Victor Pickard joins Money on the Left to discuss the public bases and potentials of money and media in The United States. Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Pickard is a prolific researcher and author of over one hundred articles and six books on the history of media institutions, media activism, and the avowedly political and public foundations of journalism and media policy. Our conversation with Pickard is far ranging. We survey his early work on the postwar settlement for American media, when the fundaments of the current media landscape such as its tendency toward private and consolidated ownership were first put in place. We explore the critical role and shortcomings of political liberalism in shaping that midcentury settlement and all that’s come after. And we identify means for creating resilient and diverse public media infrastructures that are better equipped to help leftists resolve the most pressing political, economic, and ecological crises of our moment. Along the way, we also uncover complementary impulses between Pickard’s vision for the future of public media and the Modern Money movement’s project to democratize public money.
Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.
The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Maxximilian Seijo: Victor Pickard, welcome to Money on the Left.
Victor Pickard: Thank you for having me.
Maxximilian Seijo: So you’re the author and editor of numerous books on journalism, media policy, and media history. We asked you to come on our show because we think your affirmation of the public foundations of American media culture resonates with our emphasis on the public foundations of money. We would perhaps even go as far to say that the two are reciprocally bound up with one another. However, before we dig into the details of your arguments and reflections, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about your personal and professional background? For example, how did you come to work on media history, theory, and policy?
Victor Pickard: Excellent question. Sometimes I pause to ask myself that same question. I certainly didn’t originally enter graduate school with the assumption that I would focus on media history. I sort of evolved into or perhaps backed into that interest area. But I started out as an activist when I first started graduate school. I was coming out of the global justice movement. I had been traveling for a number of years and arrived at the conclusion that whatever issue I was interested in and whatever social problem I wanted to focus on–and there were many–media would be central to this political struggle. And so, early on, I became involved with the Independent Media Center movement, which focuses on indie media. I actually wrote my master’s thesis on the indie media model, which was very much based on this radical anarchic model of consensus based decision making. This is pre-blogosphere, so it’s quite radical that you could create your own media. But at the same time, I was also very interested in changing what we used to call mainstream media.
Gradually, it became clear to me that to try to change the system, you needed to engage with it at a structural level. In order to do that, you need to engage with policy debates and the politics behind those policy debates. And finally, in order to do that, you need to know the history of this media system. As I got more interested in political economic questions about the origins of the American media system, it became very clear to me that I needed to hit the archives. I needed to start really getting into understanding the origins and genealogies of this system in order to make systemic change. That’s how I eventually became a history geek and that’s where much of my interest has been focused. But I’ve never lost touch with those activist roots. Everything I do is based on the assumption that as scholars, to paraphrase a great social critic, it’s not enough to simply describe the things that we’re studying. The point is to try to change them to make them better. That’s what I dedicate my work to.
Scott Ferguson: That’s great, thanks. Perhaps we can talk about some of the historical work in your first book, America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform. In that book, you sketch a political history of the American media system to analyses of debates in media governance. Specifically, if we’re parsing this right, you argue that these turbulent mid-century debates precipitated in what you call the “post-war settlement for American media.” Can you talk about this settlement, maybe touching upon some of the key controversies surrounding it, such as the progressive turn at the FCC, the battle over the Blue Book, the origins of the Fairness Doctrine, maybe some of the problems with the Fairness Doctrine, or the possibilities and limits of the Fairness Doctrine, and the debates of the Hutchins commission? I know that’s a lot but take on whatever you want to take on.
Victor Pickard: I would gladly talk about all these things. As I mentioned earlier, I am a history geek. So I can talk about these historical policy battles for hours on end, but I’ll try to keep it a little bit shorter than that. That project, which came out of my dissertation research, really began with one very basic question: how did we in the United States come to inherit a particular kind of media system? The media system we have in the United States is quite exceptional in a number of ways. And I use that term exceptional not to suggest that it’s a positive thing necessarily, but rather that it’s an outlier compared to other media systems around the world. The system we have in the United States is almost entirely commercial. It’s only lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections. And it’s dominated by a handful of massive corporations.
Taken together, this creates a particular kind of media system and I had a hunch that we did not arrive at this system necessarily in a democratic fashion. And so, as I dug into the archival materials, it quickly became clear to me that to understand how this system developed in the US, we really needed to go back to the 1940s. It seemed to me that many of these policy trajectories led back to a set of core policy battles in the 1940s. And this wasn’t necessarily intuitive. Previous historians had focused on the 1930s and the 1960s. There were these political hotspots that tended to attract historians’ attention. The 1940s and 1950s were almost seen as flyover territory, aside from little things like World War II, obviously. So in terms of looking at how our media system developed, we’ve tended not to focus as much on the 40s. But I feel like that’s changed since I first started working on this 15 or so years ago.
