid proliferation in recent years, building critical defenses around these contemporary practices and understanding how they are employed by individuals and organizations in their daily mobilizing campaigns is essential for democracy to have a chance for survival. Studying the way people/audiences/publics receive and eventually process this false information could serve as an antidote to the venomous torrent of harmful messages that permeate social media, creating our contemporary “crisis of knowledge.” It is not hyperbole to say protecting oneself from these unscrupulous message creators is a matter of life and death, as we saw clearly with the massive levels of dangerous disinformation, ie “fake news,” that was distributed almost daily during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The growing calls for government regulation of the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, from both the left and the right, are a reflection of how urgent the situation is.
But I would cautiously argue that the call for stronger regulatory mandates on social media tech giants may need to extend to all of our mass communication systems, including our broadcast and cable services. In many ways, we’re seeing history repeat itself when officials today warn of the excessive power these tech companies have accumulated, something media reformers of the early 20th Century argued about the emerging networks. In focusing so much of our attention today on tech giants and social media, we avoid raising questions about the other ubiquitous media firms that for too long have had a free reign to do whatever they want in the name of open markets and a free press. Any attempt at government regulation of these powerful entities was always and is still considered to be free speech blasphemy, the first steps towards tyranny—that is, state control over a free press, free expression, and a free people.
In staunchly advocating in defense of the invisible hand of the marketplace as the primary guarantor of a free, open and democratic media system—and thereby wholeheartedly opposing any regulations on their business model—the earliest commercial broadcast networks such as Westinghouse, RCA, and CBS, perhaps unknowingly, laid the groundwork for the tribal media culture we are harvesting today, one where “fake news” is embraced as truth by gullible audiences, and the fundamental values and practices of journalism are viewed as suspect and untrustworthy. The aggressive anti-regulation stance taken by the large, national (and later transnational) corporate media conglomerates since the 1930s, in defense of an elusive marketplace of ideas and freedom of speech, eventually unleashed a number of processes, concrete policy decisions, and regulatory actions that were considered necessary for the corporate bottom line, (ie profits), but not so good for strengthening the democratic communication system needed to nurture a viable, vibrant public sphere.
From the commercial system’s complete dependence on advertising as the fuel that keeps the news/culture/information engines running—forcing media firms to deliberately shape content to attract eyes and ears—to the eventual consolidation of the broadcast media into an entrenched oligopoly made up of a few powerful networks; from the high ownership concentration that we saw emerge in the 1980s and 90s leading to a dramatic reduction in localism in radio, to the rescinding of even benign broadcast regulations on content like the Fairness Doctrine in the name of free speech rights of broadcasters; from the systematic dismantling of local, national and global news divisions and other cost-cutting measures designed to increase profits for shareholders, to the shuttering of hundreds of local newspapers across the country due to dropping ad revenue, proponents of the market model of media have argued that government regulation of mass communication would not be necessary because the public interest will be served best by private entities responding to people’s demands and desires: in other words, give the people what they want.
Neither the proponents nor the vocal critics of the laissez faire system of media policy could have envisioned the exact delivery mechanism of today’s “fake news.” After all, who would have thought 100 years ago—or even fifty years ago—that we would all have a hand-held apparatus in our pocket strategically designed to connect us—indeed addict us—to everything in the world that we liked, embraced, were curious about, or had some kind of ties to, through video, images, audio, and text, a device in many ways much more powerful than a printing press or radio tower? It’s “give the people what they want” on digital steroids, allowing captivated audiences to come back for more and more, on demand, without any filters or gatekeepers, while allowing them to share this content to thousands, if not millions of like-minded consumers.
As I mentioned, the advocates of the media reform movement were sounding the alarm bells about the commercial market model being consolidated in the 1930s because they understood that viewing news, public information and other media content as a consumer product no different than deodorant soap or breakfast cereal was a recipe for undemocratic outcomes that could be just as problematic for free speech as it would be in a more totalitarian context. These same, basic concerns were raised by other voices again and again, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and even more recently, although they were consistently drowned out by the deep pockets and loud objections of the corporate capitalists running our media industries.
There is considerable literature based on historical research of the public record by a number of media scholars who have examined the development of the broadcast industry in the United States which draws attention to these unheeded warnings and demands. For example, there was the legislative fight over the Communications Act of 1934 that ultimately favored the commercial broadcasters over the media reform advocates and educators that were highly critical of the growing commercialism of the airwaves. Media historian Robert McChesney describes in great detail how the commercial market model of broadcasting was not a given when radio first emerged in the 1920s as a powerful new electronic medium. He demonstrates how there was a large movement among educators in particular who viewed radio as an essential tool for public education and strengthening democratic discourse. They warned of the threats that democratic communication faced by a media system built solely on the profit motive.
