Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Mediaby Eric Klinenberg
A groundbreaking investigative work by a critically acclaimed sociologist on the corporate takeover of local news and what it means for all Americans
For the residents of Minot, North Dakota, Clear Channel Communications is synonymous with disaster. Early in the morning of January 18, 2002, a train derailment sent a cloud of poisonous gas drifting/p>/b>
A groundbreaking investigative work by a critically acclaimed sociologist on the corporate takeover of local news and what it means for all Americans
For the residents of Minot, North Dakota, Clear Channel Communications is synonymous with disaster. Early in the morning of January 18, 2002, a train derailment sent a cloud of poisonous gas drifting toward the small town. Minot's fire and rescue departments attempted to reach Clear Channel, which owned and operated all six local commercial radio stations, to warn residents of the approaching threat. But in the age of canned programming and virtual DJs, there was no one in the conglomerate's studio to take the call. The people of Minot were taken unawares. The result: one death and more than a thousand injuries.
Opening with the story of the Minot tragedy, Eric Klinenberg's Fighting for Air takes us into the world of preprogrammed radio shows, empty television news stations, and copycat newspapers to show how corporate ownership and control of local media has remade American political and cultural life. Klinenberg argues that the demise of truly local media stems from the federal government's malign neglect, as the agencies charged with ensuring diversity and open competition have ceded control to the very conglomerates that consistently undermine these values and goals.
Such "big media" may not be here to stay, however. Fighting for Air delivers a call to action, revealing a rising generation of new media activists and citizen journalists—a coalition of liberals and conservatives—who are demanding and even creating the local coverage they need and deserve.
“Eric Klinenberg has written an extraordinary and powerful account of the devastating elimination of localism in U.S. media and journalism, and how Americans from all walks of life are rising up to challenge the great media crisis that grips our nation today. Brilliantly written and tightly argued, Fighting for Air is the perfect book for anyone wanting to understand what is going on in this country, and why it is so important to our future.” Robert W. McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media
“Eric Klinenberg has given us a chilling report on how the American news media, increasingly concentrated, have made a mockery of the commitment to operate 'in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.' Admirably researched and lucidly written, Fighting for Air should serve as a wake-up call on the deafness of radio and television to communal needs.” Daniel Schorr, Senior News Analyst for National Public Radio
“Big media conglomerates--in radio, TV and newspapers--have taken over local outlets all over America, silencing independent local voices. Eric Klinenberg has done a masterful job of researching what has happened to America's local news media. Fighting for Air is a must-read for anyone who cares about the role of the media in a democracy.” George Lakoff, author of Don't Think of an Elephant!
“Fighting for Air is a richly detailed, compelling, and timely investigation into the problem of the U.S. media and what people are doing to take it back. Klinenberg pulls back the curtain on complex media policy issues, with stories of real people, how they have been harmed by Big Media, and follows up with inspiring tales of underdogs who are fighting back and winning. This book is a call to action to fight for a strong, vigorous, independent media.” Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!
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Read an Excerpt
The Empty Studio
At approximately 1:39 a.m. on January 18, 2002, a 112-car Canadian Pacific Railway train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed just outside Minot, North Dakota, the fourth largest city in the state. According to the operating crew, the train had been traveling at forty miles an hour, and the accident happened when they attempted to slow down after hitting a rough spot on the tracks. Thirty-one cars jumped off the rails, and several burst open, spilling about 240,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic compound commonly used as a fertilizer, into a woodsy neighborhood called Tierrecita Vallejo, "Lovely Land of the Valley."
Minot, a quiet town with a population of nearly thirty-seven thousand nestled into a low-lying valley below the Canadian border, developed with the expansion of the rail lines and is now known for its air force base and annual state fair. In winter, arctic air grips the region, freezing winds howl through the streets, and residents hunker down. On the morning of the accident the winds were unusually gentle, and instead of dispersing, the anhydrous ammonia quickly formed a vapor plume that covered the crash site, spread to the adjacent residential area, and floated ominously toward town. Once they realized what was happening, the train crew unhitched their two locomotives and hurried into Minot. The conductor used his personal cell phone to call Ward County 911.1
Operator: 9-1-1, what's the emergency?
