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The racial-justice uprisings that have taken place for years and engaged tens of millions of people globally in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder have forced many of our nation’s media institutions to deal with their own histories of racism.
In late August, the Columbia Journalism Review became the latest publication to acknowledge that it “has too often been deficient at covering institutional racism in the country.” PBS President Paula Kerger admitted that month that she “did not fully appreciate” the network’s deficiencies when it comes to issues of diversity. And last year, the Los Angeles Times and The Kansas City Star both apologized for their decades of racist coverage.
These media mea culpas are necessary. But we must go beyond the failings of individual media companies and look at the policies that have allowed them to dominate news and information in the United States at the expense of a more just media system. It’s critical for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the history of racism in its policymaking and begin to repair the damage it has done.
In September, more than 100 organizations and community leaders submitted a letter to FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urging the agency to “acknowledge that its policies and practices are a primary reason why deep structural inequities exist in the media and telecom industries that have harmed the Black community.”
The letter was organized jointly by Free Press’ Media 2070 project, which advocates for media reparations for the Black community, and MediaJustice, a leader in the movement to create just and participatory media. Signers include the African American Policy Forum, BLD PWR, Color of Change, Greenpeace US, Mijente and the National Association of Black Journalists.
The Media 2070 letter followed one from U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) and 24 of his House colleagues, who called on the FCC to conduct an equity audit to “address and redress the harm the agency’s policies and programs have caused Black and brown communities.”
There are signs the agency might be willing to take action. In response to these letters, Rosenworcel told trade journal Communications Daily: “We can’t build a better, more equitable future without a reckoning of how our past continues to influence our present and how too many communities continue to be overlooked and underserved.”
Rosenworcel’s statement is noteworthy. The United States must come to terms with the ways racist media policies have excluded the Black community from owning and controlling our nation’s media infrastructure or having access to it. And the FCC is a critical place to begin this reckoning.
Early broadcast regulators awarded commercial broadcast licenses exclusively to white owners during a time of racial segregation and racial terrorism. When the U.S. government formed the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, it allowed an organ of the Ku Klux Klan to own a D.C.-area radio station in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Following the creation of the FCC in 1934, giant companies like CBS and NBC prospered off the public airwaves and were well-positioned to continue to adapt when television took over radio as the dominant broadcasting medium.
The FCC permitted the public airwaves to be used by broadcasters that fought to maintain a white-racial hierarchy following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. The White Citizens’ Council, a white-segregationist organization, produced a syndicated TV and radio program during the civil rights movement that often featured racist lawmakers like the late Sen. Strom Thurmond as guests.
The racial uprisings of the late 1960s, however, did prompt our government to acknowledge systemic racism in our society, including in our media system. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — also known as the Kerner Commission — investigated the root causes of the uprisings. Its 1968 report found that the white news media “repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”
A 1969 report from the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service stated, “Few American institutions have so completely excluded minority group members from influence and control as have the news media. This failure is reflected by general insensitivity and indifference and is verified by ownership, management, and employment statistics.”
We’re still dealing with the same issues 50 years later, even as various media organizations have promised to diversify their workforces and improve their coverage. The recent “Leavers” survey of 101 journalists of color found that racism, sexism, low pay and a lack of commitment to public-service journalism were among the primary reasons that many left the industry midcareer. And a new GAO report found that Latinx workers are woefully underrepresented throughout the media industry.
The FCC has talked about the importance of increasing broadcast ownership by women and people of color but has continued in past administrations under both parties to adopt policies that allow runaway media consolidation. Media conglomerates have concentrated their control over local TV and radio stations, effectively preventing the Black community and other communities of color from opportunities to own more broadcast outlets.
Meanwhile, this year the National Association of Broadcasters argued before the Supreme Court that the FCC should not have to consider the impact of any media-ownership rule changes on women and people of color. The Supreme Court didn’t rule in the lobby’s favor on that question, but it did allow the last FCC’s latest ownership rule repeal to stand, further harming communities of color.
These regulatory conditions are the primary reason why as of 2019, Black people owned only 18 full-power TV stations in our country — or just over 1 percent. And people of color overall own just 6 percent of all full-power TV stations despite making up 43 percent of the U.S. population.
These failures are inherently anti-democratic and do not bode well for the future of a multiracial society. Primarily white-led media institutions continue to produce anti-Black narratives that undermine the health and well-being of the Black community.
The FCC must open a public inquiry that examines how racism has shaped its policy and licensing decisions, and this audit must guide the agency’s steps toward repair. While the agency conducts this investigation, it should institute a do-no-harm policy. That means imposing a moratorium on any decisions that would permit even more consolidation of our media and telecommunications systems.
The Media 2070 project was created to demand media reparations for the Black community. We are working in coalition with journalists, community leaders, artists, advocates and others to radically transform who has the media capital to tell their own stories. This includes developing reparative media policies that undo the harm structural racism has caused.
Among the questions we’ve asked ourselves and others engaging the project is what kind of reparative policies are needed. What would it look like if Black people had an abundance of Black-led news organizations serving our communities? What would it look like if media policies ensured that Black communities had equitable ownership and control of our own local and national media outlets and over our own online media platforms? What if our media system built autonomy and self-determination for resource-rich Black communities rather than extracting wealth for white media owners?
We will know that reparative policy changes have worked when the media’s anti-Black narratives — including the myth of Black inferiority and the material conditions it enables — have been dismantled.
We must sow the seeds for a more just and equitable media and dismantle media’s role in supporting a white-racial hierarchy over content and control. An FCC intervention is an essential step to undoing policies that have played a pivotal role in creating these inequities.
Alicia Bell is a co-creator of Media 2070. She served as the founding director of Media 2070 and is now director of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. With Juan González, Joseph Torres coauthored the 2011 New York Times best-seller News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.
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