Monday, February 19, 2007

Eric Klinenberg, "Fighting for Air"

Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, reviews Eric Klinenberg's Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media (Metropolitan Books, 2007):
As Eric Klinenberg notes in the introduction to Fighting for Air, his new book tells two important stories. The first story, occupying most of the book, documents the dramatic rise in US media consolidation, especially over the last decade.

The problem Klinenberg describes isn’t simply that lax federal ownership rules allow media giants like Clear Channel Communications and Viacom to own as many as eight radio stations locally (and an unlimited number of stations nationally) and therefore dominate particular radio markets. It’s also that these companies’ substantial freedom to accumulate holdings across media formats and “up and down the media chain”– that’s Ted Turner there – places overall information dominance well within the reach of media conglomerates even in many large markets. In Chicago, for example, the Tribune Company’s multimedia vehicles include television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines, the Internet and direct mail services, and reach “6.4 million people or more than 90% of the market” (36). That claim belongs not to Klinenberg, but to Tribune Company president and CEO Dennis FitzSimons.

For the author and many of the media insiders, activists and other stakeholders who appear in Fighting for Air, the costs of pronounced media consolidation are myriad and they are serious. The book begins with Klinenberg’s reportorial account of an unfolding disaster in Minot, North Dakota. A freight train carrying anhydrous ammonia derails at 1:39 am on January 18, 2002, releasing its toxic cargo. In the ensuing crisis, frightened residents tune into the local radio station for safety instructions and other information. But Clear Channel owns and operates the station from 1,600 miles away, in San Antonio, and no actual person is available to override the station’s canned programming, much less take in and disseminate information. By the next day one person has died and more than 300 people have suffered injuries that might have been avoided had the emergency system operated as intended.

The role of local radio and television in crisis communication is only the first of many consolidation casualties Klinenberg documents. Media conglomerates want to make money; producing local programming is expensive. So production control gravitates upward and homogenized content with perhaps a thin patina of local flavor is the result. Information about local affairs becomes harder to come by and increasingly superficial or out-and-out fake. The news, music and entertainment borne on “local” airwaves accords less often with local interests and tastes; truly local voices, artistic and otherwise, are squeezed out. Increasingly, local media fail to create and bind community identity as they otherwise might. Increasingly, the public becomes disaffected.

Then there’s political censorship – the diversity of viewpoints lost; the stories covered poorly or not at all, in accordance with the parent company’s financial and/or ideological interests. Think Dixie Chicks, Stolen Honor, and the Chicago White Sox (who, it is suggested, got little local coverage even after winning the World Series in 2005 because the market-dominant Tribune Company owns the rival Chicago Cubs). And let’s not forget jobs. Klinenberg cites one estimate that “industry pressure from consolidation resulted in a net loss of ten thousand radio-related jobs between 2000 and 2002” alone (65). Across industries, the employment toll may number in the hundreds of thousands.

Klinenberg makes a good case for stakes in the consolidation game that go even beyond these, but you get the idea.

The second story Klinenberg tells in Fighting for Air concerns the rise of a media reform movement determined to resist and even reverse the pronounced consolidation trend to which he devotes most of the book. Whereas the broad outline of the first story is at least familiar to many of us, the second is probably less so. Just last month, some 3500 media activists showed up in Memphis for the National Conference for Media Reform, with many more participating online. Who knew? And that's exactly Klinenberg's point – many of us don’t know about the growing grassroots pushback against Big Media because it’s not in Big Media’s interest to tell us about it.

Klinenberg tells both stories well and from a range of perspectives. For the most part, I believe him. As in his previous blockbuster, Heat Wave, he’s especially good at highlighting his stories’ “human” elements, while also pulling back for a look at the larger political and economic forces that are also indispensable players in the dynamic he describes. If there are familiar villains in this drama – spineless policymakers, unscrupulous corporations, the Federal Communications Commission – he also does well to highlight the role of heroes the cynical among us may find unlikely and to point to even unlikelier political bedfellows. FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, both Democrats, fare very well in this account. At various points, we find the likes of Trent Lott, the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women lined up firmly on one side of the issue, with groups like National Public Radio, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Bush Administration on the other.

I did have a couple issues with Fighting for Air, especially in the context of a book review for a blog created to “encourage more readers to read more books.” Um, what about books? The number of books (and magazines) being published is growing fast, and the diversity of viewpoints they represent probably is as well. I can’t seriously fault Klinenberg for not adding 50 pages to a book that already covers a wide range of media to consider whether books and magazines represent a countervailing trend to the homogenizing, anti-democratic impulse consolidation embodies. But surely it was worth a mention? (He does include a sensible discussion of what the internet brings and doesn’t bring to the table in that regard.) He is a writer of books and articles, after all, and his books in particular certainly have enriched the debate on important public issues.

I also would have liked to see him pay more than token attention to the question of who media consolidation hurts. Consolidation may make losers of us all, but not equally. According to a recent study by Free Press, racial and ethnic minorities are one-third of the US population but only 3 percent of TV station owners. Women comprise 51 percent of the population and barely 5 percent of owners. Media ownership is obviously class-inflected. Since, in my view, working-class and poor people, women and racial and ethnic minorities are groups whose interests, needs, and perspectives tend to be underrepresented throughout public life and in definitions of and decision-making around the “public welfare” in any case, the stakes involved in any anti-democratic movement is likely to be especially great for them. How consolidation might differentially affect these groups deserved some elaboration.

Finally, I’m left feeling a bit uncertain about the scope of Klinenberg’s claims. On one hand, I think he’s right to say that media consolidation exacerbates a host of ills. But one can be forgiven for thinking, by the end of the book, that consolidation created those ills and that they would be largely undone if the consolidation trend could be reversed. I’m not so sure. Political censorship and big stories missed, ignored, or squelched are hardly recent phenomena. Media consolidation matters, but what else is going on? I’d have liked to see him engage that question. It’s a big one.

But these are mainly sins of omission, rather than commission. Fighting for Air tells two big stories. At this point, the one about consolidation is hard to miss. If Klinenberg is right, the one about the burgeoning media reform movement may be the most important story hardly told in America today.
Many thanks to Andrew for the thorough and insightful review.

Andrew Grant-Thomas received his B.A. in Literature from Yale University, his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

Eric Klinenberg recently put Fighting for Air to the page 69 test.

--Marshal Zeringue