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has been criticized by both commercial and religious broadcasters as hearkening back to the days before Ronald Reagan rescinded the Fairness Doctrine in the mid '80s.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.
As Slate media critic Jack Shafer has written in an analysis of the event, when a disaster strikes, first responders are not even supposed to call radio and television stations to tell them to alert the public. Rather, the federal Emergency Alert System (formerly the Emergency Broadcast System) allows authorities to directly break into station broadcasts to warn the public of the emergency.
The real problem that early morning in Minot, according to Shafer and others examining the incident, was that "when Minot authorities attempted to use the EAS, they failed."
In an article from Law Enforcement News, a Minot police lieutenant acknowledges that part of the delay was "our fault." The local police did not understand the new system, receive full training on it, or install it properly. Law Enforcement News makes clear that rather than a failure of broadcast deregulation, "what happened in Minot is a stellar example of how little thought has been given to the communication and information systems that are the heart of all public safety and critical incident response."
The Clear Channel stations were also not unique in carrying automated late-night programming and in having few if any station employees on deck during that time of day (though Clear Channel insists there was at least one person in the Minot offices that night and that phone lines were simply jammed or malfunctioning).
Nor was this unusual. Even in the big market of San Diego, only two music stations broadcasted live programming after midnight in 2002, according to Wired. And before this automated programming was available, stations would simply shut down around midnight. Remember the "Star-Spangled Banner" sign-off?!
Thus, authorities wouldn't even have had the option to break into station broadcasts at 2 a.m.
AND, REALLY, HOW much of a difference would it have made? Even if everything went like clockwork that night in Minot, it was still two in the morning. How many people would have been listening to the radio at that hour?
The most effective system of warning people would seem to be the tried-and-true method of blaring sirens and knocking on doors. Now, they might improve on the old methods with new media innovations, including texting everybody's cell phones with a warning about a dangerous chemical spill.
Colleges, for instance, from Pennsylvania State University to the University of Arizona have set up registries for the administration to send students text messages if there is an emergency. Small towns like Minot could set up a voluntary registry for their citizens who wish to receive emergency notifications.
After all, if so many sign up for the Obama-Biden vice presidential publicity stunt, it's not too much to think that there are some who might want be notified about events in which their lives could be at stake.
In the meantime, the new media marketplace is giving more choices to residents of Minot, as it is to all American media consumers. As Shafer points, radio consolidation has brought a greater diversity of programming in Minot and other towns. The number of radio formats went up from three to six after Clear Channel took over the six Minot stations.
Frequently, when independently-owned stations compete for a given audience, they tend to duplicate formats -- such as new popular music. But when companies like Clear Channel own several stations, they attempt to appeal to as broad a customer base as possible, and so offer different sorts of programming on each channel.
If new localism rules are imposed, Minot and other cities and towns would experience a true threat in the silencing of controversial viewpoints. The ensuing First Amendment emergency will be no urban legend.
John Berlau is the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of Eco-Freaks. Alex Harris, a 2008 Summer Research Associate at CEI, is as first-year student at Stanford Law School.