Federal policy did nothing to boost diversity in media ownership
In Barack Obama's days as an U.S. senator from Illinois, he was a strong advocate of diverse media ownership, a passion that spilled over to his 2008 presidential campaign.
He included the position in a fact sheet, explaining he would "encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum.”
We also dug into the Project Vote Smart database, an online record of public statements by elected officials, and found letters Obama sent to the Federal Communications Commission in 2007 condemning plans to loosen bans on media consolidation. He said the agency would be limiting the potential for minority- and women-owned media companies to compete in large cities.
Both in the campaign promise and in past statements, Obama used the term "diversity” in reference to the background of media owners as well as the number of media owners. Using either definition, the White House has not taken public action in the direction of more diversity in the media. News reports in the past month suggest the Federal Communications Commission plans to propose looser regulations in December, allowing greater media consolidation in 20 of the country's largest metropolitan areas -- the opposite of what Obama promised.
One high-profile rule change would allow cross ownership of a newspaper and either a broadcast television station or a radio station. The current rule dates back to 1975. The Seattle Times, a long-time opponent of similar proposals, decried the potential rule change in a November editorial because "putting local journalism into a few hands and limiting the access to local media are bad for democracy. Our political system thrives on independent news gathering, viewpoints and opportunities for women and minorities.”
The full implications of the rule change are not yet evident. It might reduce the number of media owners but help preserve journalism jobs for minorities. The leading national organization that advocates for minority-owned media actually supports lifting the ban on cross ownership.
"I do not know of a single transaction that minorities wanted to do but did not happen because of cross ownership,” said David Honig, president of Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.
Honig's rationale for supporting the measure is two-fold: 1) It does not seem to impede minority media ownership, and; 2) Some consolidation in the nation's biggest cities might be necessary to preserve local journalism by trained professionals, which would serve the public interest.
The Federal Communications Commission's record under the Obama administration has been lackluster in other ways, however, according to Honig. His organization has suggested more than 40 rule changes that would benefit minority media ownership, none of which have been adopted by the commission in the past four years.
For example, Congress repealed a certificate program in 1995 that allowed the seller of a broadcast station to defer capital gains taxes on the sale if the buyer was a minority or women-owned company. A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office noted that between 1978 and 1995, 328 tax certificates resulted in 285 radio station sales and 43 television station sales to minority and women-owned companies. The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council wants the tax certificate program to be reinstated and expanded.
"It's very frustrating. That's not what we would have expected from this administration,” Honig said.
We also spoke to Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, an organization that advocates against media mergers. Aaron said virtually nothing has changed in terms of strengthening or weakening rules against media concentration under the Obama administration. One exception would be the merger of Comcast, the country's largest cable operator, and NBC Universal, a broadcasting company, which Aaron called "the biggest merger ever.”
Both Honig and Aaron were largely pessimistic that any proposed rule changes in December would result in greater diversity of media ownership.
In terms of racial, ethnic or gender diversity, the federal commission released a report this year showing white men still represent the majority of media ownership in broadcast stations. For example, women held the majority voting interests in 9.2 percent of broadcast stations in 2011. Likewise, the report found that racial minorities held the majority voting interests in 5.5 percent.
Given that diversity of media ownership did not get a boost by federal policy and advocates noted no progress on Obama's campaign pledge, we rate this a Promise Broken.
Interview with David Honig, president of Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, Nov. 19, 2012
Interview with Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, Nov. 16, 2012
The Seattle Times, FCC should heed court on media consolidation, July 8, 2011
The Seattle Times, The FCC is again ignoring nation's diversity, Nov. 11, 2012
The New York Times, F.C.C. takes on cross-ownership, Nov. 14, 2012
Federal Communications Commission, Ownership report for commercial broadcast station, Nov. 14, 2012
Government Accountability Office, Economic factors influence the number of media outlets in local markets, while ownership by minorities and women appears limited and is difficult to assess, March 2008
Project Vote Smart, Issue position: science, technology and innovation for a new generation(accessed on Nov. 19, 2012)
Project Vote Smart, Media consolidation silences diverse voices, Nov. 8, 2007
Project Vote Smart, Letter to the honorable Kevin J. Martin, chairman federal communications commission (FCC), Oct. 22, 2007
Report, review will address patterns of media ownership
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum."
The bulk of this promise should be addressed by a quadrennial review of media ownership to be undertaken in 2010 by the Federal Communications Commission. To inform this review, the FCC has been holding a series of "media ownership workshops," including one scheduled for Jan. 12, 2010. The workshops are open to the public and streamed live on the Internet.
Already, a task force advising the FCC on a report to Congress mandated by the economic stimulus bill has mentioned the issue of media ownership. The task force's interim report said that "the spread of Internet access has undermined established media models but triggered an explosion in media innovation." The final report to Congress, which is due Feb. 17, 2010, will "assess the impact of a universal broadband strategy on both commercial media and public media licensees."
The quadrennial review was going to happen in 2010 regardless, but the decision to address media ownership in the report required by the stimulus shows that the administration is paying attention to this issue. So we're rating this promise In the Works.
Text of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
Federal Communications Commission, "Options for a National Broadband Plan: Task Force Provides Framework for Final Phase in Development of Plan" ( news release ), Dec. 16, 2009
Federal Communications Commission, Web page on 2010 Review of Media Ownership Rules, accessed Jan. 6, 2010
Federal Communications Commission, "Media Bureau Announces Panelists and Agenda for Media Ownership Workshop on Financial and Marketplace Issues" ( news release ), Jan. 5, 2010