Putting the Public Interest Back Into Communications Part I: The Civil Rights Imperative

Putting the Public Interest Back Into Communications Part I:
The Civil Rights Imperative

Charles Benton

On September 18, I was invited to speak at the annual conference of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. The NATOA gathering was aptly named "Putting the Public Interest Back Into Communications," a subject near and dear to my heart, and I was asked to appear on a panel titled "The Future of Communications: What is Coming in a New Administration and Beyond?" In these uncertain times, however, maybe it is too much for anyone or any one panel, to predict what our telecommunications future will look like. We can - and we should - however, take this moment to define our communications goals.

T.S. Eliot wrote:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in the past

With these wise words in mind, allow me to blend the old and the now into a discussion of our future.

On September 18, 1793, George Washington laid the first cornerstone of the Capitol building. So let's think about some cornerstones as we consider building our communications future.

Two centuries ago, James Madison wrote that "a popular government without popular
information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both." Before a new Administration comes to power, we must not fail to consider what that caution means for the Digital Age.

With the growth of the Internet and the deployment of digital television, I can envision an expanded public sphere of communications. I believe that media can mobilize, rather than pacify; involve people as problem solvers and information providers, not simply as spectators and consumers; and create, rather than obscure, a sense of community.

Effective communications in our society requires wrestling with the most basic questions of democracy: Who gets to speak? Who has access to knowledge? Whose voices are heard? Who and what limit what we can, or cannot speak about?

What remains up for grabs is how communications are deployed, toward what ends and in whose interests. As the media environment buckles and shifts, as new forms of technology emerge and mutate, as consumers are presented with lavishly expansive menus of program options, and, yes, as new people come to take the reigns of power in Washington, we have to assert the distinction between public space and the commercial marketplace, between serving a nation and selling a product. Not to embrace and honor this distinction represents a failure of nerve and imagination.

Ending Discrimination in Media & Telecommunications

On September 18, in 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered a speech many would come to know as the "Atlanta Compromise." At the time, African-Americans made up one-third of the population of the Southern states and Washington warned that the progress of the South was inherently tied to the treatment of blacks and protection of their liberties.

One hundred and thirteen years later, civil rights remains a crucial issue in the United States and particularly in the arena of communications policy. The media and telecommunications industries make up a sixth of our economy. They're our largest export, they define our culture and they make our democracy possible. Today, people of color are 34% of the nation's population, yet they hold only about two percent of the asset value of our nation's broadcasting industry -- and far less in cable and telecom.

Our number one national communications policy priority must be the eradication of racial and gender discrimination in media and telecommunications.

That wasn't an accident:

  • For decades, the Federal Communications Commission was an active participant in preventing people of color from attaining ownership of licensed broadcast media facilities.
  • The FCC gave hundreds of radio and TV licenses to rabid segregationists for free, without once questioning their character or intervening when they practiced segregation in broadcast programming and hiring.
  • From the 1930s to the 1990s, the FCC gave away hundreds of new broadcast licenses using discriminatory factors like "past broadcast record" and "broadcast experience" to openly replicate minority exclusion.

With this past in mind, our number one national communications policy priority must be the eradication of racial and gender discrimination in media and telecommunications. Our shared goal: seeing the day when all Americans posses the tools to compete in commerce, to contribute to and enjoy the fruits of democracy, to receive unbiased and uncensored news and information, to create our culture.(1)

In our democratic society, we are constantly on the outlook for undue influence by the government on our communications. But we should be equally vigilant to make sure that a handful of powerful people or companies do not dominate our discourse either. Our greatest guard against Madison's farce/ tragedy is the democratization of media, an environment that promotes wide dissemination of information from antagonistic sources that reflect the rich diversity of our nation.

[Next time: Ensuring all Americans have access to the communications network of the 21st century.]

This history and goals - with specific recommendations to the President, Congress, and the FCC - is expertly laid out in the "Road Map for Telecommunications Policy" published by the Minority Media Telecommunications Council (MMTC). I urge everyone to read and carefully consider the Road Map. This important document is available at http://www.mmtconline.org/filemanager/fileview/165/. [Disclosure: MMTC is chaired by Henry Rivera, a former FCC Commissioner and a Board member of the Benton Foundation.]
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By Charles Benton.