Caller: Uh, uh, this Minot Dispatch?
Operator: Yes, it is.
Caller: We've got an emerg, just had a derailment. We've got an explosion. Oh, it's around Tierrecita, Tierrecita Val, Vallejo, uh, CP Rail, we just had a derailment and we've got an explosive. Over.
Operator: Okay. Uh, do you know what kind of chemicals are on board, sir?
Caller: Uh, we've got hazardous material and I can smell stuff now.
Although the Ward County 911 dispatchers do not see much action in the dead of winter, they had an emergency management plan in place. After taking the conductor's call, the operator paged the Minot Rural Fire Department, and within two minutes the chief and assistant chief responded. They sent six units from the rural fire hall to the accident site, requested mutual aid from the Minot City Fire Department and the Burlington Fire Department, and notified the Air Force Base Hazardous Materials Team. Ward County also sent officers from its Sheriff's Department to the scene.
Local officials had to issue a public warning with information about the spill as well as instructions on how civilians could stay safe. Emergency personnel were familiar with anhydrous because local farmers use it regularly, and their advice was simple: Stay indoors, away from the spill. Cover your mouth with a wet washcloth if you have trouble breathing. Turn off your home furnace. Do not try to drive through the cloud. Anhydrous takes oxygen out of the air and is capable of shutting down car engines. In large enough doses, anhydrous shuts down the human respiratory system, too. Even limited exposure burns the eyes, the skin, and the lungs. The emergency crews feared that some civilians who smelled or saw the toxic cloud would leave their homes in hope of outrunning it, only to put themselves in harm's way.
Four minutes after the train crew first reported the crash, dispatchers received a call from two panicked parents whose child had run out into the toxic air.
Male: We're out at, um Tierrecita Vallejo, 625 37th Street Southwest . . . We don't know what's going on. Something sparks and flew. It reeks in our background. We're gonna try, get out of the house.
Operator: Okay, um. What
Female: What is happening here?
Male: (talking to female: What, What is it?) It's bad. We're gonna try to go to the neighbors. What is it? . . . It smells really bad. I don't know if, uh, a train blew up or . . .
Operator: Yeah, there is, there is a train derailment there.
Male: Okay . . . Where is Kelsey at?
Female: She ran.
Male: God damn.
Operator: Everybody in the room?
Male: No, we don't. My daugh, she sent my daughter out.
Female: Oh, shit.
Male: Yell at her.
Female: Kelsey. Come back, Kelsey, come back. Kelsey, can you come back.
Male: God damn it, Becky. What in the hell are you doing in the middle of the night.
Operator: Do, do you have everybody there now?
Male: No, we don't. My daughter isn't there. I don't have anything on. They're all dressed and she sent her out but it smells really bad outside.
Operator: Okay, yeah, just.
Male: Is she here?
Female: No, honey, she's gone.
Female: My daughter ran out the front door.
Operator: She ran out? How old is your daughter?
Female: She's twelve . . . Is she gonna die out there?
Male: I don't know.
Female: You guys have to hurry please . . .
Two minutes later the office fielded another urgent call.
Operator: 9-1-1, what is your emergency?
Female: Hi. There's some emergency at our house at Tierrecita Vallejo. I don't know what it is but there was a huge, huge crash. There's smoke everywhere outside.
Operator: Right. We're aware of it. We have fire units en route, okay? You need to stay
Female: What is going on?
Operator: You need to stay calm until we can figure out what, what's going on, what to do. Okay. Stay calm. If there's gonna be any evacuations, we will announce it. Okay. But you need to stay in your house.
Female: We can't hear if you announce anything.
Within minutes of the accident, calls to 911 were coming in by the dozen. Those who lived near the accident or were driving close by heard the explosions and saw fires burning. Some who were farther away smelled chemicals in the air and worried that there had been a bomb at the local military base. The toxic cloud grew to some five miles long, two and one-half miles wide, and 350 feet high, penetrating into the homes of approximately fifteen thousand people, waking up some and causing widespread fear and confusion among those who stumbled around their homes trying to assess what was happening.2 Minot residents complained that their eyes, lungs, and nasal passages were burning, and told dispatchers that they didn't know how to protect themselves. "What should we do?" one resident asked his wife as she spoke with the operator. She repeated the question. "What should we do?"
