How an urban legend about the evils of Clear Channel is hurting free speech.
Over the past decade, the Internet has given new life to one of the oldest forms of media: the urban legend. Sometimes an urban legend is complete fiction. More often a story is based on events that may be partially true but which become greatly exaggerated. The legend’s spread can do lasting damage — especially when it falsely informs an already contentious policy debate.
Case in point: an event in the Midwestern town of Minot, North Dakota, has provided the impetus of the past few years to restore the so-called Fairness Doctrine and other media controls that would reverse the gains of conservative talk radio. The story involves a train derailment and chemical spill and a supposed delayed response by the town’s radio stations. It has been used as an effective propaganda tool by critics of media deregulation.
The tale goes: Between 1 and 2 a.m. on the morning of January 18, 2002, a train derailed just outside Minot. The train spilled toxic ammonia fertilizer over Minot, from which one person died and several were injured.
Police tried calling the town’s radio stations to get them to send the word out, but they faced a daunting dilemma. All six commercial radio stations in Minot were operating on autopilot with prerecorded programming. Phone calls to the station went unanswered, and radio warnings were delayed.
The culprit pointed to was the owner of all six stations, Clear Channel Communications: the huge, national, homogenizing, Big Radio corporation everyone loves to hate.
The story is employed as an example of the evils of media consolidation in debates about localism today. It has been featured prominently on the PBS program NOW with Bill Moyers and various Leftie blogs calling for “media reform.”
By fueling the perception that national radio companies weren’t adequately serving local communities, the Minot incident probably played a role in influencing the Bush administration Federal Communications Commission to push through a pending regulation on “localism,” which many are calling a stealth Fairness Doctrine.
The localism rule, now in its “proposal” stage, has been criticized by both commercial and religious broadcasters as hearkening back to the days before Ronald Reagan rescinded the Fairness Doctrine in the mid '80s. During the previous decades when the doctrine was in effect, radio and television stations would be bombarded with response time requests from pressure groups if they aired a conservative or other controversial point of view.
The new rule would require that broadcast licensees “convene and consult with permanent advisory boards” that include “representatives of all segments of the community.” The rule then mandates that station license renewals be “based on their localism programming performance,” which would be determined by members of the advisory board.
The boards could have the same “chilling effect” on controversial speech that the Fairness Doctrine once had.
WHERE DID THIS rule come from and why did Bush’s FCC Chairman Kevin Martin sign on?
According to the Broadcast Law Blog, “The proposed new requirements seem to stem from the notorious ‘Minot incident.’” In his speech introducing the proposed rules, Martin declared, “It has become apparent, however, that some broadcasters may not be doing all they can or should to serve their local communities.”
In an apparent reference to Minot, Martin said, “These actions are designed…to ensure that vitally important local information and viewpoints are provided to the community.”
But hold on. Before Martin and other commissioners rush to reregulate, and put in policies that would likely stifle alternative viewpoints, they need to take another look at the real facts of the Minot incident that fueled the controversy.
This moralistic folk tale is far from the whole story. Serious analyses of the incident have shown that local first responders were as much, if not more, to blame as the radio stations for failing to get the word out. And among the lessons that really can be drawn from Minot are that even existing top-down “public interest” requirements for local stations are often counterproductive.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?