When I started looking at what was happening, you could see pretty quickly that what some historians might refer to as a critical juncture was occurring for the US media system. There were a number of political crises, technological changes, a crisis of confidence, you might say, in our media system and how the press behaved and operated during the war. For example, there were concerns about propaganda, there were rising concerns about concentration of ownership, and there were even concerns about the loss of community newspapers. Many of the same concerns that we hear about today were very much in the air in the 1940s. What you also had was this very rare window, I’m not sure it’s ever happened since, when there was a progressive block at the Federal Communications Commission. At that time, instead of the five commissioners that you have today, there were actually seven. And out of those seven, four of them were New Deal Democrats–or at least one of them was a progressive Republican. But you had this progressive block, which created a window through which a number of surprisingly radical reforms were at least attempted.
What was also interesting about this historical moment is that, where the New Deal was in retreat throughout much of the US government at this time, it arrived later and stayed longer at the Federal Communications Commission than it did elsewhere. So it created these conditions for a number of progressive initiatives. And those are the case studies that I focused on in that book. For example, the FCC Blue Book was an initiative that would have set up this kind of social contract where for broadcasters to hold on to their monopolistic use of the public airwaves, they would have to do things like allocate a certain amount of their programming towards covering public affairs, educational broadcasting, and local culture. None of this really sounds too radical, but at the time, it was treated as an existential threat to the commercial broadcasters. They fought this tooth and nail.
Of course, these initiatives started right before this anti-communist hysteria took over. We’re talking about roughly 1946. There was still this brief moment where, at least within media policy, they were pushing through some pretty progressive plans and initiatives. And almost immediately, the political train shifted on them. The FCC was accused of doing things like BBC-izing American radio–God forbid. The Blue Book was called the “Pink Book.” They were being red-baited. Then, there was this exodus. The last New Dealers were chased out of DC in 1947 and 1948, especially after Truman’s loyalty program. Many of them fled to where radicals often flee to. They fled to the academy and took refuge in various places in the academy. That’s actually how the political economy of media tradition took hold. This tradition that I hail from, it took hold at my alma mater at the University of Illinois with Dallas Smythe, who had been the FCC’s first chief economist and one of the architects of some of these progressive policy plans.
That’s another discussion we could get into in terms of the intellectual history of the political economy tradition of media research. But going back to some of these initiatives, you mentioned the Fairness Doctrine, which today is often held up as the high watermark for enlightened media policy in the US. What’s interesting that I found in my research was that reformers saw the Fairness Doctrine as a kind of consolation prize for more structural reforms that they were trying to push through. And so, what later became known as the Fairness Doctrine was established in 1949. It was kind of the final bookend to this window in the mid to late 40s, where you saw this flurry of progressive interventions. Yet even that was overturned several decades later by the Reagan administration.
One thing about the Fairness Doctrine that people often misunderstand is that they often conflate it with the equal time rule, but it’s not about just making sure that two sides have equal time. That’s a different rule. The Fairness Doctrine was about the idea that broadcasters had an affirmative duty to cover controversial issues that were important to local communities and to do so in a balanced manner to make sure that they had contrasting views. So it was never assumed that it was just like two sides to the story. It was the idea that you had to have a kind of pluralism in terms of the range of debate. You had to have different contrasting views on any important subject. That’s very key. That’s such a much more progressive measure than simply saying, we need a Republican and a Democrat to speak on this issue, for example.
Anyway, there’s much more to be said. I will say probably the most radical thing that the FCC did during that window was to essentially trust bust a radio monopoly. It basically forced NBC to divest itself of one of its two major networks, which is actually how we got ABC. So we went from two big players to three big players. Now, of course, this is unimaginable and beyond comprehension that the FCC could do something like that today. This was at the height of an anti-monopoly push at the FCC. In fact, Dallas Smythe was probably the main person behind this endeavor. You also could imagine that going from two big players to three didn’t really transform the media landscape. I think that’s also an interesting lesson about the limitations to some of the anti-monopoly activism that many of us on the left would love to see. I would love to see it, but we have to be clear that that doesn’t necessarily solve all of our problems.
The other thing you mentioned, the Hutchins Commission, that actually dealt with all types of media, but the one it’s most known for is focusing on the role of print media, the role of newspapers, in a democratic society. It really established some of the normative benchmarks for what journalism is supposed to do in a democratic society, what journalists themselves are supposed to do, and establish what later became known as the social responsibility model for the press. We purportedly moved from an earlier libertarian model to a social responsibility model. That’s why at the end of my book, you mentioned the post-war settlement, I look at all these case studies and core debates and see how they were resolved by the end of the 40s. I see a kind of formation and refer to this post-war settlement for media as what really can be defined by three criteria, which is that the media will adhere to an industry defined social responsibility. So they were now meant to feel comforted by the fact that they have discovered social responsibility and are going to adhere to it. The second one is that they will be largely self regulated, or at least only lightly regulated.
Scott Ferguson: This is the same story for cinema but earlier, right?