Instead of calling 911 to find out what had happened and what they should do, most people in Minot turned on their televisions and radios, which had proven to be reliable sources of emergency public health and safety information since the Cold War, when President Harry Truman charged broadcasters with responsibility for the service. Not only were broadcast companies then uniquely positioned to conduct crisis communications on a massive scale; they also had a special duty to do so: the government required that they meet public-interest obligations in exchange for a license to use the nation's airwaves and for regulatory enforcement that prevented other operators from sending signals over their designated frequencies. In 1951, Truman established the CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) system, a federal program which when activated (by emergency tones sent through a predetermined chain of stations) required all of the nation's television channels and FM radio outlets to immediately broadcast warnings before shutting down their signals, preventing foreign enemies from taking over the spectrum during a military attack. As part of the program, selected AM stations would move to one of two designated frequencies, 640 kHz or 1240 kHz (each of which was tagged with a triangle-in-circle "CD Mark" on radio dials built between 1953 and 1963), from which they could securely issue safety announcements. "At the first indication of enemy bombers approaching the United States," explained a civil defense publication from the 1950s, "the CONELRAD stations, 640 and 1240, are your surest and fastest means of getting emergency information and instructions. Mark those numbers on your radio set, now!"
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, disaster planners recommended improving the technology so that local officials could activate the system during a range of public safety threats, and in 1963 they introduced the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) for warnings during natural disasters, civil emergencies, or military attacks. U.S. law required radio and television broadcasters to conduct weekly tests of their EBS systems, and most Americans who watched television or listened to the radio between 1963 and 1997 remember hearing the bracing, two-tone signal, along with a flat yet reassuring voice announcing, "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test."
In 1997 the federal government updated EBS with a new technology, the Emergency Alert System (EAS). According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), EAS improves crisis communications because its "digital system architecture allows broadcast stations, cable systems, participating satellite companies, and other services to send and receive emergency information quickly and automatically even if those facilities are unattended."3 The president, state and local governments, and the National Weather Service can also use EAS to override local broadcasts, an innovation designed to protect the public by expanding the number of authorities who can trigger an alert when disaster strikes.
After the derailment, dispatchers in Minot knew to direct callers to the airwaves--specifically, to KCJB AM910, the designated emergency broadcaster--for directions on how to stay safe. Radio service is especially useful during a crisis, operators explained, because battery-powered devices work even when the power is out.
Operator: 9-1-1, emergency.
Caller: Um, I called awhile ago about a power outage and ammonia smell . . .
Operator: Well, you just need to stay in your house with the doors and windows closed until we direct you differently . . .
Caller: Okay. Well, how will we find out?
Operator: Uh, we will get that out, out on cable TV or KCJB radio.
Caller: Cause our, uh, electricity's out . . . So we can't get TV.
Operator: Okay. What about a radio?
Caller: Well, we have a little, uh, a little transistor one.
Operator: Okay. That would be the thing to use then.
Caller: But what, what channel?
Caller: 910 . . . Okay. Well, we'll try that. Thanks.
But the caller quickly discovered that KCJB, and every other radio station in town, were not reporting any news or information about the anhydrous spill. Instead, all six of Minot's name-brand stations--Z94, 97 Kicks, Mix 99.9, The Fox Classic Rock, 91 Country, and Cars Oldies Radio--continued playing a standard menu of canned music, served up by smooth-talking DJs trading in light banter and off-color jokes while the giant toxic cloud floated into town.
Although the broadcasts originated in Minot, every one of the town's commercial stations was owned and operated by the San Antonio- based conglomerate Clear Channel Communications, which acquired the outlets in 2000 and replaced locally produced news, music, and talk programs with prepackaged content engineered in remote studios and transmitted to North Dakota through digital voice-tracking systems.4 Clear Channel consolidated operations for its Minot stations into two central offices, neither of which had a live staff member interrupt the regularly scheduled automated shows to issue an alert immediately after the spill.
