Remove the Barriers to Minorities in Media

In mid-summer I met with a group of progressive black ministers to discuss what they called a crisis involving African Americans and the media. They were concerned about the violent and sexually suggestive images on Viacom’s BET, and the glorification of gangsters and the denigration of black women that seem to be a staple of rap music= They were also concerned about the lack of voice for people of faith who were more concerned about poverty and war than the debate over evolution or whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Adding to these concerns, our hosts Hazel Ross Robinson and Randall Robinson noted the distorted or entirely missing media coverage of Africa and the Caribbean.

There has been notable progress for racial and ethnic minorities in the United States in the media since the 1960s. Back then the Kerner Commission was right on target when it charged that “important segments of the media failed to report . . . on the underlying problems of race relations. They have not communicated to the majority of their audience – which is white – a sense of the degradation, misery, and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.” Many of that commission’s recommendations of expanded coverage, integration of the news staffs, and training and recruitment of black journalists were implemented in the years immediately after the riots.

But as the FCC understood during the Carter administration, the voice of minority groups in the media is limited by the severe under-representation of minorities among broadcast licensees. Not only do owners tend to hire employees who come from their same ethnic group, they also tend to serve those audiences they are most familiar with.

A recent American Society of Newspaper Editors study found that minorities made up 13.42 percent of employees at daily papers in 2004, as compared to 12.95 in 2003. And according to the latest RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Survey, minorities comprised 21.2 percent of local television news staffs in 2004, compared with 21.8 percent in 2003. But the local radio minority workforce fell to 7.9 percent in 2004 from 11.8 percent in 2003.

The percentage of minorities in radio dropped in large part because of the significant consolidation in the radio industry and the decimation of local radio newsrooms even among black owners. For example, Cathy Liggins Hughes has copied her white peers in establishing an African-American-owned broadcast conglomerate, Radio One. The 66-station chain is the dominant influence in at least 13 of the 22 cities in which Radio One operates. Radio One is valued at $2 billion, yet even with these resources Hughes employs not one newsperson at her four Washington stations. And this policy is reflected throughout Radio One. Ownership is clearly not enough in a market culture that puts profit over every consideration. But ownership, particularly over television, is a start.

Congress repeated this concern over ownership when it passed Section 257 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That section requires the FCC to examine and create regulations to remove the barriers to participation by minorities in the communications industry. However, while the Bush FCC has worked mightily to increase the number of stations one corporation can control, it has ignored its obligation to correct a history of discriminatory FCC licensing practices.

Since 1990, when the Minority Telecommunications Development Program at the Department of Commerce began issuing reports on minority commercial broadcast ownership in the U.S., African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans, roughly a third of the U.S. population, have consistently been under-represented among the nation’s commercial broadcast owners. In 2000, 187 minority broadcasters owned 449 full power commercial radio and television stations, or 3.8 percent of the 11,865 such stations licensed in the United States. The 23 full power commercial television stations owned by all minorities combined in 2000 represented 1.9 percent of the country’s 1,288 such licensed stations. This is the lowest level of minority full power television ownership since reports began in 1990.

There are more than a few experts who think television will not matter in the future. They argue that the power and influence of television will wane and will be replaced by the Internet. Others of us think television will simply migrate to the Internet, the way it migrated to cable, and that neither the method of delivery nor the potential interactivity of digital media will destroy the lure of the boob tube: blackplanet.com will not overwhelm either local television news or BET.

Americans will never be able to speak clearly and honestly with each other if one group of Americans continues to control 98 percent of the federal licenses to the most dominant form of local communication. Ethnic media will not be empowered to speak to and for the communities it serves if the FCC does not take seriously its obligation to remove the barriers that block minority participation in the communications industry. How long do we have to wait for the FCC to act on Section 257?

Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.