Advocates Warn that FCC Changes on Media Ownership Could Undermine Diversity

Civil rights advocates are warning that racial and gender disparities in media ownership could be exacerbated by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to relax the rule regulating conglomerate ownership of both newspaper and broadcast media outlets.

The FCC has twice attempted to make changes to the 30-year-old rule. In its last attempt in 2007, the agency maintained that consolidating media ownership would allow companies to cut costs and better support local journalism. However, on both occasions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the FCC’s actions because of its failure to investigate the impact on media diversity.

Panelists warned that by allowing mergers between a TV station and newspaper in the same city, big media would increase in power as they take over or push out local, independent outlets. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in his opening remarks that the threat to these local outlets would severely limit opportunities for women, who currently own less than 7 percent of broadcast TV stations, and minorities, who own less than 3 percent, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Free Press.

“What is really at stake are equal opportunity and equal access to communication, as well as the very health and well-being of our democracy,” said Henderson at the outset of the event. “The demographic shifts are real for our country. They’re real for business. They’re real for politics. It’s time for the FCC to recognize that they’re also real for the media.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted that in 1983 fifty companies owned 90 percent of the media, whereas today they are in the hands of only six. Sanders said that it would be a disaster if one big nationwide conglomerate” were to result.

One of the biggest problems of consolidated media ownership is that as media outlets combine, so do the staff, programs, and news stories. The resulting surplus of resources and material, especially in light of the current economy, leads to job cuts and dilution of content. Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild, said that women and minority employees are usually the ones to be laid off. Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, also said that six minority stations have been lost within the past year because the “targets of acquisition” by the “big guys” are minority-owned outlets.

Jane Mago, executive vice president and general counsel of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), said that the NAB is taking the issue of diversity seriously.  NAB is implementing programs such as the Broadcast Leadership Training, which teaches the basics of getting into the broadcast business. “The real problem [of diversity in media] isn’t structural [ownership], it’s access to capital,” she said.

Aaron countered that there is a clear relationship between diversity in viewpoint and diversity in ownership, since the owners ultimately decide the content of their news.

Civil and human rights organizations have long been advocating for more diversity in media ownership and welcomed the FCC’s recent announcement of a new opportunity for community groups to apply for licenses to start local radio shows on low power FM stations.