Postal worker Kenny Moe was driving home from a late shift on the morning of the accident.5 "I saw a haze in front of me and I thought there was a fire," he reported. But since there was no special warning on the radio, he presumed that there was nothing especially dangerous ahead. Moe continued on the highway, traveling directly into the blinding cloud. "It hit my eyes like two ice picks. It was like somebody dumped acid in my eyes. I thought I could drive out of it." But he couldn't see past his own car. "I rolled down my window and wham, that stuff hit me. My face muscles were just twitching and stuff was running out of my nose. When you're sucking that stuff in, it's pure chemical." Moe managed to turn onto another road, and he sped away from the fumes. "I got home and fell to the ground." He called 911, but the line was busy, so he dialed an emergency assistance number and urged the operator to send more staff to the accident. Then, fighting off nausea and burning sensations in his mouth, lungs, throat, and hands, he and his wife, Jen, got back in the car to rescue her mother from the valley. "My wife, by the time we got there, could hardly breathe . . . You go into a cloud of smoke for 20 minutes and your whole life is different."
John Grabinger, a thirty-eight-year-old who ran a hardware store, lived a few blocks from the crash site with his wife, MaLea, and neither knew how to respond to the infusion of poison in the air. The couple ran to the window after hearing the explosions and saw an overturned tanker car lying a stone's throw from their home. They decided to flee in their pickup truck, but John, at the steering wheel, was blinded by the vapor. He crashed into a neighbor's garage, and he and his wife crawled out into the cloud. MaLea suffered lung inhalation injuries, temporary respiratory failure and serious lip and feet burns from direct contact with the anhydrous, but she made it into the home of her neighbor Linda Juntunen. Her husband did not. Juntunen called 911. "There's a man down in his driveway," she reported. "His wife came into our home and she's very, very sick." John's body lay still on the ground. He had inhaled a lethal dose of the fumes.
Minot residents who stayed inside their homes were growing anxious because they were blocked from getting information about what was happening around them and were unable to learn how to stay safe. At roughly 3:00 a.m., a frustrated caller told 911 that local broadcasters had failed to issue an alert.
Operator: 9-1-1, what is your emergency?
Caller: Well, I'm wondering about this anhydrous, uh?
Operator: Sir, you're to stay in your home. Treat it like smoke. Turn your furnace off. Put towels underneath the doors. Go in your bathroom. Turn the shower on and cover your face with wet towels . . . And stay there until further instructions by law enforcement.
Caller: Okay, cause the PA system doesn't work, it's
Operator: I understand that. It's, also, we've been putting it on over the cable TV and the radio.
Caller: Which radio station?
Operator: All the radio stations, sir.
Caller: I've been, had it on. I haven't heard it once.
An hour later, Dick Levitt, a staff member at Minot's noncommercial radio station, Christian broadcaster KHRT, called 911 to ask why the emergency broadcaster was not covering the disaster.
Operator: Minot Police Department, Lt. Lockrem. Can I help you?
Caller: Ah, yes. Ah, this is Dick Levitt out at KHRT radio. And, um, I, ah, know we've got a problem in the city, but I have not been able to get any information whatsoever to be able to put out over the airway. And, I'm calling to find out what do I do? Where do I get it?
According to Minot officials, the city's dispatchers were so busy fielding calls that no one checked to see if the local radio stations were alerting listeners to the spill. Operators continued instructing residents like Levitt to tune in to one of its designated emergency broadcasters, the radio station KCJB-AM and the television station KMOT. "We're telling people to tune in to the radio, and they're just getting music," said Lieutenant Fred Debowey, who grew up in Minot. "It was awful."
KMOT-TV, an NBC affiliate with a production facility in Minot, was off the air at the time of the chemical spill, with no early morning crew. Yet dispatchers were able to reach the news director at home, and he hurried to the station. Officers also tracked down the news director for KXMC-TV, a CBS affiliate and the only other television channel with a transmitting station in Minot, and asked him to warn viewers about the accident. Both stations began issuing alerts soon thereafter, yet many Minot residents had lost power and could not turn on their sets.