Victor Pickard: Yeah, in fact, initially I wrote about the Paramount Decree and a similar battle took place in the film industry. With my advisor, we came to the wise conclusion that my dissertation was already too long as it was. So it was tragic that we had to cut that one out. That never developed into a full chapter.
Scott Ferguson: Just one more thing, did you read that the Paramount Decree was now struck down? It’s officially done.
Victor Pickard: I did read that. I haven’t looked at it closely though. I mean, we’re seeing the culmination of decades long activism on the right to undo what reforms were achieved during the New Deal. And I think this is another example of where that has happened. Anyways, to speak on the third piece, and then I’ll stop going on about all of this historical stuff, or at least we can move on to another historical piece. But the third piece that I think is very key, especially for debates today, is that these media organizations would be protected by a negatively interpreted First Amendment. They essentially would capture the First Amendment to further protect them from future regulatory interventions. Now, they wouldn’t always be successful in doing that. And you do see another high watermark of regulatory activism in the 1960s, where I feel like the first amendment was taken back for a little while. In fact, that’s when the Fairness Doctrine reached its pinnacle. It was being protected by First Amendment protections.
Essentially, that’s where you see media companies in particular say, “We’re corporations, we have individual rights, and that includes being protected by the First Amendment. Any regulatory infringement is a violation of our First Amendment rights.” That discourse had been around for a while, but it really crystallized in the late 1940s. And again, it was really given a boost by red-baiting, which allowed industry to basically paint even the mildest regulatory initiative as some socialistic cabal. It really drove out and stamped all of our core systems, whether we’re talking about our media system or our healthcare system. All these core systems have this lasting imprint from the 1940s when everything left of center, any sort of regulatory project, was rendered inherently illegitimate. That left us with what I refer to, especially when we’re looking at our immediate system, as a corporate libertarian paradigm. And I think that corporate libertarian paradigm is still very much intact today; although, I think we’re seeing it fall apart a little bit. I have some cautious optimism about that. However, what replaces it remains to be seen. So we could go in any number of directions from that meandering monologue but I’ll stop for now.
Maxximilian Seijo: I very much appreciate that. And I think what we find so compelling about this particular history from your first book is that it represents another way along the path of a theme on this show that has been pervasive throughout the past two years or so that we’ve been doing this, which is the American history of corporate predation, and often specifically banking predation. Whether in our last episode with Rebecca Marchiel, or others, we’ve tried to demonstrate the structure of banks as publicly constructed entities and legal entities at that, as well as the lending contracts in which they create and the resulting credit that gets allocated. We wanted to suggest that all of this is a policy question. And so, what your history provides is another path to this policy question through media, specifically a corporate media history. You chart how public structures, institutions, and regulatory agencies have produced the outcomes that we are living with and amongst.
Ultimately, I think one of the lessons of MMT is that we have to theoretically account for that within any transformational thinking about how we can move forward to altering and rearticulating these legal structures, whether they are media structures or monetary structures, which of course the rub is that money is also a form of media. So from this context, I want to dig into your theoretical apparatus. Because in the book, you do sketch some of the influences of liberal political theory on not only the general trajectory of what you call this settlement into the corporate libertarian model, but also some of the particular actors who are involved in setting up and writing these policies, and ultimately, constructing the media system that we have today. If you could perhaps take some time to reflect on some of these theoretical impulses that these actors held dear, I think we would appreciate that.
Victor Pickard: Yeah, gladly. You jarred a few thoughts as you were speaking that I’d like to start out with that I didn’t quite finalize in my previous monologue, which is that I think this critical historical approach shows that what we have inherited, and this could be true for our media system, which is obviously what I focus on, but also any of our core systems, was not inevitable and was not natural. It was not the result necessarily of democracy prevailing or best practices prevailing, but rather, more often than not, it is the end result of particular political interests prevailing over others. And so, this critical historical project goes back and recovers those conflicts, recovers that contingency, and it’s such a critical endeavor. Any activist, any project on the left, needs to some extent engage with that kind of project because that’s where we can see quite clearly that these are socially constructed systems that are the result of policy choices and policy battles.
And so, what I’m trying to do in my work is to delegitimize the system that we have inherited, to defamiliarize it, and denaturalize it. I think in order to do that, by focusing on these earlier battles, I’m also trying to flesh out what was a social democratic formation. Our political vocabulary is so impoverished in our political imagination. The United States is so constricted that we often don’t think in those ideological terms. But there have been moments where a more social democratic formation has emerged. As much as we’re dealing with these libertarian paradigms today, I’m always very clear that I don’t think of that as inherently American. It’s a very lazy narrative that libertarianism is just like in the air that we breathe or the water that we drink and that it’s just part of being an American. If you know your history, that’s patently false.
