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We Still Need Diversity and Minority Ownership in our Media

Sandra Fulton,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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January 19, 2012

We rely on the media to help us make informed decisions by presenting not just the details of important issues, but also a variety of perspectives and opinions surrounding them. Unfortunately a new proposal from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would weaken important existing protections that ensure our free access to media of all varieties.

When media companies are consolidated and huge monopolies are formed (for example, Rupert Murdoch’s expansive News Corporation), local media is often bought up, the range of voices is changed to one voice, and we lose those vital voices in our communities. Recognizing the importance of a diversity of opinions in media coverage, the FCC established media ownership rules in the 1970s to promote competition and diversity in our media by protecting local markets from being controlled by a small handful of media companies.

The FCC proposal, which was published in today’s Federal Register (a daily publication with notifications and proposed rules by the federal government), moves to relax the rules restricting ownership of both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market. These rules protect against the kind of consolidation that kills local stations and newspapers that can’t compete against large media conglomerates.

Despite the existing protections, the market is still shrinking as media is becoming increasingly consolidated. Currently, six major companies control most of the news in this country, including many of the most popular Internet news sites. In 2011 alone we saw a huge period of media consolidation and record breaking mergers. E.W. Scripps bought nine stations from McGraw-Hill for $212 million last October. And, in the single biggest television station acquisition in four years, Sinclair Broadcast Group bought eight TV stations from Freedom Communications for $385 million.

This is the third time the FCC has attempted to weaken these rules protecting diversity (Congress requires the FCC to review media ownership rules every four years). Previous attempts were overruled in the courts. In both cases, the courts were specifically concerned with the lack of representation of women and minorities in the media and the effect a weakening of the rules would have on them. The courts have repeatedly called on the FCC and the media to gather data on women and minority ownership in media and they have repeatedly failed to do so. In fact, in 2011 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the court said that the agency had “punted yet again on this important issue” and accused the FCC of ignoring evidence that media concentration makes it harder for women and people of color to break into the industry and become broadcast station owners.

In our complex and diverse society, local media plays an important and necessary role in covering a range of issues from the perspective of underrepresented communities — particularly women and minorities. Even the rise of the Internet has not changed this fundamental dynamic; a recent Pew Center study found that 74 percent of Americans still watch local television broadcasts or visit local television websites at least once a week.

Minority ownership also improves civil engagement. A young Latina woman is likely to be more engaged by someone from a similar background as compared to a white male from out of town. Studies bear this out. According to researchers, there are higher voting rates in minority communities where radio station owners are of the same ethnicity.

A healthy democracy requires a robust and diverse press to enrich the marketplace of ideas and provide for a well-informed citizenry, which in turn requires media that is representative of our complex and diverse society. The ACLU believes that in order to best serve the people and our democracy, the FCC should hold on to rules that encourage diversity and media ownership by women and minority communities.

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