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The entrance to the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Rob Pegoraro/Flickr cc)

Future FCC Leaders Must Repair the Harms That Agency Policies Have Inflicted on Black and Brown Communities

FCC policies have helped create the conditions for racist and anti-democratic disinformation campaigns to rapidly metastasize and spread.

Joseph Torres

As the U.S. Senate is set to hold confirmation hearings on the nominations of Jessica Rosenworcel and Gigi Sohn to respectively become the next chairwoman and commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, it's important to remember the political stakes that await them at the agency.

Earlier this year, our country witnessed an attempted coup that demonstrated once more that democracy is never certain and the struggle to fully realize a multiracial one remains in peril. On Jan. 6, enduring racist narratives were weaponized to fuel a lie that served the goal of preserving a white-racial hierarchy.

These policies have prevented communities of color from telling their own stories or countering harmful portrayals from dominant white-media companies.

President Biden has selected two dedicated public servants who are thoroughly qualified. If confirmed, Rosenworcel will become the first woman to serve as the FCC's chair on a non-interim basis. And she will take the helm of the agency during a time of uncertainty about our nation's future.

Just like our democracy, our media system is ailing and has never been truly democratic. FCC policies have helped create the conditions for racist and anti-democratic disinformation campaigns to rapidly metastasize and spread.

The FCC has long promoted policies that have allowed for massive consolidation in the TV and cable industries by media conglomerates that are accountable solely to their shareholders rather than the communities they are entrusted to serve.

As a result, there is little expectation for TV and cable industries to use their healthy earnings from operating a broadcast license or a cable franchise to strengthen the kinds of local journalism that can act as a potential antidote to racist disinformation.

But the condition of our media system is also due to the racist policies the FCC has adopted since its creation in 1934. Many of these are inherently anti-democratic and have excluded the Black community and other communities of color from media-ownership opportunities. These policies have prevented communities of color from telling their own stories or countering harmful portrayals from dominant white-media companies.

A 1969 report from the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service made this point clear:  "[F]ew American institutions have so completely excluded minority group members from influence and control as have the news media. This failure is reflected by general insensitivity and indifference and is verified by ownership, management, and employment statistics."

By 2019, Black people owned only 18 full-power TV stations—or just over 1 percent of all stations. 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. This despite the fact that people of color make up an estimated 43 percent of the U.S. population.

These dire statistics didn't stop the National Association of Broadcasters from arguing before the Supreme Court earlier this year that the FCC should not have to consider the impact of any media-ownership rule changes on people of color.

Today, we have a consolidated media system in which too many TV and cable companies are in the hands of those who are complicit in amplifying racist narratives. Like social-media platforms, TV and cable companies are all too aware that conflict and divisiveness are good for their bottom line. But these dominant media narratives reinforce the myth of Black inferiority and are used politically to build support for policies that harm not just the Black community and other communities of color but white working-class communities, too.

On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order that calls for all federal agencies to "assess whether, and to what extent, [their] programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups." The directive also "strongly encouraged" independent agencies, like the FCC, to comply with the directive.

Last June, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D–New York) authored a letter — signed by 24 of his congressional colleagues — that calls on the FCC to conduct a racial-equity audit to "address and redress the harm the agency's policies and programs have caused Black and brown communities."

In September, Free Press' Media 2070 project, which advocates for media reparations for the Black community, sent a similar letter to the FCC that was signed by more than 100 organizations and community leaders. Together they called on the Commission 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."

In response to these calls, Rosenworcel told Communications Daily: "We can't build a better, more equitable future without a reckoning of how our past continues to influence our present and how too many communities continue to be overlooked and underserved."

Conducting a racial-equity audit is critical for the FCC to begin the process of reconciling and repairing the harm its policies have caused to the Black community and other communities of color—and to begin eradicating racism from our media system's DNA.

This process is needed in the struggle to heal our ailing media system and ensure our democracy—a multiracial one—has a chance to survive in the future. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Joseph Torres

Joseph Torres

Joseph Torres is senior external affairs director at Free Press, and co-author, with Juan Gonzalez, of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.

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