REVIEWED BY HARRIS BRESLOW
Ali, Christopher (2017), Media Localism: The Politics of Place. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). Xiv+254 pp. ISBN 9780252040726 (hardcover). ISBN 9780252082238 (paper). $25.00 (paper). Footnotes with citations, bibliography of primary sources, index).
The concern to understand the relationship between place and community and how they relate to structures of political economy and technology has a long history. From Mayhew’s wandering tribes of London (1851) to the debate over community and society between Tönnies (2005) and Simmel (2010); from Elliot’s (1948) definition of culture based on place and privilege and the potential disruption of these represented by popular culture, to the diametrically opposed discussion of the relationship between working class communities, culture and locale and the disruptive threat of capitalism to this relationship found in Hoggart (1957) and Williams (1989); from Reisman’s lonely crowd (1963), to the nature of communal experience that grounds Carey’s (1989) ritual model of communication, to Turkle’s bifurcated (1984) and lonely (2013) digitally mediated self, Rheingold’s (2000) virtual community and Putnam’s (2000) community in decline one could, pace Arrighi (2010), describe the concern for this relationship as that of a long twentieth century. Indeed, Wellman (2012; 2001, 2002, 2005) has gone so far as to argue a version of this long century in terms of the history of the development of a succession of technologies (the telegraph, the telephone, the car, etc.), each of which Wellman claims has further freed the subject from the stultifying bonds of both community and locality. This development reaches its zenith, according to Wellman, with the introduction of the contemporary smartphone, which functions as a mobile node in a cellular broadband network. The combination of mobility and advanced broadband access, argues Wellman, enables the fullest and most complete articulation of networked individualism, a form of social organization where communities exist without reference to locale, are both plastic and transitory, ego-centered and transactional in both nature and orientation and carry no entry or exit costs
Christopher Ali’s recent book, Media Localism: The Policies of Place (2017) is a worthy entry into this long-running debate. Media Localism concentrates on the recent history of broadcast regulatory policies in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom as each attempts to address the relationship between local media—Ali focuses on television and in particular television news—and local communities. In so doing Ali makes use of the concept of critical regionalism, which he borrows from the architectural critic Kenneth Frampton and extends to interrogate the nature of what it means to be local. The local, Ali argues, is an assemblage of space, place, language, culture and identity as these cohere within and are mitigated by structures of technology, political economy and governance and articulated through subjective beliefs and practices. Here Ali describes the social and the structural as intertwined, influencing and affecting one another in a complex, interactive and reflexive manner. This is made further complex by Ali’s understanding of the local as something that can neither be centered upon nor exclude geography; nor divorced from, or read against, the global.
So, just what is the local, or rather how is it operationalized in a regulatory environment concerned with broadcasting? Ali’s answer is, fittingly, one that acknowledges the complexities discussed, above. ‘The local’ is a multidimensional phenomenon, each dimension being rife with contradictions and contestations. Conceived of as a place, as a defined geographic entity, the local is a terrain that is contested by flows of goods, materials, cultural information and financial instruments that move through places and the processes of mobility that are inflected by age, gender and class (Castells, 2010b), all of which continuously disrupt the local while also enabling it to exist. Conceived of as a community, the notion of the local exhibits a tension between inclusive and exclusive identities that render all communities contested terrains. The local as a series of market initiatives that privilege local producers and markets, argues Ali, often ends up provoking class tensions given that local products are, often of necessity, produced in low volumes, tend to be artisanal in nature and are thus too expensive to be purchased by many of the inhabitants of any local community.
In Chapter One Ali argues that the very relationship between community and locality must itself be problematized, as each term is multivalent in nature while also intertwined with, thus directly affecting our understanding of, the other. A community may exist geographically as a community of place, for example, within a small town (the inhabitants of Antigonish, Nova Scotia), as a community of interest within that small town (those inhabitants of Antigonish who are interested in its municipal politics), as an ethno-linguistic community within a region (Gaelic speakers in the UK), as an ethno-linguistic community that is extra-regional but subnational (French Canadians in Canada), or as a community of belief that exists nationally (evangelical Christians in the United States). Ultimately, regardless of how one understands either term, Ali argues that the media act as a local information ecosystem through which a public sphere, the crucial lifeblood of any community, exists. The news is the linchpin of both the public sphere and a community’s existence, regardless of the scale and/or nature of the community in question. The relationship amongst locale, community and local broadcast content—however any of these may be defined—informs the remainder of the book.
Given the role that broadcast media and local television news play in the perpetuation of communities, it should come as no surprise that the regulatory authorities in all three countries have struggled with policies that seek to legally define the local as part of a regulatory regime that both mandates and provides support for the production of local content. Ali discusses the particular approach that each has undertaken in Chapter Two: The American approach tends to conflate the local with the market, going so far as to use Nielsen’s Designated Market Area (DMA) system to determine locales while also prioritizing market solutions to the problem of local content production. The Canadian approach emphasizes what Maurice Charland has termed ‘technological nationalism’; in this context the use of broadcast content to foster regional community identity while linking this content to Canadian content regulations and fee-for-carriage rules that have in the past economically supported local broadcasting and content production within Canada’s regions. The approach taken in the UK has overlaid the social concept of nations upon the geospatial concept of regions within a unique broadcasting landscape that features a dominant public broadcaster and a commercial network (ITV) that was the only network mandated to produce local content.