By the 1940s, an activist FCC attempted to introduce some standards for public interest broadcasting through its report Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees, known popularly as “The Blue Book.” It was an open call to require radio broadcasters to abide by a number of public service requirements in order to maintain their licenses. In the end, it was rejected by industry and its allies in Congress as “censorship” of radio led by, as Packard recounts, “sophomoric professors, selfish special interests, power-crazed bureaucrats, and irascible legislators.”
In 1944, the so-called Hutchins Commission was convened to look into the function and responsibilities of the U.S. press. After three years of comprehensive interviews with representatives of the news industry, including advertisers, editors, journalists, and the public, the commission outlined a series of recommendations that recognized the need for the press to provide public service content for the community to clarify societal goals and values. It was a recognition of the important function a mass communication system in any country plays in developing a culture of public deliberation and participation in matters of common concern, that is, building citizenship. The commission’s recommendations were also wholeheartedly rejected by the corporate interests that made up our news media.
The gutting of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s by President Reagan was perhaps the best-known policy decision of the past four decades that favored big business principles over even limited regulation of the public airwaves, resulting in a dramatic shift in the media marketplace of ideas. Backed by conservative political leaders, the commercial broadcasters convinced the anti-big government Reagan Administration to terminate existing measures aimed at making sure broadcasters would cover important issues in the communities they serve, and provide a broad range of perspectives in that coverage. The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine opened the floodgates for the rise of political talk radio, dominated for 35 years by right wing voices who in many ways set the stage for the mainstreaming of the un-presidential political discourse of Donald Trump.
The deregulatory approach continued in the next several administrations, culminating with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed bylaw by President Clinton, which permitted corporations to amass large numbers of local newspapers and news stations, giving unfettered access to almost every household in America to massive, transnational corporations with no strings attached vis a vis public service principles or outcomes. Ironically, much of this was justified by regulators who argued new technological advances like the internet made earlier ownership restrictions moot. Under George W. Bush, regarding the topic of media ownership, the FCC said it was not “particularly troubling that media properties do not always, or even frequently, avail themselves to others who may hold contrary opinions,” arguing without irony that “nothing requires them to do so, nor is it necessarily healthy for public debate to pretend as though all ideas are of equal value entitled to equal airing.”
In examining the history of the U.S. media over the past 100 years, it is apparent that any regulatory initiative designed to put public service principles into action vis a vis broadcasters, newspapers, and other media platforms was received by commercial interests with considerable suspicion if not outright scorn, thereby giving the upper hand to those who argued for market-based principles to be the guiding light of the major media. In the process, the opportunity to build a media infrastructure conducive to a culture of true public deliberation and reflection on a wide scale about important matters of the day was jettisoned in favor of market principles built on laws of supply and demand.
Today, there is a growing chorus of scholars from both the left and the right arguing something that has always made U.S. policymakers and industry leaders feel uncomfortable. As Emily Bazelon described in an expose in the New York Times Magazine in October 2020, “perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the very best way.” Bazelon points to other democracies that have taken distinct approaches from the U.S. to the issue of government regulation of the media, arguing that “despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain more democratic,” and “have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort out what’s true from what’s not,” allowing those publics to make informed decisions about important issues of public concern.
Relatively speaking, the commercial constraints (dare I say restrictions) on the free and open delivery of news and public information have been given lip service in the broader literature in the United States. Almost universally, the market model comes out on top of the debate as to which system is more democratic, a public or private model. But today, as our politics drift into these unchartered waters, we are suddenly openly contemplating an overhaul of the social media giants, confronting them about how they monitor and/or police content on their platforms, as well as how they monetize this content. Is it not time we begin asking the same questions of political talk radio and prime-time cable channels, who up to now have avoided any public scrutiny for the damage they’ve caused to our politics? Should we not demand more from our news publishers and nightly news producers who, despite facing growing economic challenges due to competition from new, digital platforms, still have tremendous abilities to reach the public on a massive scale?
Clearly there are many questions to consider in trying to justify this kind of scrutiny. For one, would a media system based on a public interest model result in a different public response to “fake news” as we understand it today in the U.S.? In such a system, would audiences, i.e., the public, have built-in defenses, as Bazelton argues, to sort out what’s true from what’s not after decades of exposure to this kind of media content? In countries where public interest broadcasting models do exist, is fake news having less of a detrimental impact on the political culture as it is having in the U.S. today? I think the jury is still out on this, but the question warrants further attention to see how audience response to fake news is impacted by the political culture that emerged within a public service system. We would also need to examine approaches to motivated reasoning and political beliefs, and research on cognitive consistency, selective exposure and how people deal with information at odds with their own belief systems.
But in the end, to understand where we are today in the U.S., we cannot continue to point the finger at one set of factors while ignoring a long trajectory of undemocratic practices that have been promoted and embraced wholeheartedly by the corporate media establishment and their good friends in government. We were warned about the dangers of such a system decades ago. After seeing the events unfold in Washington on January 6th, 2021, I believe now is as good a time as ever to start paying attention to it once again.
This essay first appeared at Common Dreams and is reprinted under a Creative Commons license.