America’s Battle for Media Democracy

The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reformbook_cover

How did the American media system become what it is today? Why does it have so few public interest regulations compared with other democratic nations? How did the system become dominated by a few corporations, and why are structural problems like market failures routinely avoided in policy discourse? By tracing the answers to many of these questions back to policy battles in the 1940s, this book explains how this happened and why it matters today. Drawing from extensive archival research, the book uncovers the American media system’s historical roots and normative foundations. It charts the rise and fall of a forgotten media reform movement to recover alternatives and paths not taken. 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.

  • Provides a political, intellectual and social history of postwar American news media
  • Sketches the rise and fall of a social democratic vision of the American press
  • Uncovers the historical context of the deregulatory drift in American media policy

Praise for the Book

Read this review by Michael Copps: A Book for Now

“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 dialogue, 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.”
Michael Copps, FCC Commissioner, 2001-2012

America’s Battle for Media Democracy is a wonderful contribution. Very illuminating – and poignant, but with rays of hope. A really fine piece of work.”
– Noam Chomsky, MIT

“Victor Pickard has written a definitive book that shows how corporations took over the media, and how the public lost control of the airwaves to commercialism in the 30’s and 40’s. America’s Battle for Media Democracy goes deeply into the history when liberals had a pulse and there was, at least, a controversy. I must admire the luck that students have to learn from Professor Pickard to open their eyes and generate independent thinking about these important issues.”
– Ralph Nader

“In this fascinating history, Pickard gets to the deep roots of the modern media consolidation mess we’re in — not a state of nature, but the result of choices. It’s a vital, powerful book.”
– Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University

“My frustration with contemporary news media — especially as it covers fundamental questions of war and peace, inequality and the survival of the planet — is rooted in an understanding that it could be so much better. No one has done a finer job of exploring the moments at which wrong turns were taken than Victor Pickard. He identifies the critical junctures, explores the forces that were in play and describes the consequences of wrong choices and wrong policies. As we read Pickard, we recognize what has been lost. But, far more importantly, we recognize what is still possible. AMERICA’S BATTLE FOR MEDIA DEMOCRACY provides a foundation of history and insight. With it, we can begin to build new and better media — and the genuine democracy that flourishes when people have the information they need to be their own governors.”
– John Nichols, The Nation

“In America’s Battle for Media Democracy, Victor Pickard has produced a landmark work in communication history and media studies. Based on painstaking research, [he] sheds crucial new light on the political debates that created the contemporary commercial media system in the United States, and by doing so he allows us to envision a different and better future. This is mandatory reading for everyone concerned with media and politics.”
Robert W. McChesney, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“The roots of today’s conglomerized media system can be traced back to battles for media democracy fought, and lost, decades ago. Victor Pickard has done the tracing through pioneering research, which helps point us to where we need to wage battles for media reform in the present and future.”
Jeff Cohen, Park Center for Independent Media, Ithaca College

America’s Battle for Media Democracy is a well–researched, thoughtful, and lucid critique of media policy in the contemporary United States. To make his case, Pickard turns to history. During the 1940s, media activists joined together with government officials, academics, and even some corporate leaders to articulate an expansive, social democratic vision for newspapers and radio. The defeat of this movement hastened the triumph of corporate libertarianism – a tradition whose origin Pickard provocatively traces not to the free market fundamentalism of the recent past, but, rather, to the political settlement that followed the Second World War.”
Richard R. John, Columbia University

“Victor Pickard is a scholar on the rise. His writing is fine and to the point. There is always need for solid media history based on primary research and good analysis – and this book fulfills both.”
Christopher Sterling, George Washington University

“This is an important piece of history that has been overlooked for far too long. Pickard’s book situates today’s conflicts over the politics of information in an important anti-monopolist populist tradition, and provides the historical grammar for understanding the embedded power dynamics in today’s media-saturated political environment.”
Matt Stoller, Senior Policy Advisor to the Senate Budget Committee

“Victor Pickard knows that the history of American media is a war story that pits the interests of large conglomerates against those of a diverse and democratic public who seek a more open and accountable system. It’s a story that too often goes ignored in a nation where public discourse is filtered through outlets controlled by these same companies. But that’s changing. And Pickard’s dissection of the media’s past is critically relevant to its present and future. This book is essential reading for anyone fighting for better media in the U.S.”
– Timothy Karr, Senior Director of Strategy, Free Press