What is more instructive for the reader is the chapter’s conclusions. Irrespective of approach, all three attempts both to define the local and to provide support for the production of local broadcast content have failed due to the current structural challenges to local media ecosystems. These include the increasing expense of local content production, the ongoing decrease in audience numbers and the associated decreasing revenues from advertising (in the case of commercial broadcasters), changes in media consumption habits due to competition from digital media channels (the internet and IP-based content streaming) and a decline in willingness on the part of government in all three countries to mandate public funding to support content production lead all three regulatory agencies to adopt market friendly solutions.
This, in fact, becomes an oft-repeated theme in the book. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement of the difficulties in defining what is meant by terms such as ‘the local’ and ‘community,’ while also operationalizing them in a regulatory fashion that enables the provision of support for local media outlets and the production of local media programming content, in particular and most importantly the news. Moreover, this must occur in a political economic climate where market solutions are deemed the most preferential even when they produce results that are diametrically opposite to the original regulatory intent. In Chapter Four Ali describes the behaviour of regulatory agencies regarding the measures taken to preserve local media ecosystems and their production of local news. Local media ecosystems are, for Ali, a crucial factor in the production of inclusive and participatory local communities, the generation of a sense of civic participation and community solidarity along with the preservation of local identity. Once again, whether it be Ofcom’s emphasis on a placed-based definition of the local and its accompanying emphasis upon local media ecologies and consequent strategy of buying, living and going local in the UK, the FCC’s emphasis on the information needs of communities as featured in the Waldman Report in the United States, or the omnibus Lincoln report that was two years in the making and covered every conceivable aspect of Canadian broadcasting, the paradoxical results are all too disappointingly familiar: Members of the public are found to consider local programming to be vital to the continued existence of their community and, once again, regulatory agencies have difficulties in both defining and operationalizing terms such as ‘the local’ and ‘community’.
Additionally, despite the importance of local media ecosystems and the necessity of local content and the structural challenges facing the local media ecosystem landscape, the market is dogmatically seen as the most efficient mechanism for providing for the needs of communities. In the case of Ofcom in the UK this was articulated through an emphasis upon consumers over citizens; in the United States emphasis was placed on charitable contributions from members of the community in the face of declining government support and a lack of political will to generate such support; in Canada the Lincoln report acknowledged the importance of local media ecosystems and local media content (particularly local news) and castigated both the CBC and the federal regulatory agency, the CRTC, for failing to understand the importance of local media ecosystems and the information needs of local communities. The report was read, made public, debate amongst stakeholders occurred, and subsequently shelved. Ultimately, the fate of local media ecosystems and local media content in all three countries was left to the market.
Whenever a social good, such as the importance of community or the existence of local information as the lifeblood of that community, is pitted against a market good within a market-driven environment, one can be fairly confident that the market good will win out every time. This is the lesson to be drawn from Chapter Four, and it is unsurprising that by the time of the events of the financial sector meltdown of 2009—which accelerated the decline of advertising spend on commercial broadcast content and put pressures on charitable donations to community and public broadcasters—only exacerbated an already dire situation for local media in general and the production of local news in particular. Chapter Five discusses the nature of the solutions undertaken in each country in order to stem the decline of local broadcast content, with tragically predictable accounts. Here, what is fascinating to learn is the role that the ongoing consternation over what it means to be local plays in the inability of regulators to both mandate and provide for local broadcast content. The FCC, for example, initiated a debate over the nature of the local only to discover that there was opposition to place-based definitions of the local from across the gamut of broadcasters, including community broadcasters, who disputed local origination rules, arguing that content produced outside of a given locale might very well be of great interest and value to those inside the locale. This, in turn, justified the continuing neglect of local broadcasters and local content. In Canada the local was defined in two ways; one which pertained to communities of interest and ethno-linguistic communities of regional and/or subnational scope and enabled the centralized production of content, the other pertaining to communities of place and the production of news. Clearly the two definitions are at odds, and Ali discusses this discrepancy, pointing to the fact that it was in part caused by an emergent ownership structure that had divorced the networks from the communities that they serve. Ofcom in the UK faced similar difficulties and questioned the changing nature of what is understood as a community before falling back on a notion tied to a geospatial notion of community but added some flexibility to this by stating that a community could be anything from a small collection of homes to a large metropolitan area [which, in the case of London, pertains to a region in any event].
