What the "media reformers" get half right.

Media criticism.
Jan. 16 2007 6:43 PM

What the "Media Reformers" Get Right

Well, 50 percent right.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The words "media reform" deserve to be quarantined inside quotation marks—at least on first reference—for the same reason "campaign-finance reform," "tort reform," and "Social Security reform" do.

Reform connotes improvement—"altering for the better … some faulty state of things," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it—even when the "reforms" won't necessarily improve anything. Everybody who utters the R word is engaging in verbal sleight of hand. For instance, when Sen. John McCain promotes "campaign-finance reform," he's really pushing political censorship. When the Wall Street Journal editorial page demands "tort reform," they're merely advocating new legislative limits on the use of the courts. When the Cato Institute publishes its millionth monograph about "Social Security reform," everybody appreciates that what they're talking about is the repeal of Social Security. Let reformistas use the R word without sanction, and you've all but ceded the argument to them. (See this 2003 "Press Box" tirade against the R word.)

The R word as been very good to the media reformistas. They've built themselves a full-fledged movement around the word, convening a third national convention over the weekend to excoriate corporate control of the media.

What is media reform? In their book Our Media, Not Theirs, movement leaders Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols advocate antitrust proceedings against large media companies and call for regulatory limits on ownership across all media. They want every TV station to produce a mandatory hour of commercial-free news each day, with the news budget determined as a percentage of the station's revenues. Stations would be barred from selling ads to political candidates. Alternatively, stations that sell ads to candidates would be forced to give free, equal time to other candidates.

While I disagree with most of their diagnosis and prescription, the reformistas' determined efforts to create a new tier of low-power FM radio stations deserve some commendation: The government should allocate broadcast spectrum more aggressively than it has.

Eric Klinenberg devotes a chapter to their struggle for low-power FM in his new book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media. The reformistas convinced the Federal Communications Commission to approve regulations in early 2000 that would create new low-power FM stations. Both National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters protested. NPR's president idiotically insisted the new stations would interfere with subfrequencies that broadcast to special radio reading services for the blind. In a demagogic turn, the NAB produced for Capitol Hill consumption a bogus audio demonstration of what the interference would sound like, Klinenberg writes. The demo made the radio interference sound like one station broadcasting over the other, a claim that the FCC easily refuted in a fact sheet.

The existing broadcasters didn't really fear the irate blind or low-power stations interfering with their stations. What they feared was new competition for listeners, and they were eager to legislate as many of the new stations out of existence as possible. The NAB and NPR lobbied Congress for a law more restrictive than the FCC regulations and, by the end of 2000, won.

The proponents of low-power radio have made a huge deal out of the congressional rewrite of the FCC regs, but according to analysis by scholars Thomas W. Hazlett and Bruno E. Viani, it wasn't much of a rewrite: The FCC would have allowed about 2,300 new stations, while the law passed by Congress limits the number to about 1,300. If a low-power FM scandal exists, it's that the FCC was overly restrictive in writing its rules: Hazlett and Viani calculate that FM could accommodate upward of 98,000 new low-power stations without interference. (Their projection excluded the top four U.S. markets, although they note that there is room for low-power stations there, too.) In other words, Congress and the FCC agreed more than they disagreed about how many new stations to allow.

According to Hazlett and Viani, by mid-2004, only 290 low-power FM stations existed, and of these, "about two-thirds were outside the 269 radio markets which overwhelmingly account for industry sales." About 700 licenses have been approved so far, reports the Prometheus Radio Project.

The number of stations might be higher had Congress not essentially frozen the low-power stations out of the top 50 urban markets, as Klinenberg writes. Hazlett and Viani blame other restrictions, but these restrictions were completely in synch with the media reformers' agenda: The stations were required to be nonprofit, noncommercial, and ownership of multiple stations was prohibited.

A totalitarian state would have gotten a similarly low number of new entries if its ministry of communications decided to "reform" its newspaper-licensing practices along the same lines: No new papers in the biggest cities; no high-circulation papers; no profit-taking; and no owning more than one.

I know this will cause the reformistas' heads to explode, but I've got to write it: What's preventing low-power FM from flourishing as a genuine alternative to big media is not too much capitalism, but too little. I'll return to this "not too much, but too little" telecommunications theme in a future column.

Addendum, Jan. 18: For more of my capitalist prescription for the airwaves, see this "Press Box" sequel.


My head: Slightly caffeinated. Yours? Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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