Who Owns the Media?

Sunday, February 25, 2007


The Battle to Control

America's Media

By Eric Klinenberg

Metropolitan. 339 pp. $26

It's probably safe to say that few books on media consolidation start with someone dying. Klinenberg spins a tale of a 2002 chemical train derailment in a tiny North Dakota town that was kept in the dark because the local radio stations were controlled by a distant conglomerate. When authorities called the stations and asked them to execute their public interest obligation to warn listeners of the dangerous spill, no one picked up the phone.

The North Dakota tragedy -- one death, hundreds sickened -- is the book's sensational scare story of media consolidation. Klinenberg focuses on Big Media's usual suspects -- Clear Channel, Fox, Viacom, Disney, Sinclair -- and accurately details their attempts to Own It All in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Federal Communications Commission relaxed media ownership rules. The consolidation galvanized a handful of activist groups that warned of an Orwellian future.

But the media landscape has changed radically in just the past year, and Klinenberg bears little blame for having written an incomplete account.

Here's a partial list of recent upheavals since he wrote his book: Viacom split in two. Clear Channel is selling its TV stations and one-third of its radio stations. The New York Times sold its TV stations. The Knight Ridder newspaper chain dissolved. Tribune sold TV stations and may yet be broken up. Walt Disney sold its radio stations. Emmis Communications sold its TV stations. Wave after wave of deconsolidation.

Klinenberg describes how activists successfully petitioned a federal court to block the FCC's attempt to further relax ownership rules in 2003, but the petition didn't cause the corporate breakups. Citizens exercise their greatest power when they act as a market, which they did by choosing new media over old. Old-style media empires -- radio, TV, newspapers -- no longer have the eyeballs to support the kind of audience scale that justified '90s consolidation and so alarmed media activists. Why? Because of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, satellite radio, XBox, iPods, et al.

Klinenberg earnestly cautions that the FCC is again examining media ownership rules, which is true, and that citizens "will have to be more active and better organized than ever to influence the debate." But others have argued that the FCC rules increasingly are irrelevant in the digital age, when fewer and fewer people get their news and information from the outlets that the government actually has the power to regulate -- TV, radio and, to a lesser extent, newspapers.

Or think about it this way: Imagine it's 1875 and a virtually unregulated railroad industry is crisscrossing the country. At the same time, Washington is busily crafting close and careful rules governing the canal business.

-- Frank Ahrens covers the media and entertainment industry for The Washington Post.

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