Again, it was the market that ultimately decided the fate of local broadcasters and locally created content. Here the example of the Canadian Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF), for which the dual definition of the local was coined, is instructional. The LPIF was established in 2009 and funded by charges to signal carriers based on the FFC and to ensure the production of local news content. Although the funding was modest, the fund proved to be successful and was thus paradoxically terminated in 2014. Two reasons were given for this: First, that communities of place are of no more importance than communities of interest (including ethno-linguistic communities) and so there was no reason to focus on these types of community at the expense of others. Second, that the LPIF was paid for by signal carriers through a rise in subscription charges. Thus, it was argued that the cost to the Canadian consumer could not be justified given that communities of place had already been framed to be no more important than any other form of community. The imperatives of the market, supported by the rhetoric of communities of interest, prevailed.
In the remaining two chapters of Media Localism, Ali moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive. Chapter Six discusses the fact that local communities are complex environments and that regulators have, ultimately, eschewed this perspective owing to a lack of agreement on how to characterize this complexity. Instead, regulators fall back upon a form of ‘default localism’ that associates the local with the extent of its market and obfuscates the social complexity of the community that resides in any given locale. This results in the tendency to see the local as a homogenous market and so devalues the need to take measures to provide for its continued existence as a complex, unique, place. A perspective informed by critical regionalism, one that sees local communities as socially complex, heterogeneous and unique places, argues that each community must be able to produce its own media content, for this is the only way that its communal needs can be met.
This theme is continued in Chapter Seven, where Ali examines the threat to television from online sources of information and entertainment, noting that a majority of Americans, for example, continue to use the television for local news and information. Indeed, the CRTC, as Ali also notes in this chapter, has discussed the fact that local over the air content is still very important; the regulator, however, will not take steps to fund its production. The solution, argues Ali, is for regulators to understand local media ecosystems in new and complex ways that overcome the categorical silos that have in the past contained legacy media. In so doing, Ali envisions our understanding local media and the communities they serve outside of the market as complex ecosystems that exist on a number of scales, serve a variety of needs through the production and dissemination of diverse local content.
In his conclusion Ali examines the relationship between localism and infrastructure, concentrating on the digital while arguing that media localism is impossible without the infrastructure to support it. Moreover, given that all contemporary media are digital to one extent or another, the quality of and right to access a local digital infrastructure may very well be the most important media localism issue for the next decade.
In Media Localism: The Policies of Place, Christopher Ali has written a history of recent media regulation that is detailed, well-argued and extremely cogent. Moreover, the lessons that that Ali draws from his extremely detailed examination of policy documents, on-record testimonies, and personal interviews that he has conducted, are extremely germane and important. This is made all the more so in light of the ongoing trend towards privatization informing mass media legislation in all three countries Ali discusses, the ongoing conflicts over the right to have access to a robust high-speed internet infrastructure and, in the United States, the recent FCC decision to end net neutrality which brings with it the potential for corporate control over what content and which content providers will stream easily and inexpensively to users, thus potentially harming the increasingly important digital component of local media ecosystems.
Despite its many strengths, there are several areas in Media Localism that bear being critiqued. Ali, for example, continuously refers to the market-oriented initiatives as evidence of neoliberalism. It would be very difficult to assail this characterization of market-oriented regulatory decisions and policy pronouncements as anything but neoliberal in nature, so, to a large extent, I agree with Ali. However, neoliberalism is a variegated phenomenon (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010) that spatially effectuates itself in very specific and local ways (Ong, 2007; Peck, 2002, 2004; Peck & Tickell, 2002). To the extent that Ali reduces all market-oriented policies and decisions to neoliberalism writ large, he runs the risk of glossing over just how neoliberalism specifically articulates itself to each of the national regulatory debates discussed in the book.
A second problematic area in Media Localism is the nature with which Ali treats the relationship between place/locale and community, on the one hand, and structures of capital, on the other. I will immediately stipulate that Ali describes each as complex conjunctural assemblages but, that aside, there is a degree of essentialism in Ali’s discussion of this relationship that risks reifying each. This is perhaps most apparent in his discussion of the politics of information and the role that structures of communication play in the formation and perpetuation of open, democratic communities, which Ali opposes to that of global capital in the guise of global neoliberalism. Again, I will stipulate that I share Ali’s belief that we each have a right to the local, and that as such we all have a right to be able to determine what the local means for ourselves and how we will live with others. I will also stipulate that local media ecosystems are essential to our being able to communicate this understanding with one another so that we may form communities that are inclusive. However, we must also remember that both community and place, as complex phenomena, are themselves structured, as is their relationship. Krivy (2018), for example, has argued that the street life that Jane Jacobs valorized and pointed to in opposition to the continued redevelopment of Manhattan and other downtowns was itself structured by earlier formations of capital manifest in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century real estate developments. Indeed, the global political apparatus of flow that Ali references on a number of occasions not only makes the proliferation of neoliberalism possible, it also engenders the proliferation of local identities based on place and enables the articulation of communities that are extra-local in nature (Castells, 2010a). This is what Wellman has, unwittingly, implied in his theory of network individualism; the proliferation of communities and identities can not only exceed the local, they are increasingly never local to begin with.
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