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Towards a Media Democracy Agenda: The Lessons of C. Edwin Baker


Sanjay Jolly (@sanjayjahlee) is the executive director of the Program on Law and Political Economy at Harvard Law School and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

Victor Pickard (@VWPickard) is the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change Center.

Despite the many structural pathologies afflicting our news and information infrastructures, a clear vision for media democracy remains elusive. There is, to be sure, ample recognition that our information systems face a severe structural crisis. Powerful monopolies have captured core communication infrastructures, subjected them to the unbridled pursuit of advertising revenues, and generated profound social harms. What were once separately theorized as monopoly capitalism (the takeover of the global economy by corporate finance) and information capitalism (the aggressive transformation of information from social resources into commodities) today converge in a perfect storm. The result has been the proliferation of information bottlenecks, mis/disinformation, data exploitation, and news worker precarity. While a few dominant firms further concentrate their media power, the press withers and public trust recedes. As newsrooms shudder, communities lose vital sources of locally relevant information and democratic culture.

This process does not unfold in an even course. In the United States, it is the poor and working classes, immigrants, and Black and Indigenous communities who continue to bear the brunt of these deprivations. The journalism crisis culminates not in the destruction of all media institutions, but rather with an insipid phantom of the Fourth Estate. Instead of promoting expressive freedoms, the residual information apparatus reproduces and amplifies existing patterns of social exclusion.

If the diagnosis seems bleak, it is in part because the symptoms are so multifaceted. By its nature, the structural crisis takes unwieldy forms, fragmented across distinct domains. And so a variety of interventions become necessary. Progressive antitrust traditions find new vitality in response to the smothering of economic markets and popular aspiration by concentrated private power. Labor organizers respond to unconscionable exploitation with valiant campaigns to unionize newsrooms. The deployment of massive data infrastructures for surveillance and social control now faces a global clamor for alternative information regimes. These struggles are all critically important to keeping alive the hope for genuine political and economic democracy, but their fundamental linkages—the shared structural roots of our present crisis—are often elided, fracturing progressive energies into disciplinary siloes and distancing them from radical critique.

The significance of media democracy as a political and intellectual project is to cohere these loci of struggle within a common enterprise. This task is all the more urgent today when communication technologies offer the principal means for popular participation and mobilization. And yet, media democracy remains more slogan than platform, arrested in a kind of conceptual malaise with vague invocations of democratic zeal. In the United States, widespread intellectual confusion persists over key questions such as the meaning of free expression, the purpose of the First Amendment, and the legitimacy (and desirability) of state interventions. What we lack, in short, are solid theoretical foundations.

A First Amendment for Media Democracy

To bring these problems into greater resolution, we turn to the work of the late C. Edwin Baker, whose incisive scholarship offers guideposts in the struggle for a democratic media system. Until his untimely death in 2009, Baker was among his era’s most astute observers of communication markets, from the purported “golden age” of mass media to the unrelenting wave of industry consolidation and the rise of digital networks. Throughout these transformations, Baker shrewdly disentangled the complex inner workings of how societies designed media systems and how these policy choices allocated individual and collective power.

Baker’s vision for media democracy was succinct: “true democracy implies as wide as practical a dispersal of power over public discourse.” From this observation, he advocated what might be viewed as a “radical liberal” position on the First Amendment, placing individual dignity as the ultimate value justifying the protection of expressive conduct. But Baker was no petty individualist. Rather, he rightly recognized that individuals can never be abstracted from their complex social environments. Democracies protect free expression to promote not only individual self-determination but the individual’s ability to participate in collective social change. The inherent complexity of substantive democracy thus demands the empowerment of both individual speech and collective discourses. “Responding to these competing claims,” Baker wrote, “is a proper subject of policy making, which should determine whether one or the other discourse is more in need of support and how different media, different structural orders, can best provide for these different democratic needs.”

While affirming that the First Amendment clearly restricts the state’s purposeful suppression of speech, Baker emphasized that proactive media policies to strengthen the press were both necessary for and consistent with constitutional principles. He assailed the presumption that the First Amendment’s general purpose was to prohibit government interventions affecting speech while guarding the expressive actions of powerful individuals and entities. Instead, Baker argued, the First Amendment, and the Press Clause in particular, exists to protect media institutions’ capacities for serving the needs of a democratic society, namely by facilitating an informed citizenry and circulating a genuine diversity of voices. One might argue, as did some of Baker’s contemporaries, that those ends are best achieved when private markets are unhindered by extensive state interference. But in meticulous detail, Baker showed how unregulated communication markets lead to worse outcomes both in terms of normative democratic theory and within neoclassical economics’ ostensible parameters of efficiency and utility-maximization.