If we want to look at our postal system, for example, that’s essentially a very socialistic system that the founders of the Republic, not to romanticize them, seemed pretty commonsensical to them. So I want to go back to these moments and uncover these social democratic or socialist impulses and to also show that it took political struggle for hegemony to crystallize. It took tremendous struggle from the top down to change our commonsensical notions. And so, looking at what was going on in the 40s, the libertarianism that ended up triumphant was very much on the ropes throughout the 30s and 40s. To try to show how this trust in the market came, how this market fundamentalism crystallized, you see this ideological struggle. One site is to focus on these debates around media policy, especially since it deals with what we think of as First Amendment issues–freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press–it really gets at some core liberal concepts.
One of the ways you can make sense of it is to look at it in terms of negative and positive liberties. I think this was very much up for grabs in the 1940s, whether the First Amendment would be seen as something that protected more positive freedoms, such as our right to things, or collective freedoms, like the fact that society writ large should have the right to a diverse and rich media system, instead of looking at it narrowly as an individualistic right and something that we should only fear government infringing upon. Not corporations, but this idea that these freedoms must protect us from government is a core libertarian assumption. Another is emphasizing property rights, protecting property rights, and treating media as a commodity and property that’s owned by this group of wealthy white men. So these are the kinds of libertarian and liberal concepts that really crystallized. And it’s not just about accommodating the market, which is so clearly what emerged from from these debates in so many different ways.
But also a real blind spot with liberalism is to acknowledge pre-existing structural inequities. Liberalism is good with coming in and making sure, at least formally, that individuals should all have certain rights of opportunity, but it doesn’t take into consideration that we’re already living in a highly inegalitarian society and that protecting individual rights is not enough to rebalance or redistribute power throughout society. This is what requires more of a radical approach. And this is oftentimes the difference between leftists and liberals, which again, in our current US political imagination, those two are often collapsed. Liberal can mean anything from someone who’s barely left of center to a radical leftist for many Americans. I think it’s useful to try to tease apart these ideological positions and look at some of the underlying assumptions that are associated with these different positions. I don’t know if I totally got to your question, but hopefully I sketched it out a little bit. I haven’t looked at that book for a while so I might have forgotten what I said in it.
William Saas: Maybe this is a good point to transition to talking about your more recent 2019 book, Democracy Without Journalism. And before we make that transition fully, I think that another thing that your project and the MMT project share in common is spending a lot of time critiquing and meditating on those ideological assumptions and presuppositions that drive economic and fiscal policy. So you mentioned that a lot of the concepts kind of crystallized in the 1940s. I wonder if you can bring us to the present and your 2019 book by helping us get a sense for how those concepts have crystallized and evolved and maybe shifted over time to provide the foundation for the really non-ideal landscape of American media policy and practices. How did we get here? Why did we inherit and why do we have today such an anti-democratic and dysfunctional media?
Scott Ferguson: I want to tack something on here as well, which is we’ve been accustomed, as scholars and organizers, to periodize the last 40 or so years as representing a certain kind of break that for a while we were calling the postmodern period, and then we switched and started calling it neoliberalism. And people will periodize it and describe it in different ways, but the story that you tell seems to be backing that you see a libertarian marketization happening much earlier. And I guess I’m curious if you could tell us, through your research and your arguments, how you narrate the neoliberal turn? Or is there even a turn?
Victor Pickard: Yeah, those are all excellent questions. To try to seamlessly continue the narrative, what I try to account for in the earlier book was this rise and fall of a social democratic media reform movement, or at least a project in the 1940s. The intellectual tools that I take out of that book and bring with me into the next book is understanding how this commercialism became so naturalized. And I agree with you, Scott, that this predates the neoliberal turn. At one point I thought a major argument I’m going to make with that first book is that neoliberalism is a much older project than it’s often given credit for. I was ready to get into this kind of periodization fight. Then, I realized that’s really not that important or interesting. I don’t want to just quibble with a handful of historians about this. Instead, I want to look at some of these broader forces, focusing on how commercialization becomes naturalized, especially within policy discourses.
If you want to say anything about how the neoliberal turn emboldened that discourse, in media policy you really see it come to fluorescence during the Reagan administration when this deregulation move–and of course, deregulation actually started during the Carter administration–but it really took off during Reagan and then continued on. Clinton in some ways did as much damage to the immediate system in terms of stripping it of any public interest regulatory constraints. But what I’m trying to show first off is that, to try to chip away at this paradigm, this idea that we need to keep government out of our media system, that there’s no legitimate role for government within our media, it is a libertarian, also liberal, fantasy. Government is always deeply involved in our media system. The question is: how should it be involved? Should it be involved in maintaining public interest protections? Or should it be there to help capital accumulate more wealth?
Of course, it’s typically doing the latter. It has been thoroughly captured. Much of what the government has done, especially around media policy, but around any number of policies, is a textbook case of regulatory captures, where the regulators themselves have internalized the values and logics of the very industries they are meant to oversee. And the revolving door is both a symptom and a driver of this process. I think this is important to understand. So I tried to bring some of that political economic analysis to our media system to again denaturalize it to show how this happened historically. What were the policy discourses that were deployed to naturalize it? And then I try to undo that damage.