Finding a real person at the radio stations proved to be more difficult. The Minot dispatchers tried using the EAS system, which should have allowed officials to automatically override the radio broadcast and issue their warnings directly, without the collaboration of radio staff. But Chief Dan Draovitch and Lieutenant Debowey of the Minot Police later said that the system failed, due to breakdowns at both the emergency office and at KCJB. "The EAS programming would dump every time we got a power surge," Debowey told me. "So it didn't operate." Minot officials also tried using the outdated EBS technology, which they kept operational because, Debowey explained, "[they] could still use it locally to get through to the stations when [they] needed some help." Minot officials say that the EBS had passed a test the previous week. This time, however, it too failed.6
With neither emergency communications system functioning, the dispatchers attempted the tried-and-true old-fashioned approach: picking up a telephone and calling KCJB directly. Local authorities knew that KCJB was running with automated technology, yet they hoped that someone would be working the late shift. No one at Clear Channel's stations picked up the telephone when they called the office. "We rang it and we rang it and we rang it and he never answered," Debowey said.
What was happening at KCJB, or at Clear Channel's central Minot offices? Steve Davis, the company's senior vice president of engineering, insists that a Clear Channel employee was working in Minot that morning, and that its own radio staff was "attempting to learn what was happening."7 Don May, who has worked at KCJB for forty years, told me that he was home in the hills when the train derailed. A police lieutenant tracked May down by phone after failing to contact anyone at the station, and the radio veteran quickly made his way toward the studio. "I live above the valley, but to get to the station I had to go through it. It took me about twenty-five minutes to get through the spill; it would normally take three or four minutes, but I couldn't see. I had to drive through the anhydrous myself. When I got there all of our telephone lines and all of the lines at the police department were jammed. The fellow who was there that night had no idea what was transpiring. He couldn't call out because every time he picked up the phone there was someone on the line." May said that he got on the air about two hours after the accident and made an announcement about it, but that there was no way for him to update his information.
Neither of these accounts adequately answer the only question that matters for the people of Minot: if there was someone in Clear Channel's radio office at the time of the spill, and the enormous volume of incoming calls from residents concerned about the emergency clearly indicated that a crisis was unfolding, why didn't that person go on the air and issue an alert?
Some time passed before the scale of the damage could be assessed. The Minot Rural Fire Department estimated that the toxic cloud had covered the homes of about 40 percent of the city population, or roughly fifteen thousand people. In Tierrecita Vallejo, toxic gas saturated the area after the accident, and after three hours Minot officials decided that it was no longer safe for the community's residents to stay in place. Firefighters drove buses into the neighborhood and evacuated residents to a triage area. The evacuees were not allowed to return to their homes until March, more than six weeks after the accident.
John Grabinger was the only fatality from the toxic spill. The Moes and Kelsey, the twelve-year-old girl who fled her home after the derailment, sustained injuries from exposure, as did seventeen emergency responders and two members of the train crew. In all, approximately 330 people were treated for immediate health problems while more than 1,000 people needed medical care for recurring illnesses in the next month. The long-term consequences of their exposure remain unknown, but Minot residents continue to suffer a variety of afflictions. It's impossible to know how many would have escaped harm if the local media had sounded a warning, telling residents what was happening and how they could stay safe.
The people of Minot remain haunted by the fact that many of the core institutions on which they relied for basic services failed during the crisis. Their emergency communications system crashed when local officials could not properly operate their equipment. And their radio system broke down--not only because a new technology malfunctioned, and not because the broadcasters were biased--but because the company that had established a monopoly over Minot's commercial stations had pulled valuable human resources out of the community, leaving no one available or alert enough to issue a warning when the public needed them most.
