Media diversity is non-negotiable

This piece was co-authored by Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition.

These are hard times for traditional media. Newspaper circulation is collapsing, taking ad revenues down with it and forcing newsroom layoffs by the thousands. Broadcasters are doing much better, even as they consolidate, lay off reporters, and cut newsrooms to fatten the bottom line.

The outlook for Black media, explored in detail last week in the New York Times, is particularly dire. While the nation is increasingly diverse, broadcasting remains mostly the province of white males. The number of Black-owned radio companies has dropped by more than 50 percent since 1995 and just 12 television stations — mostly in small markets — are Black owned.

Things are so bad that Howard University, an iconic institution of African-American higher education, is on the brink of selling off its spectrum for WHUT, the nation’s first and only black-owned public television station. The sale could be a major financial boon to the university and its students, but would bring Black-owned broadcast media one-step closer to extinction.

How did we get here? Like almost every industry, broadcasting historically has been dominated by white men. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was 38 years old before it got its first Black member, in 1972; it did not get a Black chairman until 1997. Its policies generally have amplified this legacy of discrimination by allowing sweeping consolidation of media companies, further entrenching the status quo. As a practical matter, consolidation means far-away corporate owners more focused on the bottom line than on quality local journalism. And as media consolidation grows, people of color and women become less significant players in the media ecosystem.

Defenders of media consolidation regularly point to the growth of digital media to argue that print media and broadcasting are relics of a bygone era. Not so. Facebook, Twitter, and the like may be important vehicles for spreading the news, but they are not uncovering and reporting the news. Research by retired Harvard Professor and former reporter Alex Jones drives this point home: he found that 85 percent of our news can be traced to original reporting by a newspaper. And for all the great online content out there, millions more viewers still rely on broadcast news. So people are watching, but what are they seeing?

All but extinct is the local investigative journalism that exposes flaws and ultimately strengthens communities. And far too often, the evening news gives only superficial coverage to communities of color. The problem of negative or incomplete images in the media is directly related to who owns media resources. Media pluralism matters because local and diverse media are more likely to highlight our nation’s cherished diversity, and tell a fuller story about our country.

The burden of advancing media pluralism rests rightly with the FCC, the agency that did so much to create this mess. Congress requires the commission to periodically review and either strengthen or relax media ownership policies to serve the public interest. This process, the “Quadrennial Review” or “QR,” is a vehicle for change. Twice in the past, the agency attempted to use the QR to facilitate consolidation by relaxing common sense prohibitions on local media monopolies. Each time, courts put a stop to it, stating unambiguously that the FCC had not adequately studied how any changes would impact female and minority ownership.

The courts have laid out a roadmap for the commission: it must gather quality research on how ownership arrangements impact diversity and content to proceed with the best-informed policies.

We are confident the data will show that inaction on this front has brought female and minority ownership to the brink of extinction, and that diversity-conscious policies could set us on a path to diverse, locally owned and operated media.

We are deeply troubled by reports that the agency is poised to approve yet another Quadrennial Review without commissioning this research. That would spark more litigation and lead the courts to conclude, as they have three times now, that the agency must root its decisions in good social science.

America’s strength is its diversity; we need to take advantage of it. Consigning communities of color and women to the sidelines in media programming, jobs, and ownership not only closes doors of opportunity for them, it weakens our society. It’s precisely the wrong way to go. We hope the FCC will choose better this time.