Few Americans are aware of the intense struggle in the 1940s by supporters of FDR’s New Deal to hold commercial media enterprises, both print and broadcast, more accountable for serving the public interest information needs of American citizens. Their opponents were champions of private enterprise who viewed any governmental proposals for greater regulatory oversight of the press, radio and TV as threats to economic freedom, therefore inherently un-American.
How that struggle was fought and lost is the subject of media researcher Victor Pickard’s new book, America’s Battle For Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform, which provides invaluable lessons for reviving and winning that battle. Most leaders of that struggle remain obscure: Lawrence Fly, Clifford Durr, Charles Siepmann, Dallas Smythe, Frieda Hennock. Archibald MacLeish and Robert Hutchins are better known, but not the arguments they were making about the threat commercial media posed to our democracy and what they proposed as remedies.
Pickard makes clear a main reason they failed was the lack of grassroots activism in support of their proposals. Today there is reason to hope citizens are primed to become more involved in critical media reform issues. Thanks to efforts in the last decade of groups like Common Cause and Free Press, massive support was orchestrated to halt greater media consolidation and defend network neutrality.
Since the disastrous Citizen’s United ruling by the Supreme Court which allowed a tsunami of dark money to overwhelm sensible regulation of campaign finance, and the clear collapse of commercial media serving the public interest needs of the country, the voting public is primed to play a critical role in reviving public media’s role in the American struggle for media democracy.