June 2, transnational corporations claiming to be American
citizens are likely to win permission to complete their conquest
and consolidation of U.S. mass media, both broadcast and print.
Their servant is Colin Powell's son, Michael, chairman of
the Federal Communications Commission and the most anti-public
overseer of the public airwaves since passage of the Federal
Communications Act of 1934.
intent on nullifying the public hearings process, has doubtless
committed a host of felonies in smoothing the way for the
final conglomerization of broadcasting. The beneficiaries
of the political power that grows out of radio and television
ownership have enforced a near universal silence on the issue.
In addition to the media giants that already control the vast
bulk of what is electronically seen and heard in the United
States, the print opinion leaders of The New York Times, The
Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post have all urged final
deregulation of broadcasting, so that they might sit at the
feast table with the handful of broadcast and cable conglomerates.
conspiracy of silence is designed to ensure that we hear nothing
but what rich white men in suits want to say - forever.
is impossible to exaggerate the consequences that flow from
corporate monopolization of media. However, it can be argued
that effective electronic media monopoly has already been
achieved through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, legislation
that the FCC describes as allowing "any communications
business [to] compete in any market against any other,"
but which in practice allows the big fish to swallow up the
less big while exterminating the small.
Black radio experience
terms of effective Black access, the airwaves have long been
a wasteland. In a fundamental political sense, all
corporations resist popular power and speak a common language
of profit - including Black-owned media corporations, once
they have gained sufficient foothold in the marketplace. The
corporatization of the media message has proceeded
without interruption since well before the FCC's Fairness
Doctrine was finally discarded, in 1987.
Doctrine imposed responsibility on broadcast owners to encourage
and facilitate the airing of all sides of controversial issues.
In the late Sixties through the Seventies, FCC rules were
interpreted as requiring stations licensed to serve Black
audiences to demonstrate that their programming provided the
public with practical avenues of access to the airwaves. As
a result, Black-oriented radio stations got "Blacker,"
whether they were owned by Blacks or not. Television stations,
which assumed responsibility for serving all segments
of the community, felt compelled to create or carry syndicated
programs tailored to African Americans.
a brief time, Black journalism and public affairs programming
proliferated in markets large and small, empowering political
movements in these localities. However, aspiring business
voices within the Black community combined with the general
corporate cacophony to shift the discussion away from public
access to the airwaves. Instead, Black ownership became the
political objective - a game that large corporations knew
they could control. The Black community became spectators
in the buying and selling sport, their actual access
to the airwaves dependent on the program whims of owners.
With a very few exceptions, local news staffs shrank or disappeared
from Black radio.
some Black entrepreneurial players became rich - very few,
actually, considering the potential that existed at the turn
of the Seventies - by the beginning of the Eighties grassroots
Black politics was crippled. African American activism had
been informed by mass organizational strategies. Black-oriented
media - including radio outlets owned by whites anxious to
demonstrate sensitivity to Black opinion and conform
to the FCC's community access rules - were no longer forums
for grassroots expression. A political vacuum imploded over
much of urban America, filled crudely and to little organizational
effect by Hip Hop music storytellers. It became possible to
say that the Civil Rights Movement was dead - certainly, you
couldn't hear it breathing.
the self-congratulatory noises of the small Black media class,
very little of substance was gained by shifting the focus
from Black popular access in favor of limited Black ownership.
Minorities have never owned more than 3 percent of U.S. media.
Today, minorities own just 1.8 percent of broadcasting - and
that includes white women! The "stand-alone"
Black radio station, locally owned and responsive to local
activists, is all but extinct, as are stand-alone stations
in general. (Radio's Clear Channel chain, which grew from
40 stations to 1,200 outlets under deregulation, owns six
stations in Minot, North Dakota, a city of only 37,000 people.
Almost all of the programming is automated, canned at corporate
dollar terms, Black radio is stronger than ever, with by far
the most loyal listener base in the demographic spectrum.