My latest book is really focused on the long history of commercialism. This of course goes back, vis-a-vis our media system, to the 1800s. I look at what happened when the press initially commercialized and how that changed the relationship between the press and the public, or the polity. They began seeing people as passive consumers instead of as engaged citizens. And again, liberalism was very much part of this story. It’s very much what gave this kind of gloss to the freedom of the press as the epitome of American core freedoms. But that free press was defined in a way that basically sanctified this commercial order. And so, what we’re seeing today, whether we’re talking about what Facebook is doing, the collapse of journalism, or the ever growing power of media monopolies, all of these things trace back to this core commercial logic. That’s what I try to trace. Neoliberalism gave that logic a boost, but I don’t think you can reduce all this back to that neoliberal turn. It has a much longer history than just simply beginning in the 1970s.
One other concept that might be useful here is the idea of market censorship. If you allow a media system to be governed entirely, or almost entirely, by these market forces, you have predictable patterns of coverage, predictable erasures, predictable exclusions, what might be called “news redlining,” whether we’re talking about the digital divide, or we’re talking about how access to our news and information has never really been made available to communities of color. Or when they are covered in the media, there’s always been great violence done to them. So I feel like you need to understand that core commercial logic to understand all these surface level pathologies, or these symptoms that we’re often grappling with–and especially for left media criticism. Leftists love indulging in media criticism, but too much of it is articulated in a way where it sounds as if we’re saying there are these bad apples–bad journalists, bad media outlets, or corporate owned media–but we’re not getting to the root of the problem. We’re not getting to commercialism. Indeed, we’re not getting to capitalism. This is really what capitalism does to a media system. That in a nutshell is what I’m trying to draw attention to. In this latest book, I’m focusing on the journalism crisis, especially this utter devastation to commercial journalism in particular in the United States. In my mind, it’s all connected.
Scott Ferguson: Can you take us through a little tour of how this journalism crisis has played out? What are some of the main beats? What are the some of the main transitions? Just add a little bit more depth on that particular problem.
Victor Pickard: Absolutely. We’ve been talking in more broad historical and theoretical strokes, but here we can get into more of the nuts and bolts of it. I feel like the key is always to connect those specifics to these broader trends and forces. To just throw out a few examples, American newsrooms have been reduced by over half since the early 2000s. When we’re talking about the depth of the journalism crisis, that’s one key indicator. The number of journalists have been wiped out. And how that has played out, well, we’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of news outlets go under in the last couple decades. And it plays out specifically in how particular beats are no longer covered.
This is especially true for local journalism. Now, there are very few. In some states, there are essentially no journalists covering state legislatures, for example. Increasingly, there are no journalists covering the local school board or what’s happening at city hall. There’s still national coverage. On the surface, there still appears to be, if anything, an information glut. We go on social media and there’s this torrent of information. But if you go beyond the surface, you see that even in their beleaguered state, the base of the newspaper industry still serves as the feeder for our entire media system for original information. You go to Facebook, you go to Twitter, if you see what original information is there, and oftentimes there’s not a lot, what is there traces back to this suffering newspaper industry. And increasingly, we’re talking in terms of news deserts where entire regions and communities no longer have access to any local news media whatsoever. And of course, this disproportionately impacts lower-socioeconomic communities, communities of color, and rural areas.
Other kinds of journalism that are disappearing are international journalism, investigative journalism, policy reporting–the kinds of things that are very expensive to produce and oftentimes aren’t necessarily the sexiest stories. A story I sometimes use as an example is like the health of your local bridge. That’s not clickbait, that’s not going to sell. A lot of advertising people aren’t going to be really excited about that story. Yet that’s the kind of story that we need to know about. We need to know about the health of our infrastructures. That kind of day in day out beat reporting is exactly what’s disappearing. It’s exactly what democracy requires. The market never supported an adequate level of journalism and I’m always clear about that. It’s not as if there was some golden era that we need to return to. It was always a very shaky relationship. But now it’s a full blown crisis. We could still say that now it’s worse than it’s ever been before.
The other thing, too, that I want to be clear about when I’m talking about the nature of the journalism crisis, is there’s a kind of lazy narrative that the internet killed journalism. But this, again, is why it’s so important to historicize. The journalism crisis didn’t just happen in the last 10 years. I argue that commercial journalism has always been prone to crises. And this is especially true because of its over reliance on advertising. Historically, the American press, which has been hyper-commercialized to begin with compared to newspaper industries around the world, has been almost entirely reliant on advertising revenue. About 80% of its revenues came from advertising and 20% came from reader support. And so, what happened in the early 2000s, especially by 2008-2009 as readers and advertisers migrated to the web, where digital advertising pays pennies to the dollar of traditional print advertising, that business model was just blown to bits. It fell apart. That was clear in 2008-2009. But we basically wasted a decade thinking that there’s some way to repair that or to find another business model or technological fix. And basically, that’s not coming back. There is no commercial option. There’s no commercial future for the kind of local journalism that democracy requires.
