Donald Trump’s victory revealed fundamental flaws in America’s core institutions, especially its media system. While television news, professional journalists, and social-media platforms are all under scrutiny, too much of this criticism focuses on symptoms rather than deeper pathologies. Instead, we should seize this opportunity to draw attention to systemic problems in our media and push for structural alternatives.
But first, we must be clear about the central problem. Much of what ails our media system stems from its extreme commercialism. The always-controversial Trump was irresistible for ratings-driven news outlets, and their endless profit-seeking helped legitimize a dangerous politics. While it’s tempting to blame audiences for lapping this up, this coverage didn’t just reflect popular demand. Media are beholden to their owners and to the advertisers who pay them.
Trump’s screen-to-screen exposure during the campaign provided bait to capture advertisers’ most coveted product: our attention. To keep our attention, media must entertain us. And Trump delivered—especially for media’s bottom line. As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves infamously stated: “[Trump’s candidacy] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Such brazen venality is endemic throughout the news industry. With its impoverished public broadcasting, the US media system stands out among democracies for its commercial excesses. Many sectors are dominated by corporate oligopolies, producing content with few public interest protections. Is this the system Americans wanted?
History suggests otherwise. As my book America’s Battle for Media Democracy documents, the US media system didn’t emerge solely according to democratic criteria and public consensus. It arose instead from policy battles between activists, industries, and regulators over the media system’s fundamental design. Ultimately commercial interests, shielded by what I call “corporate libertarianism,” prevailed over a social democratic vision that privileged educational fare, public service news, and other types of media not supported by the market. We must reclaim this road not taken and de-commercialize our news media.
For over a century the United States has conducted an experiment in commercialized journalism by treating news as both a commodity and a public service. Periodic reform movements and constant criticism forced the news industry to develop ethical codes that sought to prevent commercial imperatives from overwhelming democratic principles. This experiment has failed.