Intersection of Race and Telecomm Policy: Andrew Schwartzman

On March 18, Sen Barack Obama delivered a speech called "A More Perfect Union." Many have viewed the speech as a challenge to the nation to address our "racial stalemate." Beginning today, the Benton Foundation is taking the opportunity to host a dialogue on the intersection of race and telecommunications policy.

Below is a Q&A with Media Access Project President & CEO Andrew Jay Schwartzman. He is recognized as one of the leading media attorneys and has appeared on behalf of MAP before the Congress, the FCC and the courts on issues such as cable TV regulation, minority and female ownership and employment in the mass media,“equal time” laws and cable “open access.” In recognition of his service as chief counsel in the public interest community’s challenge to the FCC’s June, 2003 media ownership deregulation decision, The Scientific American honored Mr. Schwartzman as one of the nation’s 50 leaders in technology for 2004. Mr. Schwartzman is also the 1994 recipient of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication’s Everett C. Parker Award and the 2004 recipient of the Media Matters Life Achievement Award. MAP is a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the public’s First Amendment right to access a diverse marketplace of ideas in the electronic mass media of today and tomorrow.

Benton Foundation: Sen Obama said that the US's history of legalized discrimination helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities. How has the history of legalized discrimination affected U.S. telecommunications policy?

Mr. Schwartzman: Well, we are clearly a less diversified and less harmonious society because of these historic gaps.

Benton Foundation: Sen Obama mentioned specifically how African-Americans business owners were denied loans and African-Americans employment options were limited. How did this play out in the telecommunications industry? Are African-Americans and other minorities still facing these limitations today?

Mr. Schwartzman: Access to capital certainly stands as the greatest obstacle today as in the past. The situation has been aggravated in recent years by changes which permit greater concentration of ownership. This has allowed deep-pocketed incumbents to bid up the price of properties, making it harder for new entrants.

Benton Foundation: What have the effects of discrimination been historically?

Mr. Schwartzman: The worst effects have been on the failure of the majority communities in this country to understand about the needs and cultures of those in the minority.

Benton Foundation: Are we still seeing the effects of this discrimination today?

Mr. Schwartzman: Yes.

Benton Foundation: What, in your opinion, are the most glaring examples?

Mr. Schwartzman: The reduction in minority media ownership over the last 15 years.

Benton Foundation: In two actions last December, the Federal Communications Commission changed the nation's media ownership rules. The three core goals of all of the FCC's media ownership rules are competition, diversity and localism. Starting first with the changes in Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule, how was diversity promoted?

Mr. Schwartzman: Because the FCC has waived these rules in several instances, the impact has been vitiated. In general, the effect has been to forestall greater concentration rather than actually promoting greater diversity.

Benton Foundation: As you did after the attempted media ownership rules changes in 2003, you're taking the FCC to court to block the new rules taking affect. How will the Commission justify these rules changes any better than it did then when the court returned the rules in 2004?

Mr. Schwartzman: First, note that, this time, the FCC voted to RETAIN local TV and local radio ownership rules. As to the cross-ownership rules we have appealed, the Commission has built a different and superficially stronger case than it did last time, purporting to rely on research showing that common ownership improves programming.

Benton Foundation: In December, the Commission also adopted new rules and launched a new proceeding to promote diversification of broadcast ownership. I realize this decision was just released in early March, but when are we likely to know if the Commission's efforts here are successful? How will we measure this success?

Mr. Schwartzman: It will be many years before the answers will be clear. The measurements will be the diversity of ownership and employment in broadcasting and in the degree of harmony in society as a whole.

By Kevin Taglang.