So these are some of the ideas I’m really trying to bring to light in my book. It’s why I ultimately argue so strongly for a public media system, which I’m sure we’ll bring into discussion. But I really try to trace the history of this marriage of convenience. Advertisers never really cared about paying for local journalism. They were trying to reach audiences. And the press owners, the publishers, and the press barons–as they used to be called–were delivering audiences to those advertisers for a very pretty price. Many of those newspapers had local monopolies in their given markets. So if anyone wanted to advertise anything, they had to go to that local newspaper. This arrangement obscured the public good nature of journalism. It naturalized this commercial relationship. But once that was no longer convenient for advertisers, they jumped ship. It’s much easier and much cheaper for them to advertise online, especially when you get Google and Facebook in the game, who happened to be gobbling up what little digital advertising there is. Advertisers don’t really need newspapers very much anymore. And so, that has really brought this artifice into clear view. It also presents us an opportunity for creating something entirely different.
Maxximilian Seijo: Part of this that resonates really interestingly is the way you discuss what almost seems like commercialization as a project of abandoning the public purpose for this libertarian or liberal fantasy of a market that is or different from the public. Whereas we would suggest that, as you said, the government is always constructing the media system, and ultimately, also the banking system and so on. As we move specifically into the potential for rearticulating some of these systems through the cracks that we see everywhere now in media, can we talk about some of the specific proposals. One of the main MMT proposals in this vein is the federal job guarantee, which acts to guarantee a right to employment to anyone seeking employment at a federally mandated living wage. There certainly seems to me to be some compatibility with the problem of not enough journalists, and the potential for a solution that guarantees employment for the public purpose. And if the commercialization or advertising model was a marriage of convenience, this seems to be a marriage that could really be one for democracy. Thinking with that, and perhaps the analog hovering, what do you think about some of these specifics of public funding for media? And specifically, how these relate to the way you draw them out in your work?
Victor Pickard: Yes, well, I obviously think it’s a good idea and I think we should do it. What you are referring to there is spot on. We need to think of news and information not as commodities but as public goods and as essential public services. Journalism is an essential public service. And this is where it’s really about broadening the political imagination and changing the way we understand these core systems. And I see some leverage points even within this broader libertarian landscape. Americans like libraries. Most Americans think the idea of public education is a good thing, too. And most Americans think public parks are pretty cool as well and worth protecting. And the post office, I’ve been loving how many Americans have rallied to the cause of the United States postal system. It shows you that protecting these public goods–things like media subsidies–are as American as apple pie.
And so, rhetorically, as you all would appreciate, it’s important that we get people thinking about how these are absolute prerequisites for having any semblance of a democratic society. We all learn in school that democracy requires a free, and by implication, functional press system. But we rarely reflect on what are the necessary policies, protections, infrastructures, and even discourses that we need to maintain those systems. And I do think any crisis is also an opportunity. As we see the commercial model for the press collapse in such a spectacular way, I do think there’s growing recognition that the market is driving journalism into the ground. It creates fertile conditions to try to think about creating a new public media system, whether we’re building on some of the structures that are already there, including the Public Broadcast System. I advocate actually building on the postal system itself as a core anchor infrastructure.
So I think there are many ways that we can do this but it starts out discursively by thinking in those terms that you were just laying out. It’s this idea that we need to think about journalism, money, and jobs as things that shouldn’t be dictated by the market. They should be taken out of the market so they’re not driven by this commercial logic. Sometimes I use this analogy, and we’re all academics here so this hits a little too close to home, but imagine if this same logic were applied to academic labor. If our peer reviewed journal articles didn’t get enough clicks, likes, or shares, then we’d have to just stop doing that, do something different, or maybe worse, lose our jobs. Of course, that is happening, too. So yeah, I don’t want to speak in terms of that being merely theoretical. But for many academics, we still think that there’s some inherent worth to what we’re doing that doesn’t reduce itself to how much money it’s making. Maybe a better example is like, what if students just didn’t want to take math class? They aren’t paying for their math class so then we’ll just have to discontinue that. Or what if there’s a fire? Your house is on fire and the firefighters show up and say, “Well, you’ve got to pay up before we put out this fire.”
There’s just so many examples of where we would never leave it up to market determination. And it’s that kind of logic that we need to not only recover but expand on. I try to start discursively with those ideas by thinking in terms of public goods. Systemic market failure is one I play around with a little bit as well. I think of this as systemic market failure. We need to claw back some of these core systems and infrastructures and put them under public ownership, which I think is where the conversation is heading and I’m all for that.
