Diversity Denied

I recently had an opportunity to address the annual Minority Media and Telecommunications Council Conference in Washington, DC. MMTC has for years toiled mightily to enhance the role of minorities in our telecom and media enterprises. But the current woeful state of diversity in our media goes beyond the ability of any single organization to resolve. Any proposal for truly meaningful remedies runs head-long into special interest opposition in the private sector and, more often than not, lack of interest in the public sector. Both sectors are at fault; both sectors are in default. The bottom line is that minorities have been grievously short-changed; diversity in all its many forms has been largely abandoned as a regulatory objective; and our civic dialogue has been diminished just when it most needs to be nourished.

I want to expand upon my remarks at MMTC because we have to develop a sense of national urgency about this problem. Our country is now nearly one-third minority—yet minority issues and cultural contributions receive shockingly sparse attention in our media. When minorities are covered, it is too often in stereotype, too infrequently based on facts. Who at this moment can really claim there is anything approaching equitable, real-world coverage of minorities and their concerns? Why are there so few programs with a minority focus? With minority lead characters? Why are so many news interviews conducted with white males instead of people of color—or women, who are actually a majority of our population? At last report, people of color own about 3 percent of full-power commercial TV stations! And the numbers are only getting worse.

I believe that diversity of programming, diversity of news coverage, and diversity of viewpoint are enormously affected by who owns a particular media outlet. Ownership matters. Truth be told, ownership rules. “He who has the gold makes the rules,” the old adage says, and that pretty much sums up where the media—and the country—seem to be these days. Who owns and operates a media outlet makes a world of difference when it comes to what news is covered, what issues are teed up for discussion, and who is asked to participate in a program. So when one-third of the population is basically shut out from ownership opportunity, the results are sadly predictable.

These comments are not limited to the traditional media of TV, radio, cable and newspapers. They apply to the new media of broadband and the Internet, too. By now it’s fairly common knowledge that the ownership/managerial/employment statistics for new media companies aren’t breaking any civil rights or equal opportunity records. Additionally, the overwhelming bulk of what news is featured on the Internet—the experts tell us way over 90 percent of it—still originates in traditional media newsrooms, even though there is less of it being produced. Most of the major news sites on the Internet are controlled by media conglomerates whose holdings include older media, too. And new media is heading down the same road of consolidation and control by a few that wreaked such havoc on traditional media. What an irony it would be if the awesome, opportunity-creating power and potential of broadband would end up as a cableized Internet!

“Well, it’s just a bad time to bring this up,” some will say. “What can we do about any of this with the economy in the tank?” Actually there’s a lot we could be doing.

First, let’s recognize the enormity of the problem. If we cannot guarantee a media environment that includes the excluded in its coverage and its management, then we have a media that fails to reflect the face and the heart of America. Self-government can’t thrive, or even survive, on a diet of media exclusion. Yet media exclusion is the reality. We can debate whether it’s purposeful or not, but the bottom line remains the same.

Secondly, we need to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to get serious about finding solutions. Turns out it doesn’t have to look far to find some. The FCC has had a Diversity Advisory Committee for years that has come up with scores of recommendations. So has MMTC. Some of these 70-plus proposals include giving preference in Commission licensing to otherwise qualified individuals or entities that have confronted and overcome substantial disadvantages; giving media companies incentives to incubate small disadvantaged businesses; provide small start-up firms extra time to find funding and to construct their facilities; make better use of under-used Channels 5 and 6 as a home for new non-commercial stations; create a Civil Rights Branch in the FCC to enforce compliance with the civil rights and equal opportunity (EEO) statutes. The list goes on. Most of these ideas never made it to an up-or-down FCC vote. I spent over a decade as a Commissioner and I was (an am) appalled at the lack of priority accorded to these vital issues of minorities, media and our democracy.

While still on the Commission, I recommended that a good first step would be to put one of these recommendations on the FCC’s formal agenda meeting each month for a year and actually vote on it. My proposal didn’t seem to fly then, but I hope it is still being considered. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly radical idea!

Third, we must think about diversity in everything the FCC does. All the talk in Washington these days is about spectrum auctions. Are we going to have some real incentives, akin to our old Designated Entity rules, as we auction off new wireless spectrum rights? “That doesn’t work here,” I’ve been told. I say: prove it. The FCC has a goal of finding 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless enterprises. If the Commission isn’t thinking seriously about diversity licensing for a meaningful part of this 500 MHz, our communications environment will look more like the pre-civil rights days of the 1950s than the commons of the Twenty-first century. Another idea is to include a prime-time set aside on the networks for independently-produced programming that would encourage entry by small business and minority entrepreneurs. Also, we could use unlicensed spectrum for diversity broadcast stations which, while it may be anathema to the bean-counters at OMB, would create many new and diverse outlets. Here’s an idea that would make a difference: revoking licenses from those whose use of the spectrum disserves the public interest and giving those licenses to individuals and enterprises that will serve the common good. The people’s airwaves, after all, are supposed to serve the people.

These are modest proposals. They don’t come close to race-conscious suggestions to remedy the ills of past media discrimination. Looking longer-term, we will need to work toward more aggressive solutions. To get those kinds of ideas past the strict scrutiny of the courts, the Commission has to have its legal justifications ready. It doesn’t. We need to update the Adarand studies that were compiled under the chairmanship of Bill Kennard back in 2000. Resources need to be moved toward this job immediately, as even the Third Circuit Court has lost patience with the FCC’s inaction on this front. The Commission knows full-well what is needed in these studies. It should establish a deadline of June 1, 2013, to have these very focused Adarand reports researched, written, vetted and ready-to-go.

These are not issues to push under the rug until the election is past. Nothing will happen after the election if commitments aren’t made before the election. That’s our challenge now—yours and mine. While the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court makes reform a steeper climb, millions of Citizens United for Democracy can still overcome. It is time to overcome.

By Michael Copps.