Why Are Civil Rights Groups Neglecting Media Policy?

With the awarding of three Academy Awards to African-American actors, hopes are high for a greater appreciation and presence of people of color in Hollywood.

Yet, while Oscar winners Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, as well as the lifetime achiever Sidney Poitier, set a positive tone, their success is no more than a symbolic statuette.

Thanks to recent deregulatory decisions that foreshadow more consolidation in the U.S. media industries, minorities will continue to be grossly underrepresented in all ranks of the business, from executive level down to creative staff and working journalists and actors. Unless those who celebrate the diversity of this year's Oscar recipients, particularly civil rights groups, enlist in the larger battle against media consolidation, the opportunity to compel real, institutionalized change in the media industry will be sorely missed.

Since the start of the year, consumer advocates have been decrying decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Congress and the federal courts that pave the way for more media mergers throughout the United States. Yet, while opponents of media consolidation predict a dismal future of multi-platform monoculture, organizations that have long fought for racial equality have been uncommonly quiet about the matter of media deregulation.

Searching through the Web site of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and after attempts to reach them for comment, I couldn't find any reference to media communications and policy issues. For an organization that has more than once threatened and then abandoned a boycott of network television for the industry's lack of inclusion of minorities, the lack of response or reaction was disquieting. While they have gotten involved in digital divide issues, media ownership policy is virtually absent from the range of concerns of Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, President John F. Kennedy's brainchild civil rights group, is conspicuously silent on media policy and law.

Among the leading U.S. civil rights organizations, only the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights (LCCR), whose position on media issues surfaces irregularly, has made an effort to speak out against deregulation and in favor of local media production and ownership. Yet, despite a cautionary statement from its executive director, Wade Henderson, member groups that comprise the LCCR network have not adopted a similar concern for deregulatory trends in the media business.

Quiet Minorities

If the major civil rights groups have been quiet about the matter, the more specialized minority media groups are even quieter.

Although born of the civil rights movement and specifically charged with bringing greater diversity to the media and communications fields, these groups are ignoring policy issues relevant to their very causes. Of the five principal minority professional associations -- the UNITY Foundation, National Asian-American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists' Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and National Association of Black Journalists -- only the latter responded to the latest upheavals on the policy front.

Given that these groups are historically tied to affirmative action and other workplace initiatives, the lack of concern, particularly of FCC prospects to weaken Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines for broadcasters, seems like a major blind spot. (The Federal Appeals Court asked the FCC to rewrite the biennial process that reviews whether broadcasters are fulfilling their EEOC requirements. Given the laissez-faire stance of Chair Michael Powell and the Republican-dominated FCC, diversity hiring practices are likely to be less scrutinized, leaving media companies even more unaccountable.)

Why aren't the Asian-American, Native American, Hispanic journalists' groups and other like-minded organizations at the forefront of this debate over media policy? We know the battle for media diversity is far from won, why aren't we talking together about the ramifications of these regulation issues?

Reflecting on the inaction of civil rights groups and of minority media associations in policymaking debates on the future of media, Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, fears that the campaign to make policy issues resonate with civil rights groups may already be lost. "We need to remind people why regulation is an essential issue — for the media, for us and for or communities throughout this country," she says.

Strategies For Diversity

In 1997, Mark Lloyd, director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communication, urged civil rights organizations to consider a larger strategy to achieve a diversity of viewpoints and a plurality of media outlets that reflected the richness of a multifaceted, multicultural, multi-ethnic society. Challenging the market ideology and revaluing local media production was intrinsic to his argument. Wrote Lloyd, "The civil rights community will not be able to create sustainable reform if they do not protect the arena of public debate and empower ordinary Americans to participate."

Since Lloyd made his initial plea five years ago, the challenge to civil rights leaders is more urgent than ever. The message from Capitol Hill, the FCC's Michael Powell, appellate judges and right-leaning media practitioners such as William McGowan is that the new media landscape adequately serves diverse constituencies a diet of diverse viewpoints.

Current trends and reports by public-interest groups, however, reject this thesis. As media and communications deregulation intensifies, the civil rights angle of media and communications regulation couldn't be more relevant. With the threat of additional consolidation, inclusiveness at media outlets promises to worsen. Already at a disadvantage, minorities will struggle even further to gain entry to important decision-making positions. In a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, Michael Gormley, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, explained how converging media companies will inevitably slice local content, whittle away local staff and fill stations with national programming that rarely reflects the interests and needs of people at the community level. Despite changing demographics and growing ethnic and immigrant populations, minorities will be the first casualties in the media job market, in the newsroom and in coverage of their communities and issues.

Research by advocacy groups and academics over the years has examined deep-seeded institutional barriers to minority inclusion at media companies. What has been found is that people of color rarely assume active roles in advising program or editorial decisions. Don Heider, author of "White News: Why Local News Programs Don't Cover People of Color," and assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, finds that broadcasters superficially incorporate viewpoints of non-white constituencies. Describing the station practice of hiring news anchors of color, Heider looked at how stations in New Mexico and Hawaii, two areas with high concentration of non-white populations, felt therefore absolved of the need to incorporate ethnic diversity at higher decision-making levels. News anchors of color gave viewers the impression of diversity while more influential roles were retained by a less heterogeneous group.

Children Now, a leading media research and advocacy group based in Oakland, California, also links diversity at the decision-making level to diversity of voices in the media. Their "Prime Time Colors," a study of diversity in children's programming during the prime time viewing hours, found disproportionately low levels of ethnic representation in the casts and storylines of network television shows. Faulting decision-makers at stations, Children Now spokesperson Kevin Donegan explains that "diversity on screen is representative of people who make decisions about programming. These programs reflect the tastes of relatively similarly-minded decision-makers rather than the diverse needs of local communities."

Without mixed representation at the top, media companies are simply not going far enough to reflect demographic changes in local communities. The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) argued that, in view of census data, racial parity at the decision-making level should have been at 27.1 percent. Yet, in last year's survey of television stations nationwise, RTNDA found that minorities held 8.7 percent of general manager jobs in television. Also in 2001, the percentage of minority news directors at television stations fell to eight percent from 14 percent in 2000. Citing that the percentage of minority news directors was eight percent in 1999 just as in 2001, RTNDA called the increase in 2000 an anomaly.

The fallout of these findings is clear: Without representation in the media, minorities are less likely to be involved in the larger social, economic and political frameworks of the United States, as well as of global civil society. As deregulation leads to more media mergers and acquisitions, minorities will have less wherewithal to vote, enter public debate and shape political outcomes that affect our everyday lives.

Sadly, the wheel of misfortune is already spinning. As minority media groups increasingly face obstacles in the business, they are being forced to lower their expectations. The announcement that the American Society of Newspaper Editors is moving back their target date for achieving racial parity from 2000 to 2025 underscores the retreat from vigorous activism and education in the industry. Far from being won, the campaign for equal opportunity in the media and communications industry is flailing. With rising difficulties to racial parity in the industry, participation of minorities plummets. Unless civil rights organizations assume a leadership role in policy debates on deregulation of the media industry, the cycle can only get worse.

Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a writer, media scholar and adviser to the Policy Center at MediaChannel.


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