Scott Ferguson: I think I have a little bit of a dearth of imagination about what we can do about, let’s say, newspapers. What do we need to do? Do we need to fund them with federal grants? Do we need to staff them? And if we do, how do we allocate the money? How do we make sure that that staffing is equitable? I’m sure these are things you think about all the time. Can you maybe walk us through, at least in news journalism, what some of the specific recommendations you have?
Victor Pickard: Sure. I’ll start out with the ideal, which I think it’s clear in my book, but as I’m speaking on the book, and this often happens, some of your ideas really don’t actually come together until after the book is well and done and out there in the world. But I think the ideal would be to have publicly funded news cooperatives in every community across the country. That would be the ideal. And to add some flesh on those bones, these new newsrooms of the future would be locally owned and controlled by communities as well as by the journalists themselves. Some of these details need to be worked out. I also don’t think it’s my role to present a formula for everyone. I think local communities should decide for themselves. But the key part is to make sure that the institutional, and especially financial, resources are there for these newsrooms to be functional. That’s why I say publicly funded.
Now, whenever I’m talking about this new public media system, I mean public not in name only, but actually publicly owned and controlled and democratically governed. So there should be a federal guarantee. The federal government has an affirmative duty to ensure that those resources are there for local communities but the federal government also should have no control beyond providing for those resources. It should not dictate in any way how those news operations happen. That’s where we need to devolve power to the local grassroots level as much as possible. We can think in terms of news bureaus that are democratically elected. We need to make sure they’re representative of the community. We’ve got to make sure labor unions are represented and diverse communities are represented. One of the things I often say is that these new newsrooms should look like the communities that they serve as well. So we must make sure that they’re diverse in all ways.
Those are just some ideas, but it goes back to the idea that they have to be funded. They need those resources. And that should be non-negotiable. It’s not a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.” And so, this is where I have to get into all the fights and arguments about how we are going to pay for it, which I know you guys are very much engaged in those kinds of debates. But I think we need to fund them. And there are things that we can salvage from the current system–to rescue good assets from bad owners. I’m all about doing that but I’m very clear that the first step is to decommercialize and decommodify our media system. The second step is to radically democratize it. And those things have to be done together.
In order to reach anything close to what I’m advocating for, and again, I get into this in the conclusion of my book, but I’m really influenced by the late, great Erik Olin Wright’s work on how to build this kind of socialist future from the ashes of capitalism. Actually, ashes wouldn’t even be the right term; it’s these little pockets. Again, he’s a huge fan of libraries. There are these little pockets that we can build on, these counter-hegemonic forces, and these anti-capitalist spaces within the broader capitalist system that we can try to see those potential building blocks for this new kind of system.
William Saas: In terms of the federal jobs guarantee, we talk a lot about shovel ready projects. To bring up a job guarantee, one of the critiques or the worries about that is it’ll be make-work. It’s just paying people to do jobs nobody needs to do. And of course, you look around your own community and there are thousands of things that need to be done and could provide well paying jobs. It seems like there’s an analog with the public media system that you’re talking about where there are–you talk about the ideal system, but in my community and I’m sure in y’all’s communities, too–there are plenty of great projects already ongoing that are constantly asking for money. Like we’ve got a beautiful local radio station that’s constantly fundraising. I don’t know where NPR falls in this, but local NPR stations are constantly fundraising. And I’d be remiss to not talk about podcasting, too. The meeting that we’re on right now, some of my favorite things to listen to are run by Patreon, which is not not-commercialized. But there seems to be a lot of production ready media projects and news co-ops that are just waiting to be activated that could be under the system that you’re describing.
Victor Pickard: I couldn’t agree more and I’m really glad that you mentioned podcasting. Because it’s one of those things where, in my mind, it’s clear as day. But I realized I need to articulate this, which is, when I’m talking about these future newsrooms, this future public media system, I’m imagining public media centers in every community. And those media centers are multimedia. So it’s not about producing the dead tree version of the news. It’s about all kinds of media being produced by local journalists. And so, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be funding that. If you look at it historically, then you see moments. I’m always inspired by that brief moment when you had these WPA projects get funding for everything from planting trees to subsidizing writers, theatre groups, and historians. We could do that. There’s no reason why we couldn’t do that on a permanent basis.
So I absolutely agree with you. Another example is just building out our broadband system. I mean, people are painfully aware of how awful our broadband system is. When we hear this phrase “digital divide,” it sounds like something from the 1990s. Yet it’s a glaring problem today. That’s building out infrastructure; that’s jobs. There’s so many good reasons to do a project like that. People are literally in some cases dying due to the lack of it. I couldn’t agree with you more that there’s a need. And it’s something that we could do. But it’s a political decision that we’re not doing it. And so, we need the politics in place to make sure that we do do it well into the future.