I first heard about the communications breakdown in Minot a few months after it happened. At the time I was living in Chicago, where I had just finished writing a book about a treacherous heat wave in 1995 that killed 739 people in a single week. Although Chicago is a major U.S. city with a local media known for aggressive news coverage, key features of the disaster--why certain neighborhoods were especially vulnerable, why the city refused to call in additional ambulances and paramedics, and how the mayor and city council avoided holding hearings to learn more about what happened--were never explained. Stories on the catastrophe disappeared soon after the weather changed, and eight years later, when a three-week heat wave killed approximately thirty thousand people across Europe, public officials in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain insisted that they were unprepared because nothing like it had happened before and no one had previously reported on the dangers of extreme heat.
Chicago and Minot are hardly the only American cities to experience recent disasters; nor are they the only places where tears in the social fabric--for which the local media serve a crucial, binding role--made the damage caused by chemicals or the climate more severe. Dramatic communications failures in both places were not anomalies but social dramas that highlighted problems with the increasingly consolidated systems of news and cultural production that shape our media and, in turn, our public and political life, everyday.
What has happened to our nation's rich and diverse supply of local media outlets? Like most Americans, I found it difficult to keep track of the countless media mergers reported by the business press during the 1990s, let alone to assess the meaning of those multicolored consolidation charts displaying which large conglomerate had dumped or acquired which other conglomerate, split into separate divisions, or changed its name. But by any measure the speed and scale of concentrated media ownership during the past ten years is remarkable--as is the extent to which the White House, Congress, and the Federal Communications Commission have gutted legislation that historically had protected the public's interest in open, competitive, and locally engaged media, and replaced it with new laws designed to promote private gain.
The map of the media landscape may be confusing from above, but at ground level the dramatic consequences of concentration are all too recognizable in the local office buildings where communications workers in all media are anxious about losing their hard-won jobs when the next wave of downsizing hits or when a distant company takes over their own. I saw some of these fears firsthand when I conducted ethnographic research in Chicago newsrooms during the late 1990s and early 2000s, revisiting the institutions that failed during the heat wave to examine whether the acute problems brought to light because of the catastrophe--the lack of local reporters covering street-level conditions, and the commercial pressures that helped to bury a deeper investigation into what went wrong--also affected their coverage of the city in ordinary times.
I was not the only one startled by the level of upheaval in the local newsrooms; nearly every journalist I met worried about how the changes stemming from consolidation and convergence in their industry would affect both their craft and their career. After listening to their concerns I decided to expand my fieldwork, traveling across the nation's cultural landscape to survey what communications scholars call the media ecosystem--the dynamic and interconnected set of local and national newspaper, television, radio, and Internet producers and products--on which we depend for news, information, and entertainment, and in which the average American spends half of her waking moments--about eight hours per day.8
In the radio industry, I learned about hundreds of DJs, news reporters, and talk show hosts who lost their programs after conglomerates such as Clear Channel bought their stations and installed digital voice-tracking systems to replace local talent. In the television industry, I discovered stations that scheduled local news programs throughout the day but refused to increase the staff levels, choosing instead to recycle the same stories and use scripted packages, including promotional video news releases from businesses and government agencies, to fake local reports. In the newspaper industry, I observed big-city newsrooms where rows of empty desks and unused chairs marked the number of journalists and local beats that management had eliminated. In the alternative weekly market, I read the same cultural coverage, syndicated columns, and phone sex advertisements in papers on both coasts and many cities in between. I even downloaded the same stories from Web sites produced by local media outlets that differed only in their customized graphics, designed to match each particular publication's style.
Yet I did not encounter signs of cultural and journalistic desertion in every part of the landscape. In some of the same places where the effects of consolidation and cost cutting were most devastating, dramatic regeneration, in the form of citizens determined to restore health and vitality to their local media ecosystem, was under way, with blogs, community Internet sites, wireless access services, grassroots journalism publications, even old-fashioned, low-power radio stations becoming abundant. Projects such as these cannot fully compensate for the loss of professional reporters, producers, and editors who have the financial resources and special training that help support ambitious original journalism, particularly investigative reporting, enterprising coverage of powerful private or public institutions, and hard-hitting daily news coverage. But by 2005, citizens cum local media producers had nonetheless made an imprint on the communities they served, occasionally altering the way commercial media operated, too.
