WASHINGTON — On Monday, more than 100 organizations and community leaders called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the history of racism in its media policies and identify reparative actions the agency can take to redress the structural racism that exists in the U.S. media system.
In a letter sent to Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the organizations wrote: “It’s time for the FCC to acknowledge that its policies and practices are a primary reason why deep structural inequities exist in the media and telecom industries that have harmed the Black community.” The signers urged the agency to “examine the roots of its failure to create a racially just media system” and to “begin to chart a path forward toward a future abundant with repair.”
Decades of FCC policies have resulted in inequitable access to media-ownership opportunities for Black, Indigenous and Afro-Latinx communities. The first Black-owned radio station didn’t exist until the late 1940s — two decades after the establishment of the commercial radio industry. By 1969, Black people owned fewer than 12 radio outlets. And it wasn’t until 1973 that the first Black-owned commercial television station emerged.
According to Free Press research, from 1998–2007, there was a 70-percent drop in the number of full-power commercial TV stations that were Black-owned. This meant that as of 2007, Black people owned just 8 full-power commercial TV stations — 0.6 percent of all such stations. And by 2019, only 18 full-power TV stations — or just over 1 percent — were owned by Black people. Meanwhile, media corporations have aggressively and successfully lobbied to further consolidate their power over the sector, with no regard for the impacts on the Black community.
The letter was organized by Media 2070 (a project of Free Press), MediaJustice and an emerging Black-led multiracial consortium of journalists, activists and scholars. The signers are calling on policymakers, regulators and media corporations to make reparations for the U.S. media system’s history of anti-Blackness. Other signers include the African American Policy Forum, the Center for Rural Strategies, Color Of Change, Common Cause, the Future of Music Coalition, GLAAD, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, Open Technology Institute, UltraViolet Action and Writers Guild of America East.
Free Press Senior Director of Strategy and Engagement Joseph Torres, who cofounded Media 2070, made the following statement:
“In recent years, racial-justice advocates and brave whistleblowers have challenged major media organizations to address the harm they’ve inflicted within their newsrooms and in communities of color at large. But media institutions alone are not responsible for the anti-Black racism that exists in our media system. Federal policies and the choices that lawmakers and regulators have made have also played a foundational role.
“The dozens of groups that signed this letter are sending an unmistakable message to the agency that oversees U.S. media: The current system is unjust and the FCC must begin the process of repair. That starts with a thorough investigation of the history of racism in the agency’s policymaking in keeping with President Biden’s executive order calling for racial equity across all federal agencies.
“The first commercial-broadcasting licenses were issued for free in the 1920s and ’30s at the height of Jim Crow discrimination and excluded the Black community from ownership opportunities. Since that time, Black people and other communities of color have remained excluded from media ownership and left at the mercy of racist myths, misrepresentations and propaganda perpetuated by dominant media owners.
“The FCC must come to terms with the decades of harm its policies and programs have caused our communities and identify the reparative steps the agency will take to break down barriers to a just media and telecommunications system.
“2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allowed the FCC to permit runaway media consolidation. The impact has been felt in Black and Brown communities across the country, where consolidation has made it even more difficult for people of color to own broadcast outlets that serve them and their neighbors.
“But it doesn’t end there: FCC policies and inaction have resulted in a digital divide where Black, Latinx and Indigenous households are far less likely to have adequate home-broadband services than white ones. As the pandemic has made plain, this digital divide has dramatically worsened our nation’s racial inequities in education, health care, housing and other vital sectors.
“For all of these reasons we are joining together to call on the nation’s regulators and lawmakers to acknowledge the history of racism in U.S. media and pledge to upend the white supremacy that’s baked into U.S. media policies. Only then will we be able to begin to create a just and equitable media system.”