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MMTC’s Honig paints a grim forecast for the State of Social Justice in Media, Telecom and Broadband

I remember talking to an industry colleague at lunch one day and during the conversation she asked what was up with the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council’s 72 proposals pending before the Federal Communications Commission. She seemed to be expressing some frustration over the fact there were 72 proposals. “Why can’t the organization just pick the top salient points to present to the Commission?” she asked.  The FCC is doing the best it can,  she remarked, and should be given some credit.

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer her questions then though I had the mind then to ask her why she thought the minority community should settle.   About three months after that lunch date, coincidentally, MMTC executive director David Honig addressed that very argument about the 72 proposals in his report on the state of social justice in media, telecom and broadband at the organization’s 8th Annual Access to Capital conference this month.   He pointed out that it is unfair and essentially dismissive to ask minorities to accept a few low-hanging fruit.  He then noted that in the FCC’s Emergency Broadcasting Report, the Commission outlined 140 specific steps to preserve the emergency alert system, yet challenges the MMTC’s proposals. His point, in short, I believe was that given the fact that minorities make up a bulk of consumers of communications media but are woefully underrepresented in the employment and ownership of media, and lag behind in broadband adoption, it should be the FCC’s priority to respond to a large segment of the population that will soon make up the majority.

But the prognosis is not all bad.

The good news according to Honig’s report, given during a speech, was  that there has been substantial advancement worth noting. To the organization’s credit, it has been responsible, almost solely, for some critical inroads minorities have made in the communications industry.  Namely, the MMTC has been responsible for the increase in diverse imagery and of on-air staff on television in front of the cameras and behind, and as owners. The organization was also instrumental in getting converter boxes to poor households so the residents in them can still watch television after the broadcast stations were forced to convert their signals from the analog to digital format. Having served as a member of the board of the organization, I am extremely proud of the accomplishments it has made over the years.

However, listening a little while longer to Honig’s report and the sobering reality is that there are still many more hurdles to surmount, specifically in expanding employment and ownership opportunities; and closing the digital divide.

Employment: Citing Radio Television News Directors Association statistics, he noted that there is only 1% of minorities left in traditional terrestrial radio journalism, a percentage that hasn’t been that low since 1950.

Ownership: He mentioned a 2007 Free Press study and a 2009 MMTC study that both indicated that minority ownership has dropped by 9% in two years. Four of the 5 Hispanic-owned and controlled companies that existed in 2007 are bankrupt or nearly bankrupt.

Advertising Discrimination: He lauded the fact that the FCC decidedly voted 5 to 0 in favor of adopting an Advertising Non-discrimination rule banning “no urban dictates” and “no Spanish dictates” which are instructions from advertisers to their agencies telling them to not advertise on Black or Spanish radio.  However, he expressed disappointment that since that vote in 2007, the FCC is yet to assign a full time compliance officer to enforce the rules.

Minority ownership initiatives:
Honig reported that the Tax Certificate policy and the Distress Sale Policy which provided tax incentives to companies that sold stations they had to divest in or that were distressed to minorities have been eliminated. The only remaining initiative, the Telecommunications Development Fund, which was a capital resource for several minority start ups will be eliminated soon, Honig announced.

Section 257 Barriers to Access Report:
The FCC is quite late issuing its required report to Congress under Section 257 of the Communications Act to report on what the agency has done to lift market entry barriers for minorities. The latest was due December 2009.

Digital Divide: According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 76% of White Americans connect to the Internet but only 70% of Black Americans and 64% of Hispanics do, Honig pointed out. Similar studies on broadband adoption in the home indicate a similar grim disparity, he said.

Finally, he noted what I have always believed that access to high-speed, affordable, accessible broadband could be a great equalizer in terms of economic, social, and political empowerment for a class of people that have been lagging behind.   His final challenge was to those at the FCC who he said were smart, well meaning and balanced and fair people to do what’s right and make some of these issues a priority once again within the agencies.

I dare say, given the anti-incumbent bent of the electorate, I fear that after the mid-term elections, some of the policies needing congressional approval may be at risk of not advancing.

It’s now or never. I am hopeful that those in power choose the “now”.

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