Overheating: The Sequel

Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media by Eric Klinenberg (Metropolitan Books, 339 pages, $26.00)

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Rare is the book that changes your mind about a political issue. Before reading Eric Klinenberg's Fighting for Air, I shared the conventional wisdom that the growing corporate dominance of radio and TV stations, newspapers, and other media organs was bad for society, limiting the available range of news, opinion, and entertainment shows. Now, after finishing the book, I'm not so sure.

Unfortunately, my uncertainty appears to be the opposite of what Fighting for Air intends to instill. The book is a trumpet's summons for protest against the monopolization of media outlets. But while it touts the seemingly virtuous goal of regulated competition, Fighting for Air blares its call so brassily that you wind up wondering if some of these questions aren't more complex.

A sociologist at New York University, Klinenberg achieved renown in 2002 with his first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, which not only drew attention within his field but was vaulted into greater prominence that same year by one of Malcolm Gladwell's deft social-science-made-easy pieces in The New Yorker. Soon, every time a city's stifling weather lasted more than a few days, Klinenberg would pop up in the local paper explaining how heat waves affect communities.

Fighting for Air appears at first to continue Klinenberg's study of disasters. It opens with a story of a train derailment in North Dakota that emitted a nimbus of deadly vapors. Several residents, unaware of the toxic gases wafting through the prairie skies, were taken ill; one died. A large factor in these casualties, Klinenberg argues, was that six of the local radio stations, recently bought by the nefarious conglomerate Clear Channel (which now owns hundreds of stations across the country), were running on autopilot because the company was trying to boost profits. In other words, no one was around to warn the public.

The book goes on to mention several other disasters as proof of the negligence or callousness of the media giants, but a book-length case against media oligopolies can't rest on a handful of freak accidents -- and, as if realizing this, Klinenberg expands his case against "Big Media" to encompass much more.

His counts are many. Radio play-lists have grown homogenous. Local TV channels air fake, propagandistic news segments created by the Bush administration. Black-owned stations face commercial hardships or ruin. First-rate investigative reporting seems rare. Cable-TV monopolies force consumers to pay for channels they don't want. Clear Channel blacklisted John Lennon's "Imagine" after September 11. The Sinclair Broadcast Group planned (but ultimately declined) to run a scurrilous anti–John Kerry documentary during the 2004 campaign. The Internet circulates malign, baseless rumors. And so on.

Fighting for Air lays these and other failings of today's media, both real and imagined, at the feet of "consolidation" -- the buying up of local news outlets by chains and conglomerates. Consider: the number of individual owners of radio stations has fallen by 14 percent since 1996. Firms like Gannett gobble up local newspapers. Octopuses such as Viacom hoard cable-TV stations, publishing houses, and film distributors. Even the world of quirky, youth-oriented alternative urban weeklies is now succumbing to domination by the voracious Village Voice Media.

Certainly there's a prima facie case to be made that this consolidation has contributed to some of the developments that Klinenberg laments. But surely not all of them. The spread of conspiracy theories, shoddy arguments, and nonsense on the Internet, for instance, stems more from the glut of amateur sites uncontrolled by professional news organizations than from the flaws of the established players. Some conditions, like the trashiness of local TV news, are perennial complaints, while others, like the supposed demise of muckraking, are unsubstantiated. Still others -- including some of the beefs Klinenberg has with Clear Channel and Sinclair -- are partisan in nature, reflections of his unhappiness with the ideological choices these companies' executives are making, not inherent problems with bigness itself.

Most of us, in short, would agree that a wider diversity of owners should provide a greater diversity of content, at least theoretically. But the book's kitchen-sink indictment against Big Media undermines its credibility by leaving it unclear which of the enumerated problems might be solved by new regulation. No single line of argument develops, leaving Fighting for Air not just unpersuasive on many counts but also hard for the lay reader to follow.

Ultimately, I think, this book has conflicting aspirations -- to scholarly disinterestedness, to journalistic exposure, and to political advocacy. On the first count, it relies too heavily on anecdotes and is too erratic in its use of evidence to lay claim to the sort of academic rigor that would clinch the case for reform. I'm no footnote fetishist, but it's confusing to see so many quotations, statistics, and unequivocal claims about controversial matters go without any attribution. Klinenberg writes at one point:

Much of the FCC's research [in support of deregulation] was founded on questionable assumptions, including the fact that its models were based more on highly disputable market predictions than on actual market data about media use, resulting in hard data built on soft foundations.

In a book that presents itself as scholarship, shouldn't such a claim require a footnote?

Yet Fighting for Air can't really be called journalism either, despite some trappings thereof. It presents characters, for example, with snippets of description emulative of magazine profiles. ("'Jen is a media maven,' Dobkin, a hipster with an MBA from New York University, told me while sipping mint tea in a SoHo café near his apartment.") These asides don't bring the book's characters to life as a skilled pen portraitist would, nor do they substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that a journalist's book would offer.

Neither reportage nor analysis, Fighting for Air thus belongs at bottom to another genre: the political manifesto. Passionately argued on behalf of a cause that the author supports with evident gusto, it's a salvo in the increasingly contentious fight over media ownership. This fight has grown especially fevered in recent years, especially since 1996. That year -- the fulcrum of this book and of what's now called the "media reform" movement -- President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act. The law relaxed regulatory caps that had limited the number of media outlets any company could own, both nationwide and within a single market, and it has allowed companies like Clear Channel and Sinclair to metastasize. The result, as Klinenberg suggests (not without basis), has been an era of heightened corporate irresponsibility. Yet he identifies a silver lining, too. Much as Roe v. Wade galvanized the anti-abortion right, the 1996 telecom law spurred a wave of left-wing activism urging new regulation of media ownership -- a wave about which Klinenberg writes admiringly and to which his book itself belongs.

This movement is making arguments that deserve a hearing. On certain issues it has gained support from conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association and Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council. Such bipartisan alliances promise to provide a counterweight to the corporate behemoths that exert great influence in George W. Bush's Washington.

There's a danger, however, for the media-reform movement in aligning with such groups -- a danger also faced by similar lobbies focused on procedural issues like those seeking expanded ballot access for minor parties, easier voter registration, and campaign-finance reform. By speaking in the language of procedural fairness or democracy -- when they really want to strengthen the hand of the left -- these groups court disappointment, if not feelings of betrayal. After all, the fairest rules don't always yield the outcomes that we desire. Media regulation (or a higher voting rate, or new parties, or caps on political donations) may create a more "democratic" system, but in that new, robust democracy, the Limbaughs may dominate the news, progressive mavericks may suffer ostracism, quality journalism may languish, and the American people may return purveyors of resentment and militarism to the White House.

No doubt, the laws and regulations governing the media need constant supervision and frequent revision. Klinenberg usefully identifies and totes up a host of areas in which new measures might check corporate control. With his comrades in the media-reform movement, he's right to spotlight unnoticed ways that the rules of the game can rig the outcome in favor of the wealthy, the well-connected, or the reactionary. What's needed next, how-ever, is less awareness raising, true believing, and drumbeating, and more careful thought -- data-rich, systematic thought about which policy changes are likely to level the playing field, which won't do much of anything, and which will wind up taking what is in the end not such a bad set of arrangements and making them a whole lot worse.

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