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
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