American democracy is lost unless citizen Davids do battle against the corporate media Goliaths. We have heard this rallying cry before, and we hear it again in Eric Klinenberg’s Fighting for Air. But Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, has humanized and dramatized the argument by writing a book based on extensive original reporting. It is an investigative work, not a rant; it is both intellectually serious and politically passionate, and so it challenges readers like me who have never been much impressed with the claim that media concentration is destroying the Republic.
Fighting for Air, nonetheless, wobbles between analysis and advocacy. Its arguments aren’t tested against rival possibilities. Its praise for the activists and academics who have pushed for low-power radio, tangled with the Federal Communications Commission in public hearings, and promoted libertarian policies for Internet governance may be merited, but there is no way to evaluate such praise with the evidence offered. And its historical sense is limited. Klinenberg doesn’t mention past media reformers like Newton Minow, Action for Children’s Television, or the educational broadcasters, foundations, and politicians whose efforts in the 1960s created PBS and NPR. Klinenberg writes knowledgeably of past legal challenges to corporate control of broadcasting. Even so, he reports without skepticism the rhetoric of today’s media reformers who see their movement as unprecedented. Their enthusiastic rallying of the faithful reads like a public television or radio appeal for funds—we’re almost there, a few more pledges before nine o’clock and we’ll reach our goal!
Klinenberg is also the author of Heat Wave, a stunning study of the failure of the city of Chicago—including its local newspapers and TV—to respond effectively to a crushing hot spell in the summer of 1995. In two weeks, more than seven hundred Chicagoans died from the heat. Many were elderly citizens living alone; they were also disproportionately black, disenfranchised by cutbacks in indispensable city services, and disproportionately living in neighborhoods where going to the corner store was not safe (if there was a store left on the corner). Heat Wave is a powerful indictment of fiscally responsible but humanly irresponsible urban governance.
Like Heat Wave, Fighting for Air begins by calling attention to a social breakdown in a time of emergency. Klinenberg takes us to Minot, North Dakota, where, on January 18, 2002, at 1:37 a.m., a railroad car spilled 240,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, a highly toxic compound that with limited exposure can burn eyes, skin, and lungs, and with prolonged exposure can paralyze the respiratory system. People should avoid harm by staying indoors or, if exposed and experiencing trouble breathing, by covering their mouths with wet washcloths. Simple measures—but how to get the word out?
Radio is the medium of choice for such a task. Regulated by the FCC, it is supposed to be available for emergency broadcasting. In Minot, however, by 2002 all six local commercial stations were owned by Clear Channel Communications, a conglomerate based in San Antonio that owns nearly twelve hundred stations nationwide. The six Minot stations ran prepackaged content and were operated out of two local offices, but efforts to rouse anyone at Clear Channel to interrupt the canned programming failed. Police-override systems, although recently tested, failed as well. The result was one death, three hundred people requiring medical treatment, roughly a thousand people with lingering after-effects from exposure, and many others evacuated from their homes for about six weeks.
Defining the public interest is not easy, but in the Minot saga Klinenberg has effectively identified an unmistakable violation of it: the public interest suffers when a single corporate entity with no visible regard for local communities captures its radio outlets, while the FCC acts as if it has hung a banner over its doorway that reads, “Do tread on me, in fact, please walk all over me.” The consolidation and deregulation that allowed locally owned and operated media to become San Antonio clones failed the public good in Minot. The victims? Not diverse or probing media voices—the truth is that local media have rarely offered high-minded or courageous journalism, least of all on the radio. The victim that Klinenberg calls our attention to is localism. Day to day, the localism of radio may not matter much. In an emergency, nothing matters more.
The Minot story is painful to read. How could we have allowed ourselves to get into such a fix? Every legislator in America, and every FCC commissioner, should work to see that local radio will responsibly provide emergency broadcasting.