Arts & Culture » Book Review

Who's Choosing the News?

No one denies the media landscape is changing, but Eric Klinenberg's new book doesn't shed much light on how and why.

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FIGHTING FOR AIR: THE BATTLE TO CONTROL AMERICA'S MEDIA | ERIC KLINENBERG (METROPOLITAN BOOKS)

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg has seen the Big Media future, and it is ugly. The "twenty-four-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet of stale news," he writes, "is crushing creative and independent voices, destroying the rich American tradition of local reporting, and clogging the informational arteries that make democracy work." In his new book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, he marshals plenty of examples of how the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Clear Channel Communications, the Tribune Company, and other media giants do their crushing, destroying, and clogging, with assists from Congress, presidents Clinton and Bush, and the Federal Communications Commission. But while his litany of stories leaves little doubt that there's corporate villainy afoot, it leaves many other questions unanswered.

A tenured professor at NYU, Klinenberg is best known as the author of Heat Wave, a controversial 2002 study of Chicago's deadly summer of 1995. He's heir to the sociological tradition of the great C. Wright Mills, who encouraged colleagues to connect personal troubles with public issues. He begins Fighting for Air with a cautionary tale. Five years ago, on a cold winter night in Minot, North Dakota, one man died and at least 300 people were injured after a toxic chemical spill, when the Emergency Alert System and its backup both failed and local authorities couldn't find a live person at the local radio station to broadcast a warning. The station had been taken over by Clear Channel, which famously automates much of its programming.

The evidence against corporate-owned media piles up from there: Viacom and the Tribune Company cry poor to regulators while enjoying profits that would embarrass Exxon. State politics gets less and less coverage. Journalists who survive cost-cutting purges are forced to divide their time between reporting and getting dolled up for TV to provide "synergistic" content. Telephone and cable companies lobby for the right to discriminate between Web sites, provide faster connections to those that pay a premium, and block access to others on demand.

"In 1945," Klinenberg writes, stirring dreams of a media golden age, "roughly 80 percent of American newspapers were privately owned, often by families that were willing to sacrifice potential profits to maintain their journalistic principles and preserve their readers' trust. Today, however, more than 80 percent of American newspapers are owned and operated by publicly traded corporations . . . whose executives are unwilling to compromise income for the good of cities they rarely visit."

Coming early in the book, this passage betrays a fatal carelessness about inconvenient details. Which families? How often and how much did they sacrifice? (Before you lament the passing of Colonel McCormick's locally owned Tribune, get thee to a microfilm reader and scan a few of his front pages from the 1950s.) "Families good, corporations bad" may be closer to the truth than the opposite, but it's a slogan, not a sociological conclusion; the point of doing research is to understand first and then (maybe) take sides. Are chains primarily to blame for cutting statehouse coverage? Was Minot perhaps as much a failure of local government preparedness as media consolidation, given that few mom-and-pop stations are staffed 24/7? Doesn't everybody need to be proficient in more than one medium these days and is there anything unprofessional about that? Klinenberg never tells us.

Media reformers and Big Media agree that competition is good but don't agree on how to make it happen. The reformers (and Klinenberg) complain about the lack of competition within a single medium, such as radio; corporate giants reply that broadcast radio has to compete in an expanding media universe that includes iTunes, Yahoo News, and satellite radio. The chains would seem to have a point here. Their standard formats look crude and dated now that you can build your own digital playlist or ask pandora.com to feed you a steady stream of songs you'll like. Social questions that penetrate deeper than ownership--for instance, in a perfectly tailored world, how will people ever hear anything new?--remain unasked.

On the news side, reformers rightly observe that the various media don't really compete. Radio, TV, Web sites, and blogs largely feed off the work of print journalists. That reporting takes time and money, and media companies are moaning about costs. But a sociologist might well ask if the shortage of good reporting can be blamed entirely on the supply side. Is it possible that, except in times of crisis, media consumers would rather be entertained and titillated than informed? If most of us aren't news junkies, it's just good business for the media to give the public what it wants, no matter who's controlling the purse strings.

Even while portraying corporate media as an evil juggernaut, Klinenberg presents evidence that the business model--buying up local properties and standardizing content to realize economies of scale--hasn't always passed the market test. Sinclair has dramatically scaled back its fake-local NewsCentral broadcasts, Clear Channel has added local music programming and started carrying some non-right-wing commentary, and the Tribune Company is desperately trying to sell itself and may divest itself of its broadcast stations. So--what happened to all that crushing, destroying, and clogging? Are customers actually causing media behemoths to behave?

If competition is the undefined means, local reporting, local talent, and local color are generally accepted as the unquestioned goals. In an October 23 FCC filing, even Clear Channel genuflected repeatedly at the shrine of localism. But is it an unequivocal good? Consider the story Klinenberg tells elsewhere in the book, in a different context, about how in the 1950s in Mississippi the United Church of Christ forced the FCC to consider pulling the licenses of blatantly racist radio stations. In that place and time overt white racism was a pillar of local culture. An advocate might get caught up in the details and not notice any oddity here. But shouldn't this story make a sociologist wonder why localism is seen as obviously bad in the 1950s, yet obviously good nowadays?

One might even ask whether localism is what we want, or just what we say we want. If radio giants went away, Rush Limbaugh might still be all over the airwaves via syndication, if only because he's more entertaining than home-grown bigots. Listeners outside Minnesota are unlikely to ditch Garrison Keillor's small-town sketches in favor of a program local to them, because Keillor's the best in that subgenre. In a borderless, winner-take-all world, what rises to the top is more visible and overwhelming than it used to be. How much of this is due to Big Media, and how much to our real (as opposed to stated) preferences? That's another topic for the great sociology book on media reform that's waiting to be written.

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