Copps Urges FCC to Boost Minority Media Ownership

Michael Copps, director of Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Initiative and a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, delivered these remarks today at a meeting of the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters in Washington, D.C.

Thanks to my friend, Jim Winston, for inviting me to be a part of this distinguished panel today. NABOB is one of my favorite groups, as Jim will tell you, and I always enjoy visiting with you.

“What is Washington Going to Accomplish Before and After Election 2012?” This could be a very brief session! Before the election? Not much. After the election? That depends on you and me.

Let’s talk about what you and I have been pushing for so many years-how to get more diversity in media ownership. Minority and female ownership. You know the sad numbers better than I do and how dismally our current media reflect the interests, issues and cultures of our rainbow country. (By the way, Jesse Jackson sent a powerful message on this very issue yesterday morning when he delivered the prestigious Everett Parker Lecture over at the First Congregational Church before a packed crowd of Washington insiders, FCC Commissioners present and past, and a lot of public interest advocates.)

When a country is one-third minority and people of color own only 3% of its full power, commercial television stations, something is wrong. Not only are the numbers askew. They make our culture askew. Minority issues and minority contributions to American culture are shockingly under-represented in our media. When minorities do appear, it is so often in caricature. Who, with a straight face, can really claim there is anything approaching equitable, real-world coverage of minorities and their concerns? Why so few programs with a minority focus? With no minority lead characters? Why do so many interviews look so white and so male so much of the time?

To me, we won’t have the kind of diversity you and I are after-diversity in programming, diversity in news coverage, diversity of viewpoint-until we do something about building diversity into who owns and operates our media outlets. There’s a basic truism here. Ownership matters. Big time. It makes a world of difference when it comes to what news is covered, what issues are teed up for the civic dialogue, and who is asked to participate in a program. So when one-third of our potential ownership universe is shut out of ownership, the results are sadly predictable. And they are everywhere around us.

And note this: I’m not just talking about the traditional media of TV and radio. I’m equally worried about the new world of broadband and the Internet. The ownership-/management/employment statistics for “new media” companies surely aren’t breaking any civil rights or equal opportunity records, are they? And remember this: the overwhelming majority of what news is featured on the Internet-in fact, well over 90% of it-still originates in traditional media newsrooms, even though there is much less of it being produced thanks to all the media consolidation and shuttering of broadcast newsrooms that we have endured . Most of the major news sites on the Internet are controlled by media conglomerates whose holdings include old media, too. And new media shows disturbing signs of heading down the same road of consolidation and control by a few that wreaked such havoc on radio and TV. Wouldn’t it be tragic if the awesome, opportunity-creating power of broadband would end up as a cableized Internet? Could happen!

The solution, my friends, is not rocket science. There’s no shortage of ideas. NABOB and Jim and many of you and MMTC and even the FCC’s own Diversity Advisory Committee have come up with dozens of recommendations. Some of the 70-plus proposals that have been made include giving preference in FCC licensing to otherwise qualified individuals or entities that have confronted and overcome substantial disadvantages; giving media companies incentives to incubate small disadvantaged businesses; providing small start-up firms extra time to fund and construct their facilities; making better use of channels 5 and 6 as a home for new non-commercial stations; creating a Civil Rights Branch at the FCC to enforce compliance with the civil rights and Equal Opportunity (EEO) statutes. Why don’t we have up-or-down votes on these recommendations at the FCC? I suggested as a Commissioner that we vote on one of these recommendations at each of our monthly agenda meetings. It didn’t strike me as a particularly radical idea, but it just didn’t seem to fly. I make the suggestion again now.

Let’s look a little more broadly. Let’s think about factoring in diversity in everything the FCC does. Spectrum auctions are the excitement of the day. OK-are we going to have some real incentives, akin to our old Designated Entity rules, as we auction off spectrum rights? “Well, that doesn’t work in this space,” I’ve been told. I say: prove it. You know, there’s a goal of finding 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless enterprises. But just a wholesale transfer of spectrum rights from big broadcasters to big wireless companies misses the target. We need balance here, fine-tuning, a commitment to preserve diversity broadcast stations, and to find innovative ways to grow them. If the Commission isn’t thinking seriously about diversity licensing for a meaningful part of this 500 MHz, our communications environment will look a lot more like the pre-civil rights days of the 1950s than the democratic commons of the Twenty-first century. Here’s another idea: a prime-time set-aside on the networks for independently-produced programming that would encourage entry by minority entrepreneurs and other unaffiliated businesses. Also we could use unlicensed spectrum for diversity broadcast stations which, while it may annoy the bean-counters at OMB, could create a multitude of new diversity outlets. And, one of my favorite ideas: revoke licenses from those whose use of the people’s airwaves isn’t serving the public interest and give those licenses to individuals and enterprises that will serve the common good. Aren’t the people’s airwaves supposed to serve the people?

These are modest proposals. They don’t come close to race-conscious suggestions to remedy the ills of past discrimination. Longer-term, we will need more aggressive solutions. But to get those ideas past the courts, the FCC needs to have its legal justifications ready. It doesn’t. We still have to update the Adarand studies that were compiled under the leadership of Chairman Bill Kennard a dozen years ago. Resources need to be invested in this job immediately. The Third Circuit has repeatedly told us of its lost patience with FCC inaction on this front. The Commission knows full-well what is needed in these studies. It should fund them immediately, establish a deadline of June 1, 2013, to have them done, vetted and ready-to-go. You know, I spent over a decade as a Commissioner, and I was (an am) appalled at the lack of priority accorded to these issues of minorities, media and our democracy.

These are not issues to push under the rug until the election is past. It’s so difficult to make anything happen after elections if commitments aren’t made before those elections. I believe our challenge is to take these issues to the grassroots. That’s why I have joined forces with Common Cause and their nation-wide public interest network to stimulate discussion and action on the declining state of our nation’s media, news and information infrastructure. It’s why you need to take this message home, put it on the air where you can, spread it other ways where you can’t, and bring the kind of pressure that has always been required to win civil rights. To me, and I hope to you, reforming America’s media is the civil rights priority of today, because it’s key to opening the doors of opportunity, rescuing America from its many nation-threatening problems, and realizing an American Dream that delivers for every single citizen in the land. It is a challenge worthy of those who went before us and fought and sacrificed for an Equal Opportunity America. Let’s tackle this civil rights challenge with the same kind of commitment.