Writing at a time when newspapers and broadcasters reigned supreme, Baker’s key insight was that media markets exhibit unique economic properties, which when left unregulated result in significant market failures. Communication products have unusually high first-copy costs, they tend to function as public goods (i.e., they permit non-rivalrous use for which it is difficult to exclude third parties), and due to their fundamental social role, they generate enormous externalities. Moreover, communication firms operate simultaneously across two different markets: they sell media content to consumer audiences, and they sell those audiences to advertisers. By effectively subsidizing content for affluent consumers, advertising distorts firms’ incentives by allowing content to be sold below cost, which severely reduces competition, circulation, and viewpoint diversity. As these dynamics depart far from idealized neoclassical models, the profit incentives of communication firms systematically diverge from any plausible notion of social welfare or market efficiency.

By taking seriously the economics of media markets, Baker highlighted how private power and market processes may at times pose significant obstacles to expressive freedoms, as well as how government intervention can either promote or undermine the First Amendment. As he became increasingly alarmed by “the corrosive effects of private power on press freedom,” Baker emphasized that, in addition to the First Amendment’s defensive postures, media policy legislation was necessary to broaden and strengthen the reach of First Amendment freedoms. His advocacy for a structural, content-neutral media reform agenda is thus essential to policy approaches today.

The Practical Struggle for Media Democratization

In the decade since Baker’s passing, communication markets have undergone important structural changes. Far from attenuating the relevance of his analyses, however, the problems that animated his work have only grown more intense with time. The convergence of previously distinct media technologies over digital networks has accelerated the concentration of power over information flows, the centrality of advertising in media markets, and the perversions of market incentive structures. The situation calls for an enlivened policy program for media democracy, one for which Baker offers cogent insights.

First, we need to pursue media policy interventions that are forthright in targeting underlying market structures. Following Baker, a principal aim of media democracy must be to devolve decisionmaking capacities away from centers of concentrated power. A narrow focus on content regulation, such as in the ongoing debate over Section 230, not only glosses over root causes, but is also constitutionally suspect. In contrast, the state is always actively involved in market design, so the issue is not if, but how, structural media policy ought to intercede, and with what distributional consequences. The most important intervention in that regard is to aggressively curtail the market power of dominant firms, including traditional media as well as newer players like digital platforms. But given the unique economic properties of media markets, a consumer welfare approach is bound to be empirically unreliable and to underestimate harms. A media democracy theory of antitrust should instead more closely resemble the FCC’s traditional public interest standard, with a presumption against further consolidation. Antitrust, however, is not the only means of distributing decisionmaking authority. For instance, Baker noted that regulations aimed at increasing the strategic power of communication workers would diversify control over the subjects and uses of media content while strengthening the function of the democratic press.

Second, we must recognize that advertising is the problem, not the solution. Recent efforts to address the journalism crisis, including Australia’s contentious News Media Bargaining Code, have sought a more equitable distribution of advertising revenues between platforms and incumbent publishers. Such proposals should invite wariness. As Baker illustrated, advertising-based media systems undermine democracy by exacerbating unequal information provisions and distorting media coverage. Although advertisers provide a “subsidy” for journalism, Baker observed that in practice they are simultaneously the “most consistent and the most pernicious ‘censors’ of media content.” With increasing sophistication and precision, today’s digital ad markets form the backbone of a hugely profitable enterprise for surveillance and data exploitation, and they intensify incentives for the dissemination of clickbait, racist and misogynist abuse, and false information. Attempts to resolve the information crisis by more broadly sharing the spoils just entrenches the underlying rot. Commitments to an egalitarian and well-informed public discourse should advise against the impulse to expect advertising to salvage the democratic press.

Third, we need robust public media alternatives. Baker recognized that media democracy cannot be achieved through market-driven processes alone, and he was an early proponent of massive government subsidies for independent, noncommercial media. Insulated from the coercive discipline of both state and market, an invigorated public media system should be deployed to nourish an informed citizenry, facilitate broad access to and representation within collective discourses, and enable ordinary people of all backgrounds to participate as equals in society’s development.

Baker’s work can guide and revitalize thinking around media policy, markets, and democracy in a capacious manner that is not subordinated within any single reformist initiative. Such a framework can help integrate the regulation of run-amok platform monopolies, antitrust interventions, and policy responses to the journalism crisis into a more coherent vision that recognizes intractable structural problems in information systems driven by capitalist logics—from market failures to dangerous concentrations of corporate power over our core communication infrastructures. As Baker well understood, at stake in the struggle for media democracy is whether free expression is to have a substantive basis in everyday life or whether it will languish in abstraction even as our worsening crises remain all too real.