“With this important new book, Victor Pickard reminds us that contemporary policy battles like the fight for net neutrality have a long history, and one that we ignore at our peril. Anyone who cares about the future of the Internet should read this book now.”
– Marvin Ammori, Stanford Law School, Center for Internet and Society

“I have Victor Pickard’s new book on my desk, America’s Battle for Media Democracy, and it is worthy work.”
– Tim Wu, Columbia University

“America’s Battle for Media Democracy is an important and thoughtful book with interesting suggestions for reform. There still exist some champions such as Victor Pickard for a fairer and more diverse media world than the one we have. I am heartened to know that there are new and strong soldiers on the same terrain where I fought similar battles.”
– Jerome Barron, George Washington University

“Thank you for this book. I wish your book had been published before I went to the FCC in 1961. It would have been a big help!”
– Newton N. Minow, FCC Chairman, 1961-1963

America’s Battle for Media Democracy is a marvelous work. With the effort that obviously went into this book, Victor Pickard has made a major contribution to both the history and future of media reform.”
– Nicholas Johnson, FCC Commissioner, 1966-1973

America’s Battle for Media Democracy should be required reading for any student of American history, journalism, media studies, and democracy itself.”
– Reed Hundt, FCC Chairman, 1993-1997

“For far too long the heroic work of Clifford Durr and James Lawrence Fly has been ignored. Victor Pickard brings them back to life for us. Every American concerned about the nature of our public conversation today should read this book. We have much to learn from our forebears, from those who struggled and ultimately conquered the red-baiters, from those who brought the New Deal to media. Pickard makes clear not only this history but that America’s Battle for Media Democracy goes on.”
– Mark Lloyd, USC Annenberg, FCC Chief Diversity Officer, 2009-2012

“An informative and useful history of the struggle over America’s media in the 1940s…We do ourselves well to heed its message, especially in our own day and age of activism on media. I recommend the book highly.”
– Mitchell Szczepanczyk, Chicago Media Action

“A true tour-de-force of meticulous research and skillful writing. We all have much to learn from this rich history that Pickard has crafted.”
– Jennifer Holt, University of California, Santa Barbara

“The underpinnings of today’s commercialized media were forged in the stress and storm of WWII and its aftermath…[when] a national debate was still actively considering how our media system would balance operating in the public interest versus for private gain…How did this unfold? How did things go so wrong afterwards? How do we recover the media democracy of this golden era in media history? Read this book to find out!”
– Sascha Meinrath, Penn State University

America’s Battle for Media Democracy provides a well researched history on the key political debates that shaped the decline of America’s media system…As regulators and politicians debate the future of the internet, the historical lessons of America’s Battle make the book a must read.”
James Losey, Stockholm University

“America’s Battle for Media Democracy is a fantastic historical examination of the struggle over the political and economic arrangements of the U.S. media sector. Through Victor Pickard’s detailed history, he shows how America’s media system, which is dominated by commercial interests and weak public service obligations, can be traced back to policy decisions made in the 1940s.”
– Todd Wolfson, Rutgers University

“Anyone interested to understand the roots of why the American media system developed the way it did should start with this book. It is not only a brilliant history of the period, it sheds invaluable insights on present day debates over media and democracy.”
– Ben Scott, New America Foundation

“Victor’s excellent book…has received the positive press attention it deserves. His is an important voice in our collective conversations about the role of media in democratic striving.”
– Kathy Roberts Forde, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“A must read for students and scholars interested in the political economy of media. Pickard weaves intensive archival work into a beautiful and cohesive narrative explaining how the American media companies become dominant, while also pointing out pathways for reform. Every media studies student should be assigned this book, as it provides crucial historical detail to help contextualize ongoing debates regarding the future of media policy. I found it incredibly helpful in thinking through the best design and questions for future research projects on the political economy of media.”
– Shawn Powers, Georgia State University

