Federal Communication Policy and the Case for Quaker Action
The May, 2010 addition of the MARStar newsletter featured a piece on racial equity. We received a lot of feedback about the story including an offer from Carolyn Byerly to write an additional article about her active role in trying to reshape national communications policy around women and minority media ownership. She believes that one barrier to a national dialogue about race (and also gender) relations is that people of color and women have almost no control of media companies. What follows is her response to "Conversations about Race and Equity."
by: Carolyn M. Byerly
Federal communication policy may not seem like an obvious focus for Quaker interest. As a Quaker who has been involved with public communication policy for several years, however, I believe this is something that should well inspire interest and action on the part of Friends. There are key social justice issues that interface closely with longstanding Quaker concerns that I try to outline briefly in this short piece.
Mass media – television, radio, newspapers – have suffered the same travesties of deregulation that other industries have in recent years. These industries entertain us and our children, but more important, their news and public affairs content shape public knowledge and debate on issues of our time and influence policy making of all kinds. The companies that own and operate the various media command substantial power in both our own nation and across the world. Their power derives not just from the values and messages imbedded in their content but also from the enormous wealth they possess to spend on political campaigns and to lobby for specific laws and policies. In fact, “the media” – what the telecommunications companies are collectively referred to – comprise the world’s second largest source of revenue, with only the pharmaceutical industry outpacing them, according to UN figures for at least 15 years.
Before I delve into the law and policy issues that we might, as Quakers, want to involve ourselves in, let’s explore a few specifics about the problems associated with parent companies of television, radio, and film.
- U.S. laws and regulatory policies since the 1980s have encouraged the concentration of ownership (conglomeration), resulting in the rapid pattern of mergers and acquisitions that shape our present media landscape. The most important of these laws was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively removed the limits of how many companies a single corporation could own. Thus, today, we have only six large parent companies that own the majority of newspapers, television & radio stations, film studios, book publishing firms, and public relations firms. These are General Electric, Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner and Viacom. All of these have global reach.
- Some of these parent corporations are “mixed conglomerates” and also own companies engaged in weapons manufacturing and nuclear power production. NBC, for example, is owned by General Electric, a major world manufacturer of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. These products are harmful in and of themselves, but they also spawn corporate behavior with far-reaching impacts. The company has wielded its enormous profits to lobby for a return to nuclear energy and to elect candidates that are sympathetic to both its war and energy goals. For example, in 2008, NBC excluded anti-war presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich from participating in the televised candidate debate only a few hours before the debate was to be telecast. The company had earlier extended an invitation to Rep. Kucinich but then revised its criteria so that only candidates Clinton, Obama, and Edwards would be included. Kucinich’s campaign issued a statement saying, "When 'big media' exert their unbridled control over what Americans can see, hear, and read, then the Constitutional power and right of the citizens to vote is being vetoed by multi-billion corporations that want the votes to go their way." Company values specifically control informational content in other ways, as well. Ask when was the last time we saw critical news coverage of war, or an exposé of the nuclear power industry?
- The concentration of ownership among media industries since the 1980s has resulted in the marginalization of ownership by women and racial minorities. Research by myself (Byerly 2006) and the advocacy group Free Press (Turner 2006, Turner & Cooper 2006) shows that females and racial minorities, who’ve always had a difficult time competing against large well-funded white male corporate giants, have not been able to hang onto their television and radio stations since deregulation began. Both own in the low single digits at present, around 6%, and this has declined from higher ownership levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Consider the case of Black Entertainment Television (BET), for example, which Viacom bought from African American owner Robert Johnson in 2001. BET programming was once full of vital interview programs, talk shows, news and other public affairs on race relations and other issues relevant to the Black community. Viacom has now ended all of that, substituting music and other entertainment programming. Other minorities are also affected. Subervi-Vélez (2008) found that the Latino-oriented radio stations that dominates in his state of Texas are nearly all controlled by white-owned companies and they broadcast almost nothing but music. Women-owned stations are nearly all located in small rural areas and struggle to stay afloat; for this reason, most do not broadcast programming with a pro-women’s rights orientation. Many women owners have been selling off their stations to larger conglomerates with big pay checks. The vital concern is that women and racial minorities today have lost access to the airwaves that federal law has recognized as a publicly-owned resource since 1934. Who will speak for them now?
- The government’s regulatory arm, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees a wide range of activities that affect who has access to the Internet, a critically important communications space that is replacing conventional media in many ways. Large powerful corporations are lobbying for dominance in cyberspace by limiting access to citizens and citizen groups. Will the Internet remain a democratic space under a principle of “net neutrality” (with common access for all), or will it too become the domain of the powerful?
These are social justice concerns for Quakers whose testimonies of nonviolence and equality have long led Friends into the public policy arenas where matters of war and the status of women and racial minorities were decided. The FCNL has not yet taken up communications policy as an area of concern, though I believe to do such would be entirely in keeping with its mission. Nor have individual Meetings, to my knowledge, taken up a study of communications policy as a way to inform Friends of a crucial area for Quaker action. Other progressive Christian groups have long been deeply involved in communication policy. The United Church of Christ was the first religious group to legally challenge racist speech in radio in the 1960s, during segregation. Today, the UCC’s communications office continues actively to shape federal policy through education, litigation, and comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on ownership and other policy matters, particularly as these affect racial minorities.
As I write, the FCC prepares to commission a series of studies associated with media ownership. Together, these studies will produce the metrics to guide the FCC’s formulation of rules and other policies associated with broadcast and other media ownership. This is an ideal time for Friends to inform themselves about these activities and to weigh appropriate kinds of involvement. A visit to two websites is a good place to begin. Free Press (www.freepress.net) has extensive information about media ownership, democracy, and pending action in the halls of policy making. The FCC’s website (www.fcc.gov) has a link to Media Bureau, which is a big dense but contains much current and historical information to ground Friends in policy at the federal level.
My role in federal communication policy emerged through my academic work, which is shaped by my Quaker consciousness. I serve on the faculty of the journalism department at Howard University, a historically black institution with a stated mission to advance the status of underrepresented groups. Some of my research tracks media ownership with respect to gender and race, and I have frequently submitted written and oral comments to the FCC, as well as met with Media Bureau staff. The last of these activities contributed to the FCC’s adoption of new reporting procedures for station owners, something that will greatly improve public access to ownership information, beginning in Fall 2010.
Carolyn M. Byerly is professor, Department of Journalism, Howard University, Washington, DC. Correspond with her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also a member at Bethesda Friends Meeting.