Those missing media voices

by Carolyn Byerly, TomPaine.com

The case of the missing voices arose again two weeks ago during national network election coverage. As the votes rolled in and the nation made a political shift on November 7, who was there to probe its meaning for the nation’s female majority or the emerging multicultural sector? Women comprise more than half the population in the United States, and people of color are approaching half. Yet as we approach 2007, new studies reveal that women and minorities are making little progress in taking control of America’s broadcast media.

In these stark political moments we are reminded of the seriousness of who owns, operates, and controls the content of the nation’s broadcast media—factors that determine who gets to be seen and heard in those essential channels of communication. While newspapers have always been the main source of news content, it is the broadcast media that remain the primary source of most people’s news and information. In addition, since the 1930s every radio or television station with a broadcast license has been obliged, by law, to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” because they are using the public airwaves. But there’s a catch or two.

The Federal Communications Commission, charged with monitoring compliance with the public interest requirement, has shirked its duty to see that broadcast stations truly serve their listening publics’ needs. The formulas for determining the localism and public interest principles have always been weak, and wealthy broadcasters have had the resources to argue in their own behalf both before the FCC and the courts.

The power of the wealthy broadcasters resulted in two major policy decisions which have affected minority and women’s control of the airwaves. First, the suspension of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a regulation that required broadcasters to provide competing points of view on issues of public controversy. In years since, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in conservative commentators and talk show hosts—like Rush Limbaugh—and a gradual disappearance of public affairs programming in lieu of entertainment. The question, then, is whether diverse audiences can be served if the public spaces designated to debate matters of pressing concern—war, widening gap between rich and poor, and laws that favor the wealthy—are disappearing?

Deregulation has also limited minorities’ and women’s loss of access to the airwaves. Though the wheels were set into motion with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the Telecommunications Act was passed by Congress in 1996, with full support (and signature) of President Bill Clinton, kicked deregulation into high gear. This law gave the FCC a green light to remove almost all barriers to mergers and acquisitions within the industry. Because they had less money to compete in a rapidly consolidating field where the rich dominated, women and minority media owners lost out in the process. The much discussed media oligopoly today—Time-Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom—has a gender and a race, and the media content it produces, most especially what passes for public affairs programming, reflects those demographics: male, white, western, wealthy, powerful.

Historically small, women’s and minorities’ share in broadcast enterprises has only decreased under deregulation. In 1982, the FCC found that women were majority owners of 8.5 percent of the AM stations, 9 percent of the FM stations, and 2.8 percent of the television stations across the country. My own recent research, published in the Benton and Social Science Research Council report “Big Media does not Equal Better Media,” shows a marked decline, putting the present figure for women’s ownership closer to 3.4 percent, most of that in radio stations. The same study found minority-owned stations to be presently around 3.6 percent of the 12,844 commercial stations reporting to the FCC. That represents a 30 percent decrease in the total number of black-owned television stations since 1998, according to S. Derek Turner and Mark Cooper's new report, “Out of the Picture."  The total number of stations increased in that the same time period.

My study also called into question the very meaning of a “women-owned station,” since three-fourths of the 436 companies are actually owned by both men and women. In fact, at many so-called “women-owned stations,” women actually hold less than 60 percent of the vote. Women-owned stations are also challenged in their ethnic balance, with 83 percent of the owners being white, not of Hispanic descent. This finding suggests that women of color experience the greatest structural barriers of all to media ownership. What does this say for their right to participate in public discourse and the democracy associated with it?

When women and minorities don’t have access to media that reflects their experience, they feel less engaged. In a series of face-to-face interviews with 196 ethnic-minority women and men in the Washington, D.C., area I conducted with colleagues, we learned that minorities overwhelmingly prefer minority-owned stations. Participants said they trust these stations to “know what’s going on” and “tell me the truth.”

Participants mostly believed the news did not help them to understand crime, rising costs of living and other problems they face each day. They criticized the dominance of negative news and what they believed to be racist coverage of crime, which they said blames black people without examining causes or solutions to criminal activity. Participants wanted to hear news from “the perspectives of those who experience the problems,” not just from police or other authorities.

Both studies and several others, were timed to coincide with the ending of the Federal Communications Commission’s public comment period on media ownership, which opened in July and closed October 23. The FCC received more than 160,000 comments and reports from public interest attorneys, academic researchers and citizens.

Commissioners are presently reviewing these studies and comments as they take up the media ownership issues, something they were required to do when a federal court in 2004 ruled in the Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC case.  The case, brought by the Media Access Project on behalf of small radio stations, stopped implementation of media deregulation that the FCC had adopted earlier. That same ruling told the Commission it would have to revisit a number of issues, including broadcast ownership by women and minorities.

While the data and the history behind them paint a rather dismal picture at present, the optimist might take heart in the possibility of sunnier days ahead. For one thing, more and more scholars in media studies are pursuing research concerned with the contours, structures and effects of women and minorities’ exclusion from media ownership. The data from our work is being used by public interest attorneys to argue for more egalitarian regulatory policy. In addition, there is finally an activist infrastructure of individuals and organizations that are mobilizing citizens to get involved with media regulation.

The airwaves belong to the public, and the public, in all its diversity, is now demanding accountability. 

Many in the movement will gather for the third Media Reform Conference, to be held in Memphis, January 12-14, 2007. Details about registration are available at the Free Press website, www.freepress.net/conference.

article originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views06/1120-25.htm.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey