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FCC must promote diversity in media ownership

Wade Henderson and Michael Copps
FCC must promote diversity in media ownership

The media keep telling us how changing demographics are profoundly reshaping our nation, and that businesses, political parties and government must diversify to remain relevant. So why are the bearers of these truths — the same media — fighting tooth and nail to stay as homogenous as possible?

The media-dubbed “coalition of the ascendant” of women and minorities has made historic gains in our nation, yet according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), these communities own only a pittance of the mainstream media. Apparently not satisfied with their grip on the market, media conglomerates are lobbying the FCC to allow even more consolidation in the industry, effectively shutting the door to the development of a media that’s more reflective of our nation.

The numbers speak for themselves. Women — more than half of the population — own fewer than 7 percent of broadcast TV stations. And rapidly growing minority communities are even further behind. Hispanics hold only 2.5 percent of these licenses, and American Indians, African Americans, and Asian Americans all have less than 1 percent.

Contrast these numbers with those used in the myriad of post-election stories urging the Republican Party to diversify. But imagine if only 7 percent of women voted for Mitt Romney instead of 44 percent, or if he received only 2.5 percent of the Latino vote instead of 27 percent. Instead of suggestions for how the party could be more inclusive over the next four years, the stories would read more like obituaries.

The disparities in media ownership originate in our segregated past. Most broadcast licenses were originally awarded in an era when many minorities could not vote and women could not even obtain department store credit cards, let alone full-power broadcast-station licenses.

Over the years, the few mega-media companies that received these publicly subsidized licenses created huge empires by gobbling up local, independent outlets so they could homogenize and recycle programming, slash news budgets, and virtually stamp out local input. Now that they’ve maxed out the legal limit, they want these limits raised so they can continue to keep licenses out of the hands of a new, more diverse, ownership.

This media landscape has led to a distorted view of our nation that reinforces stereotypes over facts. The same media that trumpet demographic gains of minorities in the most recent election struggle to paint accurate depictions of them. Studies have shown that, through the eyes of the media, African Americans are less likely to be doctors; Latinos are more likely to be gardeners; and Asian American men are either nerds or Kung Fu masters.

Correcting this historic disparity is squarely within the powers and responsibilities of the FCC, which began talking about the problem 35 years ago but has consistently failed to do anything about it.

Since 2004, the commission has knowingly ignored court orders to conduct a thorough census on ownership rates and craft rules that take these awful disparities into consideration. When the commission finally released some base statistics last month, it failed to meet its obligation to measure the impact that more consolidation would have on minority and female ownership.

Instead of promoting diversity in media ownership, the FCC is now preparing to vote for an order that would increase consolidation, allowing big media to own even more TV and radio stations and permitting TV stations and newspapers in more cities to combine under a single masthead. The very predictable result will be more shuttered newsrooms and even less diverse ownership.

This is a far cry from the original broadcaster commitment to serve the public interest in return for free use of the people’s airwaves. If the FCC decides to cave to big media consolidation again and allow fewer companies to own our public airwaves, we will all be subject to lower quality local programming, a less competitive market environment, glitzy infotainment passed off as news, public airwaves that don’t really serve the public, and ultimately, a more distorted view of our country.

The demographic shifts are real for the country; they’re real for business; they’re real for politics. It’s time for the FCC to recognize that they’re also real for the media.

Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national Civil Rights groups. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.