The Citizen Machine

Governing by Television in 1950s America

The little-known civic mission of early television broadcasting, recounted by a star in cinema studies

“An original and bold assessment of television in the postwar years . . . a terrific contribution to all people trying to make sense of our current media and political situation.” —Robert W. McChesney, co-author of The Death and Life of American Journalism

The Citizen Machine is the untold political history of television’s formative era. Historian Anna McCarthy goes behind the scenes of early television programming, revealing that producers, sponsors, and scriptwriters had far more in mind than simply entertaining (and selling products). Long before the age of PBS, leaders from business, philanthropy, and social reform movements as well as public intellectuals were all obsessively concerned with TV’s potential to mold the right kind of citizen.

After World War II, inspired by the perceived threats of Soviet communism, class war, and racial violence, members of what was then known as “the Establishment” were drawn together by a shared conviction that television broadcasting could be a useful tool for governing. The men of Du Pont, the AFL-CIO, the Advertising Council, the Ford Foundation, the Fund for the Republic, and other organizations interested in shaping (according to American philosopher Mortimer Adler) “the ideas that should be in every citizen’s mind,” turned to TV as a tool for reaching those people they thought of as the masses.

Based on years of pathbreaking archival work, The Citizen Machine sheds new light on the place of television in the postwar American political landscape. At a time when TV broadcasting is in a state of crisis, and when a new political movement for media reform has ascended the political stage, here is a vital new history of the ideas and assumptions that have profoundly shaped not only television, but our political culture itself.

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Praise

“McCarthy’s eye-opening, scholarly work breathes new life into the debate over TV’s ubiquitous influence.”
—Publishers Weekly