Eric Klinenberg. Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007. 352 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8050-7819-0.
Reviewed by Catherine McKercher (School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University)
Published on Jhistory (December, 2007)
In 1969, Canadian Senator Keith Davey was so concerned about the growing concentration of newspaper ownership in Canada that he convinced the Senate to establish a special committee to investigate the problem, with Davey as chair. His report, tabled a year later, concluded that the country should not tolerate a situation in which a critical public resource like information was "dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen." It also urged the government to prevent further concentration.
Davey was not the first person in North America to be concerned about the growing power of what critics now call Big Media, though as a member of the Canadian Senate he was among the more prominent. Over subsequent decades, the idea that Big Media are bad for democracy has became a staple of media criticism not only in North America but in the rest of the world as well. Canada held a full-scale Royal Commission on the matter in the early 1980s, and another Senate investigation two decades later. In the United States, media scholar Ben Bagdikian's groundbreaking The Media Monopoly (1983) became a must-read for anyone studying the ownership question. Since its release, it has been revised and updated a half-dozen times, most recently in 2004. Robert McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy (1999) helped spark a significant and growing media reform movement.
The scholarly and popular literature on ownership concentration continues to expand. The latest addition is this volume, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, by Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist who writes, mirabile dictu, like a journalist.
The argument Klinenberg makes runs something like this: Big Media hurt local media, robbing citizens of the wealth and diversity of news, entertainment, and information those local media used to carry, damaging the local community and, ultimately, imperiling democracy. It is not an original argument, and Klinenberg does not advance it at the theoretical level. Nor does he spend much time probing its contradictions. (Is big always bad? Is local always good? Is the problem, perhaps, neither big media nor small media but capitalist media? If so, what does that mean for democracy?)
Instead, he offers ample and fresh evidence on the many, many ways Big Media, supported at times by government regulators, have hurt local media in the United States, concentrating on the decade since the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The damage ranges from forcing media to meet profit targets that have nothing to do with the local community and everything to do with the greed of corporate owners, to cuts in staff, to the replacement of local content with packaged content from the head office, to policies that fend off potential competitors.
The book opens, quite literally, with a bang: the story of what happened when a train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, on January 18, 2002, spilling 240,000 gallons of a toxic chemical used to make fertilizer. Local residents discovered that none of the town's six radio stations were covering the derailment. It turns out all six were owned by Clearnet Channel Communications, based in Texas, and continued to play canned content as the disaster unfolded. To make matters worse, the emergency broadcasting service, renamed the Emergency Alert System in 1997, failed because local officials could not properly operate the equipment. Local residents were left in the dark to face an unknown and dangerous menace. One person died, and more than a thousand needed medical care in the next month.
It is a dramatic way to start a book on the perils of Big Media, and in the hands of an accomplished writer like Klinenberg--author of the 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago --it packs a punch. The rest of the book describes, medium by medium, how Big Media have changed the communications landscape, almost always for the worse.
The scope of the book is impressive. It does not simply deal with the standard media of radio, television, and newspapers, but with the alternative weeklies and the Internet, too. Each chapter is full of the voices and personalities Klinenberg encountered during the five years of fieldwork he spent on the project. For example, Klinenberg takes readers to Sinclair Broadcasting's NewsCentral studios, which provide "local" television news from a centralized office in Maryland. He goes to Florida to interview people at Media General's Tampa News Center, an exercise in content convergence among television, newspaper, and online outlets. He describes how relentless editorial downsizing in the newspaper industry has hurt reporting at the city and state level. He suggests that those who think the Internet will save local news should take a look at a Pew Center report showing that Big Media dominate the Web. His chapter on a little-reported story of consolidation of ownership in the alternative weekly market taps into the feelings of rage and helplessness among some weekly publishers who fear being swallowed up by a corporation.
Woven throughout these chapters is a second and equally fascinating story, one of resistance. Klinenberg details how community and civic groups, mainly on the left but some on the right as well, have been fighting Big Media, creating what he characterizes as an "improbable social movement for media reform" (p. 333). Their story is worth telling, and Klinenberg embraces the task with enthusiasm. He introduces readers to individuals, collectives, and institutions that are trying to recapture local news for local audiences. Such groups are fighting further ownership consolidation, leveraging their critique of Big Media onto the national agenda, and trying to convince federal legislators and regulators to do something about the problem. These groups range from Free Press, co-founded in 2002 by McChesney of the University of Illinois, journalist John Nichols, and campaign finance advocate Josh Silver, to the Prometheus Project, which fights for low-power community radio. He pays much less attention to the contributions trade unions have made to media reform movements, past and present. In Waves of Opposition: Labor and the Struggle for Democratic Radio (2006), for example, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf has described how organized labor was a key player in the broadcast reform movement of the 1940s, advocating a "listeners' rights" approach along with a commitment to localism, diversity, and community involvement. Meanwhile, The Newspaper Guild, a journalists' union that is now part of the Communications Workers of America, has been working actively on the issue for decades. It is currently a partner with Free Press and a large number of labor and community groups in the Stop Big Media coalition. Klinenberg mentions these unions only in passing, and that is a shame.
Klinenberg sees Big Media's growth and the growth of a media reform movement as "two overarching stories that would be common knowledge were it not for the crisis in communications that they address" (p. 14). This is a bit of a stretch. Lots of people have written critically about Big Media, for both scholarly and popular audiences, though he is correct in observing that the contemporary reform movement has attracted less attention than it might. But perhaps he may be forgiven for finding his subject matter fascinating, infuriating, and inspiring, and for assuming, therefore, that he is uncovering something genuinely new. Fighting for Air is a thoroughly researched book, loaded with evidence to support the argument that Big Media are Bad Media, and it is a good read. It is a valuable addition to the literature on media ownership.
. Uncertain Mirror: Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, vol. 1 (Ottawa: the Queen's Printer, 1970): 67.
. See Final Report on the Canadian News Media, vol. 1, Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications (Ottawa: The Committee, June 2006); and Royal Commission on Newspapers: Report (Ottawa: Supply and Services, 1981).
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