I also observed the emergence of a new, or at least newly invigorated, group of activists--millions of citizens and hundreds of civic groups, representing all political persuasions and regional locations, who are so concerned about how consolidation changed their media that they are demanding better and more responsible service from both the private companies that dominate the news and culture markets and the government officials who have squandered their public-interest obligations.
There have been dramatic transformations in the U.S. media ecosystem during the past decade, but the process of shaping a new media landscape for the digital age is by no means complete. In the next few years, the future health of the nation's media ecosystem will be determined by interactions among and between all of these players: Big Media conglomerates, upstart chains, locally owned and operated outlets, government regulators, elected officials, citizen journalists, public-interest organizations, and grassroots activists fighting for reform. Until recently, the most important contests between these groups took place behind closed doors, in the corporate backrooms and federal agencies where ordinary people have little access or influence. But today that is changing, and for one simple reason: Americans know how much is at stake.
Fighting for Air tells two overarching stories that would be common knowledge were it not for the crisis in communications that they address: first, how Big Media companies parlayed bold political entrepreneurialism and the federal government's blind faith in the power of markets and technology to win historic concessions from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, which they used to dominate local markets from coast to coast. The pattern is now familiar: just as Starbucks knocked out independent coffee shops and Wal-Mart killed the corner store, media conglomerates have devastated locally produced newspapers, television stations, and radio programs throughout the country. But with media the stakes are higher, because both cultural diversity and democracy in America require a rich and varied supply of news and information in the public sphere, where communities, large and small, debate policy options, determine where to invest public resources, and decide how to protect the vulnerable or defend themselves.
We already know the hazards of replacing home-cooked meals made from farm-raised meats, fruits, and vegetables with a steady diet of Big Macs, supersize fries, and extracrispy wings from the fast-food chains that saturate America's highways and byways. The second big story in Fighting for Air is an account of how citizens and civic groups discovered that the twenty-four-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet of stale news is crushing creative and independent voices, destroying the rich American tradition of local reporting, and clogging the informational arteries that make democracy work. Concerned citizens may disagree over whether the media are biased (and, if they are, whether they tilt left or right); whether coverage of the war in Iraq is sanitized to promote its popularity or dramatized to undermine the campaign; or whether Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer more penetrating analysis than Tucker Carlson and Bill O'Reilly. But they share one widespread conviction: that the distinctively local voices, personalities, and sources of news and entertainment that used to animate radio, television, newspapers, and alternative weeklies have been crushed by an onslaught of cookie-cutter content. Media conglomerates, they believe, are estranging Americans everywhere from the sights, sounds, and cultural styles that once made their hometowns feel special, like home.
Media activists have a model. Some forty years ago a network of community organizers built a vast environmental movement--and permanently changed the political landscape--when they recognized that the pollution in their backyards came from a governmental and corporate culture that let the almighty dollar overshadow the public health. "We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge," wrote Rachel Carson. "When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results . . . it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truths . . . The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts."9
Today groups such as Free Press, the Youth Media Council, and the Prometheus Radio Project are following in the environmentalists' footsteps. They use local cases and draw on the rhetoric of public health to reveal the costs citizens pay when their government capitulates to corporate interests, abandoning its commitment to the nation's well-being. They demand accountability from the chains and conglomerates that have seized control of the airwaves and from the political officials who have entrusted the public interest to technology and the market. They call for original, locally focused content that shows respect for the places they live and serves the needs of citizens and communities. They believe that their cause is the most pivotal issue currently facing the American people, because the quality of media affects whether and how the electorate can make informed decisions about every other political matter--from welfare to warfare, housing to health care, criminal justice to campaign finance, and plans for homeland security, no matter whether they are made to address risks for towns such as Minot or large metropolises such as Washington, D.C., and New York City.
They are fighting for air.
Copyright © 2007 by Eric Klinenberg. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Eric Klinenberg, associate professor of sociology at New York University, is the author of the highly acclaimed Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. The recipient of numerous academic awards and fellowships, Klinenberg has also written for Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Slate.
Eric Klinenberg is an associate professor of sociology at New York University. Author of the acclaimed Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago and the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Klinenberg has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Slate.
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