A significant but little-noted drama is speeding toward a resolution in Pittsburgh and Washington. It highlights the single most troubling motif in American mass communications - the relentless erosion of public space on radio and television.
Ronnie Dugger, former publisher of The Texas Observer, refers to the commons in which the governed and their governors interact as the "demosphere." In ancient Greece, the demosphere was the public market, the agora. In colonial America, information and ideas about public business were exchanged in the coffee houses. Librarian of Congress James Billington notes that in France in 1789, the cafes and open spaces of Paris's Palais-Royal constituted the "forum of the people" where "reform moved through revolt to revolution."
So-called advanced media notwithstanding, it's over the air - on radio and television - where, surveys make clear, the American "demosphere" resides. In this electronic space, for better or for worse, most American children get their first deep immersion in "media-ted" reality, and most of their parents, more than 80 percent, get most of their news and information about the world. But in America, the conversation has largely become a one-way process, and the space is shrinking.
American public broadcasting was established in 1967 as the electronic alternative for discussion and documentary reportage on issues of public importance, along with cultural, educational, and minority fare. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) were to create the space that the commercial broadcasters thought too unprofitable to provide. They chose to manage the "wasteland." We counted on public broadcasting to provide the demosphere.
But politicians denied the system a stable funding source, forced it to increasingly depend on corporate largess, and assaulted its presumption to intelligence and independence from the status quo.
In Pittsburgh, the assault on the electronic demosphere has now resulted in a move to transform WQEX, one of two public television stations in the city, into a commercial station. Jerrold Starr, who is leading a coalition campaign to reclaim WQEX, argues that if the effort succeeds, some 80 metropolitan areas that, like Pittsburgh, have multiple coverage by noncommercial public stations could be affected. "If we lose on WQEX," Professor Starr warns, "the others are immediately put at risk. What the FCC does on WQEX is precedential."
Ironically, the campaign to commercialize WQEX's Channel 16 is being engineered by Pittsburgh's primary public television station, WQED, which holds the license to WQEX. WQED has accumulated a debt of between $12 million and $16 million, largely through mismanagement, critics charge. WQED has unwisely chosen to retire that debt with the help of the estimated $30 million to $60 million that commercial operators are expected to offer for its sister station's valuable channel.
Because the law prevents the sale of a channel designated noncommercial, WQED is petitioning the FCC to "de-reserve" Channel 16, reclassifying it for commercial resale, or to let it swap Channel 16 for Channel 40, already designated commercial. Channel 40 is owned and operated by Cornerstone Television Inc., a religious broadcaster with right-wing political and Christian Coalition connections. In a complicated maneuver, Cornerstone would in turn sell the newly assumed channel to commercial interests and split the take with WQED.
The deal is being processed by the FCC with haste that short-circuits the normal process of public scrutiny. Pennsylvania's two Republican senators, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, attached an extraordinary, unnoticed provision to the FCC's funding that lets the agency approve the deal "without conducting a rulemaking or other proceeding." Pittsburghers who oppose it were given only 11 days to file comments and were denied the usual public hearing. The commissioners' accelerated decision deadline is July 25, only three weeks after the deadline for the filing of written comment.
WQEX was established to provide complementary "educational" programming that did not duplicate WQED's offerings, but for a time emphasized community, instructional, and minority fare. WQED's schedule features national PBS programs that appeal to "an upper-middle-class audience" and to the corporate underwriters on whom the system has become so dependent. The community mission of its neglected orphan-station WQEX has been ill-served under WQED's management. But this neglect, critics argue, should not be used to justify WQED's case.
Six commercial stations currently supply programming from the "wasteland" to Pittsburgh. Is yet a seventh worth the risk to the embattled demosphere?
*Jerry M. Landay teaches "Issues in Television" at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.