The media talk a lot about America’s changing demographics — just look at the most recent election. But, the industry itself is one of the least diverse in the U.S.
Want some numbers to start the conversation? Women own less than 7 percent of broadcast licenses and minorities hold less than 3 percent.
Those stark realities of the media industry’s diversity (or lack thereof) — including the fact that women and people of color have been hit hard in particular by newsroom layoffs in recent years — was a main point of conversation at the event “Media Ownership and the Public Interest” at the Newseum on Thursday. The conversation, co-hosted by the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative, took place in light of the Federal Communications Commission’s preparations to relax longstanding media ownership rules.
“Who owns and controls what information we get via our cell phones and traditional platforms like television and radio are central to a conversation about the very health of our democracy,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference, said in his opening remarks, arguing the FCC has failed to address racial and gender disparities in media ownership and allowed giant media companies to take priority over local programming.
The FCC is now considering easing a 1975 ban on mergers between a TV station and newspaper in the same city; changes would only pertain to the top 20 television markets. In addition, the FCC plans to allow cross-ownership between a TV station and a radio station or a newspaper and a radio station.
Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, argued against the rule changes. The last time they came up in 2007, Free Press and other public-interest groups sued the FCC and had them thrown out by a federal appeals court.
“When the courts last threw out these FCC rules, they said to the FCC: deal with the diversity first,” Aaron said. “You need to go and find out what the impact of further rules changes are going to be on diversity of media ownership before you change the rules, which seems pretty simple and yet the FCC is refusing to do it.”
Steven Waldman, visiting senior media policy scholar at Columbia University School of Journalism, agreed diversity in media ownership is a pressing issue. However, he noted it’s important to put the FCC’s potential changes in the broader context of what’s in the public interest, which he said is easing the crisis of local accountability in an era of severe cuts to local reporters covering traditional beats such as courts, schools, and local politics.
“The effects on local communities are severe,” said Waldman, former senior advisor to the FCC Chairman. “The watchdog function of journalism is eroding.”
Waldman argued the decline is hitting low-income and minority populations the hardest, and suggested a merger in some instances between a TV station and newspaper could increase local news coverage, especially if such an investment was required for the merger to take place.
Jane Mago, general counsel of the National Association of Broadcasters, called the gender and minority disparities “abysmal," adding the organization has several programs to train people in these demographics for ownership roles. However, Mago argued the FCC is now simply looking at the market and realizing there are natural synergies for TV and newspapers to merge in order to make the most of their resources.
“We’ve found that when you can have some efficiencies in the market, sometimes in the case of a TV duopoly, sometimes in the case […] of broadcast and newspaper outlets, that in fact you do have more news that is serving the local communities. They’re able to use the reporters in multiple ways and that’s something that helps.”
Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America, said he doesn’t believe the FCC’s potential changes would help the real issues in journalism today.
“We need innovation,” he said. “This current idea seems to me it increases the value of the current properties, but it’s not going to add to any employment and it’s not going to bring anything back to local communities. It’s not going to fix the problem, and it could potentially make it worse.”
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., closed the event by noting that in 1983, 50 companies owned 90 percent of American media, and today that same 90 percent is controlled by six media conglomerates. He argued this consolidation would only get worse if the FCC adopts its proposed changes.
“A vibrant democracy is not going to survive unless we have a vibrant media where we have different points of view and where it is owned by different segments of our society […],” he said. “A nation in which a handful of multinational media conglomerates control what we see, hear and read is a very dangerous situation for what many of us believe democracy should be.”