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. …