Scott Ferguson: Something I’d like us to talk about before we wrap things up is, part of your work is that you’re a keen diagnostician of the pathologies of our American media system, and especially the contemporary system. I think a lot of people have a lot of arguments about the privatization of news and information, and mediation and disinformation, so I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about that. And I guess I’m also interested in how you see the contemporary problems around this information in relation to the longer history of yellow journalism and media moguls like William Randolph Hearst?
Victor Pickard: Yes, I think I can connect those dots. One critique in my mind connects a lot of these pathologies that you just mentioned, whether we’re talking about mis- or disinformation, or these other commercial excesses, such as what was then called yellow journalism might today be called clickbait. You can’t really say fake news anymore. That’s been so captured and obfuscated, but I feel like without harping on it too much, the core root of many of these surface level pathologies is this commercialism at the heart of it all. You could say capitalism is at the heart of it all. The fact that misinformation is proliferating through our social media, that’s not accidental. And it’s not because people are stupid. It’s actually the business model that’s driving it. It’s everything from trying to optimize engagement and collect data about it.
This phrase, “surveillance capitalism,” is now very much part of our vocabulary, although the emphasis is often more on the surveillance part and less on the capitalism part. But I think it does get at this idea that it is baked into the system. And this is what I try to argue in my book as well, that many of these problems we’re dealing with today trace back to the very DNA of our commercial media system. This is where it leads us. Not to sound too overdetermined, but if you know the long history, you see this flare up again and again. You see these excesses flare up, you see public reactions, and you see industry do just enough to make sure they’re not regulated. We didn’t mention before, this whole idea of deregulation is such a misnomer. There’s no such thing as deregulation. It’s always regulated. Again, it’s a question of how, as a society, we’re going to regulate it. That also gets to the point earlier, where I think it draws a distinction between liberalism and leftism, where the liberal solution for many of these problems is about an individual fix. Like individuals need to pay more for their local NPR station. Individuals need to be more media literate. Individuals need to deactivate their Facebook account. It’s always about what we as individuals can do. It’s not seeing this as our problem collectively. This is a social problem. It’s a collective action problem. These are the terms we should be speaking in.
So I do think that one of the discursive enablers to so many of these problems has been to naturalize the market, not see the market and commercialism as a root cause to these problems, and also misdiagnosing the potential solution, which is often this kind of individualistic, liberal approach that accommodates the market. We need to pay more for our news. It’s our fault for not paying for the news. No, society should be guaranteed access to a certain level of news and information both in terms of quantity and quality. It’s a long way of saying that we have a lot of work to do ahead of us to fix these problems.
What I also try to end on is that, as you noted, Scott, I’m very keen to point out the pathologies and I think media criticism and all forms of political critique are absolutely essential, but I don’t want to just stay on the doom and gloom. Despite all these problems, I’m weirdly optimistic about the future, at least in terms of the potential of creating entirely new structures. Especially among young people today, they’re not enthralled by market fundamentalism. There are all kinds of political openings ahead of us. Of course, we could still veer towards fascism. The future is very much open ended. But I do have some hope that there is a kind of socialist alternative, a democratic alternative, that is within reach. It’s just gonna be a long, hard slog to get there.
William Saas: Yeah, and we could still have tote bags in that future, right?
Victor Pickard: That’s right. That’s great. You still get your tote bag, absolutely.
Scott Ferguson: Tote bags for all. Well, this has been really fantastic. Thanks so much for coming on. I think all of our intuitions about the deep resonances between your project and our project have all been played out and confirmed. When I sit and hear you talk about the public foundations of media and how they’ve been privatized and commodified, and the way that, essentially, we’ve created these contingently constructed media deserts, which suggests a kind of artificial scarcity, not only do I hear money as a medium and it’s suffering from all those pathologies, but as Max brought up when we began this conversation, we think that these two things are absolutely implicated in one another. And if we want to have a democratic, socialized, and community-oriented public media system, we’re going to have to overcome the privatization and false scarcity around money. And the notion that even we, as individual taxpayers, have to cough up more from our bleeding hearts, to pay more taxes in order to have good public media, our response would be, no, this is about public provisioning. You can’t run out of spreadsheets just like you can’t run out of data. And so, the question is not if we’re going to regulate it, or if we’re going to do something, it’s how are we doing it? And what’s the best way forward? Anyway, I just wanted to close on some of those summary remarks. I don’t know if you have some final thoughts?
Victor Pickard: Yeah, no, I agree. Everything that you’re saying makes good sense to me. Also, I like that you put your finger on this artificial scarcity problem, because that’s often the problem in so many of these policy debates. I think that is something that we need to get beyond in order to push forward to a more progressive future. So let’s keep working at it. Let’s continue these conversations. But thank you so much for having me on your show. Thank you so much for talking to me about this stuff. I’ve really enjoyed it. I think there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us, but this is also fun. So please keep up the good work.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, thanks for coming on.
Victor Pickard: My pleasure.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Alex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).