But it is generally unresponsive to Black community action,
having largely dismantled the news organizations that once
empowered local activism.
and corporate print media feel they can ignore Black political
demands. Managers point to Black faces on the screen and Black
bylines in their news pages. However, actual coverage, the
essential product, is governed by corporate imperatives.
access without a demand
Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were mass activities
whose fortunes were closely tied to the behavior of mass media.
The frenzy of Black newsroom hiring three decades ago occurred
in response to Black activism. African Americans demanded
that media provide coverage of Black struggles, or be considered
"part of the problem." The FCC and corporate media
temporarily accommodated these demands, allowing a brief expansion
of the social space in which the Black political drama was
acted out. That door is now virtually closed, and will remain
so, no matter how the FCC rules in June, unless Black organizations
retool their strategies to force a media response.
should be clear to everyone that the corporate media is an
active enemy of popular power in the United States. It is
also true that Black-owned or managed radio is not generally
responsive to Black political concerns. (The exceptions are
well-known, and do not need to be complimented for doing the
right thing.) We must return to basics - and this applies
to activists of all ethnicities. The demand must be for coverage
of community concerns and events. Nothing else matters. That
means Black activists must measure media by the coverage it
affords their activities, rather than the station's roster
of Black employees or the race of the owners or managers.
a society such as ours, events do not exist unless media covers
them. Demonstrations are organized primarily for the purpose
of garnering news coverage. Success or failure is measured,
first, by whether the media show up at all and, secondly,
in how the story is framed. It is ridiculous to continue treating
media as somehow removed from the structures of power. Activism
is not defined by FCC rules. When media act as the enemy,
treat them that way. If coverage is what is necessary, go
to the source - with the intent to disrupt their activities
and destroy their reputations.
are media veterans, and know from intimate experience that
mass broadcasting and print are the weakest links in the chains
of power. Their product is public credibility, a fragile quantity.
Relatively small numbers of determined activists can snatch
it from them. They are uniquely defenseless against demonstrations,
inherently so. We have seen managers cower at the mere thought
of being visited by angry activists - not because of possible
threats to their FCC licenses (although this was once a consideration),
but in fear of being exposed as just another business on the
treasure their fancied positions as arbiters of the public
good. It is the reason they spend huge sums on promotions
to convince the public that they are "on your side."
This investment is wasted when it is dramatically proven that
community accountability is a myth. Moreover, once it becomes
clear that the community demands outlets that respond
to popular concerns, and will retaliate against the reputation
of stations and newspapers that ignore community demands,
media relent every time. Reputation and good will make up
the largest portion of their corporate value, a highly perishable
serious protest campaign must consider media as a secondary
or even primary target. Media managers must be confronted
with a choice: either provide coverage of legitimate community
demands, or become the object of protest.
the free pass
media are often given a free pass, while providing little
more than music as proof that they are on anyone's side but
the owners. Yet Black media are central to any mass organizing
effort, since that's where the people are. Just as white-owned
newspapers cannot be allowed to ignore Black concerns by simply
pointing to the presence of Black reporters who do not show
up at demonstrations, or whose stories are given limited exposure,
or who may be downright hostile, so Black-owned or managed
radio stations cannot be left unaccountable.
today's environment, failure to confront media means political
impotence. It does not take much to shake up businesses that
pose as community resources. As a last resort, go after their
advertisers, directly. "Boycotts" of broadcasters
are not in themselves effective, since they cannot be enforced
and are unlikely to have measurable results in the ratings.
However, actual demonstrations to publicize boycotts do have
effects. Valued retail advertisers can also be picketed for
supporting the offending broadcasters, just as the South Africa
divestment campaign targeted U.S. corporations and financial
institutions that bolstered the white regime. The local car
dealership does not relish the idea of paying for the privilege
of becoming the target of community wrath aimed at the station
with whom it advertises.
Chairman Michael Powell may complete the corporate consolidation
of media, but in the end, sales and audiences are local. Go
for the weakest link in the chain. Powell can't do a thing