Americans have talked a lot about media audiences over the past century. This chapter discusses how that talk often casts audiences as political actors. More speciﬁcally it looks at discourses that are critical of audiences and/or propose an ideal for audiences. There are three images that usefully distill the ways audiences have been characterized: the bad crowd, the good public, and the weak and isolated individual. These characterizations have inﬂuenced public policy and the actions of audiences themselves. These images judge audiences using a standard that I have come to call the
Citizen Audience. The good public constructs an image of audiences as people who exhibit attributes of the informed citizen. But this reference to the citizen also seems to haunt the two negative images of audiences, which exhibit attributes diametrically opposite to the ideal citizen. Media criticism in all three instances seems to imagine audiences as citizens: crowds or isolated individuals who fail as citizens, or publics who succeed. Here, I give only a simpliﬁed sketch;1 the full picture is much more compli-
cated. But I hope that this will give some idea of what the picture looks like. To illustrate my thesis I oﬀer three brief examples: movie audiences as bad crowds in the 1910s and 1920s; radio listeners as good publics in the 1930s and 1940s; and television viewers as isolated and weak individuals in the 1950s. All three mirror the Citizen Audience, as an audience with civic responsi-
bility. This kind of citizenship arose with the rise of the middle class in the nineteenth century, came to predominance in the Progressive era, and prevailed as an ideal during the decades I am discussing. It was a citizenship of “intelligence rather than passionate intensity” as Michael Schudson put it in The Good Citizen. It emphasized independent individualism rather than sectarian loyalty. It was a citizen who would use media for information, education and discussion. This citizen needed to be cultivated, i.e. educated and of good character, to fulﬁll his responsibilities.2 Lastly, this was a middle-class, white male citizen. These examples reveal an underlying class politics that identiﬁes subordinate groups’ media habits as poor citizenship. The three examples take this model of the informed citizen as the standard for judging audiences and media for how well they serve the republic and democracy.