“Victor Pickard’s terrific book America’s Battle for Media Democracy …engaging, thoughtful, and thorough, reminds us that for much of the 20th century, reformers sought a very different broadcasting world than the one we have inherited.”
– Matthew Lasar, University of California, Santa Cruz, writing in Radio Survivor

“In a well-documented and thorough treatment of the subject, [Pickard] illustrates…a different media system was—and still is—possible; however, it involves overcoming the resistance of formidable giants… America’s Battle for Media Democracy is an important adjunct to the body of literature regarding media democracy.”
– Diane Brandley, writing in the New York Journal of Books

“Pickard has certainly built a convincing and enlightening analysis of how those who don’t know media policy history are doomed to repeat it, and already have several times.”
– Benjamin W. Cramer, Penn State University, writing in the Journal of Information Policy

“Pickard’s robust exploration of theoretical and policy issues of the 1940s and his deft meshing of detailed case studies with larger intellectual and political themes…is a major achievement and should prove a vital source for media historians and other scholars.”
– Nathan Godfried, University of Maine, writing in American Journalism

“Pickard’s narrative is engaging, well organized, and rigorously researched… Like all top-notch critical research, [he] opens up new possible areas of inquiry for scholars and activists…sure to stimulate important discussions and debates among media historians, political theorists, policy makers, and movement strategists… Written with clarity and meticulous detail, [America’s Battle] should be required reading in graduate and advanced undergraduate courses that deal with these topics.”
– Brian Dolber, SUNY Oneonta, writing in Democratic Communique

“Contemporary media reformers will celebrate this book for making the case that the current moment offers an opportunity similar to the battles of the 1940s and that, given courage and persistence, policy change is possible… By looking at moments of disjuncture and debate, we can see how the discursive conditions that inscribe our present came to be, and that by putting a name to these limits, paradigms, and ideologies, we may show others where the possible ways out may lead.”
– Brian Creech, Temple University, writing in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism

“This book brings together insightful archival historical research about the development of newspapers and radio during a watershed period… Pickard’s meticulous research…may be read as a whole or key chapters may be read separately, providing useful text to undergraduate and graduate students in a history, media and society, or law and policy course.”
– Grace Jackson-Brown, Missouri State University, writing in Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

“Victor Pickard’s excellent offering provides an outstanding opportunity to…critically examine the constitutive choices which created our media system. Pickard explores the historical battles between the corporate entities that had co-opted control of radio and advocates for the public interest which fought (and ultimately lost) the battle to reform our media system. The book does more than track the history of these events, but applies a policy based analysis of the events that has largely been missing from the media history literature.”
– Christopher Terry, UW-Milwaukee, writing in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media

“Victor Pickard’s brilliant America’s Battle for Media Democracy…applies the lessons of history to current debates over the future of news… It is a masterpiece of historical and political analysis. For those of us doing media scholarship in other areas, it is a welcome reference point, reminder, and cautionary tale about the importance of media policy and media activism... In future debates about the role of regulation, capitalism, culture, ideology, professionalism, and social movements in shaping the direction of the media industry, this book will be an essential starting point.”
– C.W. Anderson, CUNY, writing in Political Communication

Selected Book Interviews and Writings

Before Net Neutrality: The Surprising 1940s Battle for Radio Freedom,” The Atlantic

What Radio Can Teach the Internet,” with Bob Garfield On the Media

The History of America’s News Media and What Went Wrong,” with Marty Moss-Coane on Radio Times

Can Regulations Make Media More Democratic? The Leonard Lopate Show

“How the Internet Was Saved… and Why the Battle Continues,” The Huffington Post

US Media: History, Policy and Net Neutrality,European Journalism Observatory 

Victor Pickard on Native Ads and the New Journalism Economy Columbia Journalism Review

Dear FCC: Net Neutrality Is Part of a Social Contract,” The Huffington Post

The FCC, the Public Interest and the Blue Book,

“A Final Farewell to the Fairness Doctrine?History News Network

Forgotten Lessons for Journalism’s Future,” Communication Currents

“A Fighter for the Public Interest at the FCC,” The Huffington Post

“Finding Journalism’s Future,” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights,” C-SPAN Book TV

“Take the Profit Motive out of News,” The Guardian