Reform: The Everett Parker Way

[Note: We're resending this in celebration of Dr Parker's 100th birthday.]

I have written in this space before about the obstacles facing telecommunications and media reformers, about the crushing influence of big money in all things political, and the stubborn resistance of our leaders to harness the winds of social and technology change to the enhancement of American democracy in the Twenty-first century.

At the same time, I have expressed hope, even optimism, that we are capable of changing course. Changing course demands three things:

  1. smart and totally committed leaders who know how to build and who are possessed of the courage to persist against whatever is thrown against them;
  2. like-minded individuals and organizations pulling together on a common agenda; and,
  3. a media environment that lays out the issues citizens need to understand if they are successfully to practice the demanding art of self-government during this time of grave national peril.

First point: reform has to be driven by savvy leaders. Across America there are a thousand points of light at work—good and needed causes that need to be advanced if America is to overcome the obstacles and inertia that have held us back for most of the past 30-plus years. The challenge is to present reform in a program of common objectives that people can understand and rally around. This requires us to out-think, out-strategize, and out-work the well-heeled lobbies of privilege and reaction whose easy access to the corridors of power has shackled needed change for more years than our country could afford.

This month, we gather for the annual Everett Parker Awards Breakfast in Washington, DC. If you want to know what kind of leader I am talking about, look no further. Everett Parker, who turns 100 in just a few months, personifies the savvy, toughness, organizational genius and unstoppable perseverance that are the enablers of change. If you don’t know his story, you’re missing something important. You need to learn—and learn from—it. I’d suggest starting with Kay Mills’ fine book, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television Channels, or with Robert K. Horwitz’s excellent article entitled “Broadcast Reform Revisited” in The Communication Review (Volume 2, No. 3 [1997], pp. 311-348).

Dr. Parker, then Director of the Office of Communications of the United Church of Christ, put media squarely in the middle of the Civil Rights crusade of the 1960s—right where it belonged (and still belongs). He did so by taking on the license renewal application of WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, a station that somehow managed to ignore the fight for civil rights in the south and across America. Often the picture on the WLBT screen would be replaced with a notice like: Sorry, we’re having technical problems—just as, say, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was coming on the evening news. Civil rights news blackouts were common, and black Americans were conspicuous by their absence on a station that seemed more interested in white supremacy than equal rights for all. Dr. Parker thought this wasn’t how the peoples’ airwaves should be used and that WLBT was about as far away from serving the public interest as a station could get. He led the challenge to deny FCC relicensing to WLBT, courting and convincing other parties to join his crusade, and buttressing his case with overwhelming data gleaned from program logs and other telling evidence.

Talk about obstacles being thrown in the path! WLBT, many of its friends from other broadcast stations, and high-paid industry lawyers and lobbyists all swarmed the FCC and argued that ordinary people without a property interest in a station had no standing to appeal a license. And the FCC, to its shame, agreed. Disappointed but undaunted, Dr. Parker and his growing band of supporters went to court. It quickly became obvious that the D.C. Circuit Court, under Judge (and later U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice) Warren Berger, had more sympathy for Parker’s case than for the station or its seeming ally, the Federal Communications Commission. To make a long story short, Dr. Parker and his colleagues had to go to court twice—because the Commission continued its stubborn resistance to denying the license to WLBT. In the end, Judge Berger, who made the historic decision to grant standing to the Parker-led petitioners even though they didn’t have property in the station, virtually commanded the Commission to take the license away. As quoted in Horwitz’s excellent article, Judge Berger said that “the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty.”

It’s a fascinating and exciting story to which this brief synopsis does small justice, but I hope the lesson comes through that savvy, committed and consensus-building leadership is essential for genuine reform. Dr. Parker’s leadership didn’t end with the WLBT case. His long and exemplary life is marked with achievements too numerous to discuss here. I’ll just mention two more. Without the Parker brand of leadership, the FCC would likely have dragged its feet for years in approving Equal Employment Opportunity rules and affirmative action initiatives to diversify employment in the broadcasting industry. And then there is the wonderful Emma Bowen Foundation, co-founded by Dr. Parker and another civil rights legend, Emma Bowen. This Foundation works to prepare minority youth for meaningful careers in media. Nearly 500 graduates have already benefited from this visionary yet practical initiative.

Second point: Everett Parker didn’t fight alone. He found allies and recruited them to his mission. He encouraged maximum coordination of effort and smart utilization of always-scarce resources. Today we are fortunate to have many good and effective champions of reform, some working in Washington, many more around the country. They are working to bring fairness to our elections, justice to the denied, openness to our democracy and equal opportunity for each and every one of us. With the floodtide of special interest money and disinformation inundating America, we have to find new ways to maximize the resources available to these agents of democratic change. Money-wise our resources aren’t remotely competitive and they never will be. People-wise, our side wins—or, better put, our side can win. It’s not so easy as going out and harvesting support that is just waiting to be asked. Truth be told, there is a lot of convincing yet to be done. All of us have been bombarded with the best disinformation money can buy for three decades. But each of our organizations has information, facts, insights and proposals to address our current policy short-falls. Each of our groups has a somewhat different constituency and outreach. We have to work smarter together. Policy-making, like politics, is a game of addition.

Third point: Marshaling the forces of reform has been made incredibly more difficult because America’s media is doing such a poor job in teeing up and explaining the issues upon which our country’s future depends. Here’s what we see, for example, on the major TV network news: before the program begins, two anonymous political ads—one each from opposite sides—suggesting the criminality of the other candidate/party/side of an issue. That’s followed by 20-some minutes of glitzy infotainment that seldom gets around to the real problems of the nation and world we live in. Politics is covered by citing the latest poll, a sound-bite of the day’s most outlandish charge, and airing the latest damning ad from each camp. Then it’s on to celebrities, puppy dogs and kitty cats. Does anyone truly believe that out of this toxic brew of information-free chatter we are supposed to be sufficiently informed to cast intelligent votes in an election that comes as America confronts challenges that threaten its very well-being?

Broadcasters, newspapers, and the big consolidated interests who increasingly run the Internet aren’t going to repair our media shortfall. It’s silly and futile to expect them to do that. Only real reform—fueled by leaders that can lead and by citizens across the land who understand—can do that. This kind of thorough-going reform comes in cycles and spurts, but eventually it comes. It’s happened before. It can, it will, happen again.

An early “Happy Birthday” to you, Everett, and may those 100 candles on your cake re-ignite in each of us the spark and spirit of reform that makes you such a champion of civil rights and the public interest.

Editor's note: Benton Foundation Chairman, CEO and Trustee Charles Benton will be honored at the UCC's Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture and Breakfast. Benton will receive the Everett C. Parker Award in recognition of his many years of leadership and support for promoting the public interest in traditional and digital media.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries.

By Michael Copps.