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FCC Commissioner: Declining Black Media Ownership is a ‘National Disgrace’

NNPA, News Report, George E. Curry Posted: Jan 22, 2007

NEW YORK (NNPA) – The level of Black ownership of broadcast media, which has fallen by 30 percent over the past nine years, is a “national disgrace” and reflects overall retrenchment in the march toward justice and equality, a member of the Federal Communications Commission has charged.

The commissioner, Michael J. Copps, made that assertion at a forum held at the 10th annual Wall Street Project conference of Rainbow/PUSH.

“The facts are downright chilling,” Copps stated. “While people of color make up over 30 percent of our country’s population, a study from Free Press last fall tells us that they own only 3.26 percent of all broadcast television stations. Unpack these numbers a little further and you’ll find that African-Americans own only 1.3 percent of all stations. And it’s sad to say, we’re not making progress.

“There has been no improvement in the level of minority ownership since 1998, even as the total universe of stations has increased by 12 percent. Truth is that there has been a sharp drop in the total numbers of African-American stations since 1998 – by 30 percent. This isn’t just a problem. It’s a national disgrace.”

In his presentation last week, Commissioner Copps described how African-Americans are being ill-served.

“Today, we gather to talk about equality and justice in our broadcast media,” he began. “Neither equality nor justice exists there yet. We’re not even moving in the right direction toward equality and justice. Minority issues don’t get decent coverage. Minorities don’t own enough media. At its core, this issue is about civil rights, and one of those rights is accessible media that reflect and nourish the diverse genius of our nation.”

A second commissioner, Jonathan S. Adelstein, generally agreed with Copps, noting that the FCC regulates the airways because they belong to the public, not profit-driven media conglomerates.

“It’s something that affects everybody’s lives, the lives of not just minority communities, but everybody in this country – how they perceive minorities and how minorities are treated, both in terms of ownership and the way they are portrayed,” explained Adelstein.

Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., president and CEO of Rainbow/PUSH, invited the commissioners to a follow-up meeting he plans to hold in Chicago within the next two months to draw more attention to the issue.

Complaining about television news and talk show programs that are “all day, all night – all White,” Jackson agreed with the commissioners that the public must become more aggressive in insisting that the airwaves become more diverse.

“We must make media access a mass movement,” Jackson told those attending the session. “For too long, this has been a small movement. One hundred people at an FCC hearing may be more important than 50,000 marching at HHS (the Department of Health and Human Services).”

Copps said the FCC has been under pressure from the industry and federal officials to relax its rules limiting how many media outlets a company can own in a community.

“I think for the last three years, we’ve played defense on media consolidation and media ownership,” he said. “We’ve been successful, we’ve checked those rules. But now is the time to move beyond the damage control and to really come up with a pro-active plan for America’s media to create media democracy for this country.”

He explained, “It’s not just a question of preventing bad rules now, it’s going back and revisiting bad old rules that got us in this (expletive deleted) mess in the first place. And that’s the problem of reinvigorating the public interest obligations of broadcasters. Every single one of them has gone by the boards since 1980. There’s nothing left but a hollow, hollow shell.”

Four years ago, in a move widely viewed as allowing media conglomerates to expand their power in local markets, the FCC passed new rules that would allow one corporation the right to own up to three television stations, eight radio stations, the cable television system, the daily newspaper and the largest Internet provider in a single community.

The public was outraged, with more than 3 million registering their disapproval with the FCC and its chairman, Michael Powell. A suit was filed and consequently, a federal appeals court rescinded those proposed regulations.

“The Third Circuit sent those misguided rules back to us with instructions to try again and get it right this time,” recalled Copps, who voted against the proposed change. “And it is interesting that one of the principal shortfalls the court focused on like a laser was the way those proposed rules sidelined and shortchanged minority ownership.”

Copps said media ownership has a direct bearing on how people of color are portrayed in the media.

“And we wonder why the depictions of minorities in our media are so often distorted? We wonder why issues of importance to our many diverse communities don’t get the attention they need if they are ever to be resolved? Let’s be frank: ownership matters. Truth be told, ownership rules. Unless and until we do something to increase minority ownership, our communications sectors will continue to under-serve the great Promise of America.”

Another panelist, communications attorney Thomas Hart of Washington, D.C. , recommended that the media be more broadly defined and not be limited to traditional TV and radio stations.

“I am more concerned about the level of ownership in new media that’s coming on line now,” he said.

Whether it is old or new media, citizens need to understand that the public is poorly served by media consolidation, Commissioner Copps said.

“This is going to be a heavy lift, let’s face up to that right now,” Copps warned. “Lots of money, lots of influence are on the consolidators’ side. But we have the people.

This is not red state against blue, not Democrat versus Republican, not liberal against conservative, not section versus section.

“This is grassroots, All-American, where people live. And it is, in an important way, the latest chapter in the long and often painful struggle to create equal opportunity. This issue is really a new civil rights battleground for America, and we all know that civil rights have to be fought for by every generation.”

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