Owning Up: A New Book Stops Short of Deepening the Discourse on Media Concentration

Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media by Eric Klinenberg
January 1, 2007

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.

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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.

Klinenberg cultivates the localism theme in successive chapters, with equal fervor but less punch. His chapter on alt-weeklies is a lament about media concentration. He documents how a once lively and competitive marketplace for youth-oriented, irreverent weeklies that publish significant investigative local stories was slowly tamed by two alt-weekly chains—Village Voice Media and New Times, which merged in 2006. He tells this tale without encouraging the reader to observe that alternative weeklies, regardless of their ownership, occupy a market niche that, New York City aside, did not emerge until the 1960s. Even as alt-weekly consolidation grows, it grows within a sector that simply did not exist forty-five years ago. Is this an example of frightening concentration or greater diversity? The paradox that must be contemplated is that it is both.

Klinenberg’s writing is strongest in bringing alive the originality, enterprise, stumbles, and successes of various grass-roots endeavors. Consider his account of Ginny Welsch, the “veteran radio personality” in Nashville who sought a low-power radio license because “ Nashville radio is terrible for local bands, terrible.” And there’s April Glaser, the “pink-haired teenager with a passion for obscure music” who, at seventeen, became a member of Welsch’s executive board; and April’s father, who was so moved by her dedication that he purchased land and built a radio tower for the station. The day that “Radio Free Nashville” began broadcasting, Klinenberg was there as a witness, and he movingly describes the opening cry of “Low Power to the People!”

This radio barn-raising exemplifies the great American impulse to speak out and speak up. What’s not to admire? It’s the energy of democratic renewal that Tocqueville tipped his hat to in the 1830s. Europeans couldn’t match it then, nor can they now. We can be glad there is a Radio Free Nashville, and that local musicians get some air time on it, but its birth is a modest triumph, not, as Klinenberg hints, a world historical moment.

Is it a shame that two-, three-, and five-newspaper towns are now one-newspaper towns? Or that so many of the remaining media companies are publicly traded and not privately held? Yes, but the consequences for news content are not obvious. In his chapter on newspapers, Klinenberg takes a seemingly sensible but unpromising tack: he points to important stories the contemporary press has missed, the implication being that cities and states were better served by the media in 1960 or 1980 than they are today. But yesterday’s more diverse and more locally owned press missed vital stories, too. Localities were not better served by the grand old press of family capitalism in which four out of five publishers preached in 1936 on behalf of Alf Landon and against FDR, that marvelous old press that had more than four hundred correspondents covering Washington, D.C., in 1972 but assigned at most fifteen of them to work full-time on a story called “Watergate” in the months before the 1972 election, that old noble press that repressed unfavorable local news and omitted practically all news about minorities in their communities. The news media, past and present, miss stories, and the explanation doesn’t always involve questions of ownership and concentration. Even the BBC, for instance, mostly missed the Holocaust. A media critic must ask what else, besides ownership patterns, matters.

Klinenberg deserves praise for his broad survey of the media—from newspapers and commercial radio to low-power radio, alt-weeklies, and the Internet. Even so, he omits two vital media domains—magazines and books. Both are more diverse, not less, than they were forty or fifty years ago. The original muckrakers of the early 1900s were writers for national, middle-class magazines, liberated by those publications’ national advertising and audience base to muckrake city governments more fiercely than the compromised local newspapers generally dared.

While all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media. Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, seems determined to eviscerate newspapers. If we knew how to protect daily newspapers, I doubt there would be many worries about alt-weeklies or low-power radio.

Equally worthy of protection is the freedom of innovation and expression that digital media have thus far provided. This includes not just the Internet but cell phones and digital cameras that can easily transmit images over the Internet. Here the energies of media reformers, whether part of a media reform “movement” or not, are well spent. Klinenberg is insistent that the Internet is not the savior of press freedom, and he judges “the idea that new technology has rendered the dangers of consolidation obsolete” to be “the greatest and most dangerous media policy myth of the digital age.”

And yet, good reporter that he is, Klinenberg follows this judgment with notice of e-government Web sites as well as “hyperlocal websites and discussion forums” in middle-class neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that he praises for “sharing information and reinvigorating collective participation around every conceivable neighborhood issue and event.” Particularly interesting is his discussion of youth-oriented sites of local content, including Gothamist, begun in New York City but since reproduced in cities worldwide, and Baristanet, so named to suggest a virtual coffeehouse, in northern New Jersey. Having given us grounds for Internet hopefulness, Klinenberg then warns that these Web sites primarily serve the affluent at a time of a “deepening digital divide”—but evidence for that “deepening” is not offered. Klinenberg’s reporting is, again, stronger and more interesting than his ritualistic disgruntlement.

All of this leads back to the key analytical question: what besides ownership matters? There are five likely answers. First, public taste matters. Corporations try to anticipate it and to channel it but they know very well they cannot control it. Second, professional norms, values, and courage matter. Although Wall Street provides the money to operate major media, stock traders and investment bankers do not themselves risk their lives covering Iraq or check the spelling of the name of the murder victim or sit through the city council meeting or track down the expert who might explain cancer clusters or global warming. Journalists who aren’t easily pushed around do. Third, public legitimacy matters. Even the major media depend on it and cannot entirely manipulate it; without public legitimacy, they are vulnerable to government regulation, particularly in radio and television, and they are also vulnerable to public disaffection and protest.

Fourth, there is a climate of opinion within which the media operate, to which they are bound, and on which they have only modest influence. Today’s climate of opinion is powerfully influenced by science, gives more credence to religion than it once did, tolerates a new coarseness in public expression, accords less deference to conventional authorities and canons, and endorses a view of the United States as multicultural. Fifth, the degree of consensus in the political elite matters. When there is significant, open disagreement among politicians, the media are empowered and emboldened to report critically; when politicians close ranks, as they did in the early years of the Vietnam War or in the wake of September 11, the media have no constituency for pressing alternative viewpoints.

“I believe in my bones,” says the dissenting FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in Klinenberg’s concluding paragraph, “that few priorities our country confronts have such long-term effect on our democracy as how America communicates and converses with itself and how this process has deteriorated.” “Deterioration” is not the term to apply to radio news when we have enjoyed better service through NPR stations for the past thirty years than ever before; it does not apply to national investigative reporting that is better since the Vietnam years than it ever was before; it does not apply to an Internet that is still building its public affairs muscle in remarkable ways. It’s one thing to warn that our structure for public communication is a national resource that should not be squandered; it is another thing to moan that it all just gets worse and worse.

There were five newspapers in Baltimore a century ago when H.L. Mencken began his career in journalism. Of those papers he wrote, “Four of them were cheap, trashy, stupid and corrupt. They all played politics for what there was in it, and leaped obscenely every time an advertiser blew his nose. Every other American city of that era was full of such papers—dreadful little rags, venal, vulnerable and vile.” But at least the media were not concentrated! Ownership is important. Ownership is not everything.

Michael Schudson is a sociologist and historian of the news media and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His latest book are The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 and, with C. W. Anderson and Leonard Downie Jr., The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know.