FCC Diversity Chief Says Republican Communications Policies Hurt Civil Rights
August 27, 2009 - 5:54 PMMark Lloyd, chief diversity officer at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), claimed that communications policies enacted by Republicans negatively impacted the civil rights of minorities.
Lloyd made the claim in a 1998 essay he wrote while working for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He said that two decades of Republican communications policies had eroded the gains made by the civil rights movement in minority ownership in communications.
Lloyd also said that, prior to the Reagan administration, the FCC recognized that civil rights and communications policy were linked, and he said that minority ownership of radio and television stations was necessary to correct the lack of diversity in media.
“In the late seventies, in recognition of the lack of progress made with these [equal opportunity] employment policies, the FCC ruled that minority ownership was essential to create a diverse range of messages over the public’s airwaves,” Lloyd wrote.
Among the requirements the FCC created were licensing rules that required that the public participate in the license renewal process; caps on how many radio and television stations a company could own in one city; three-year license terms; and a process called ascertainment: requiring station owners to canvas the local community to find out what the public was interested in.
Lloyd said that, starting with Reagan, the Republican-dominated FCC had rolled back these rules, and with them the gains of the civil rights community.
“[T]he great progress made by the civil rights communities in the communications policy arena has been rolled back,” Lloyd said. “The Reagan-dominated FCC destroyed the ascertainment process, arguing that it was too much of an administrative burden on the stations and the FCC.
“Licensing renewal can now be accomplished with a postcard,” he wrote. The worst blow, according to Lloyd, would come from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed by a Republican Congress allegedly beholden to big business.
“While touted as a landmark bill updating the sixty-year-old Communications Act for the benefit of U.S. consumers, the T96 Act was created by and for a communications industry dominated by global conglomerates,” said Lloyd in his essay.
The law relaxed the ownership restrictions that had prevented broadcasters from growing and competing with one another, something Lloyd says led to the further triumph of international corporations over local, minority-owned ones.
“Despite the promise of greater competition, the effect of the Act has been an unprecedented wave of consolidation,” Lloyd said. “National broadcast ownership limits were increased to 35 percent. Prohibitions limiting ownership of radio, television, and newspapers by one company in the same market were lifted, thus encouraging media consolidation and the crowding out of independent voices.
“Broadcast license periods were increased, making it virtually impossible for local communities to exercise any control over the stations licensed to serve them,” said Lloyd.
These changes combined to replace a civil rights agenda at the FCC with a commercial one, he said.
“The civil rights agenda has given way to the agenda of the commercial market,” wrote Lloyd. “The work of the civil rights community has suffered through a sustained assault by the right. The core of that assault is to deny funding to civil rights work, silence liberal voices, and set the agenda of public debate by an opposition that is better funded, more organized, and more savvy about strategic communications.
“Combined with this assault is a relentless marketing of the failed dogma of laissez-faire economics,” he wrote.
However, official reports on minority ownership of media show that while there are far fewer minority-owned outlets than white-owned ones, the reason is not FCC rules or right-wing conspiracies but simple market forces and financial issues.
A 1998 report from the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) shows that in 1998 – the same year Lloyd made his claims – increased competition and lack of capital were responsible for the meager 2.9 percent share of minority-owned stations.
“Minority broadcasters are finding it increasingly difficult to compete,” the report found. “Access to capital remains one of the most significant impediments to ownership for minorities.”
Competition, the report found, was responsible for the minority owners’ problems, as most had difficulty holding on to popular syndicated hosts and talented employees.
“Minority broadcasters also report that they are facing increased competition in securing nationally syndicated programming,” said the report. “Some minority broadcasters report that their general managers, sales managers, and on-air talent are being hired by competing non-minority group owners who can offer higher salaries and wider exposure.”
Today, the situation apparently is no different. A 2007 report commissioned by the FCC and conducted by researchers from Duke University found that while minority ownership had increased slightly, the reasons for the disparity between minority and white ownership remained.
“Since the observed ownership asymmetries are economy-wide, they are undoubtedly linked to broad systemic factors,” the report said. “[T[he most direct explanation lies in unequal access to capital. Many businesses require individuals to sink substantial financial investments upon entry. This is likely to be especially true in media enterprises.”
The only way to change this, the 2007 report said, was to redistribute wealth or increase minorities’ access to capital markets. The report did not mention license terms, renewal procedures, or ascertainment.
“[I]n order to change ownership patterns we need to either change the aggregate distribution of wealth or otherwise increase access to capital markets,” said the report.
The report specifically rejected the idea of ownership bans, saying they would not achieve a diversity of views because content was consumer-driven.
“While it is certainly true that an even distribution of ownership seems ‘fair’ and that it might promote a more balanced airing of voices, it is not at all clear that ownership restrictions are the best way to achieve these goals,” stated the report. “[R]ecent research suggests that media content is driven much more by demand considerations (i.e., consumer preferences) than supply factors (i.e., owner preferences).”
In other words, those stations best able to meet those “demand considerations” – what their customers want – are the ones that profit and prosper, and the ones that do not provide what consumers want do not succeed.
The report said: “‘Conservative’ newspapers offer a ‘conservative’ viewpoint and ‘liberal’ newspapers a ‘liberal’ viewpoint because that is what their subscribers prefer, not to satisfy the agenda of a specific owner. Since most every owner has the goal of maximizing profits [by best serving customers] it is unclear what impact ownership restrictions would in fact have.”