Media Ownership Diversity: A Case Study in the Inadequacy of Anti-Discrimination Frameworks

From racist caricatures to complete absence of people of color, the media has long been a central figure in anti-racist advocates’ criticisms of what images of non-white people are broadcast to large audiences. Though there are undoubtedly many people to blame for the continued underrepresentation and misrepresentation of people of color in the media, dismal media ownership diversity numbers released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicates that the overwhelmingly white television and radio station owners may have something to do with that.

Media Ownership Demographics

(Graph made on Excel with FCC 2014 Ownership Report Data)

As shown by Figure 1, in 2013, white men had controlling interest in 87.34% of full power television stations in the United States (FCC, “2014 Ownership Report…”). In contrast, people of color own only 5.83% of full power television stations in total. Disaggregating the data further results in almost laughable statements. In the entire country, only one full power TV stations is owned by a black women. Another one is owned by an Asian American woman. Literally one. In the entire country.

via Google Images

Though we have come to think of technology as primarily referring to digital tools, broadcast media remains a special and important source of information for communities of color, which make up 41% of broadcast-only homes (NAB, “Over-the-Air…”). Broadcast is only available through the FCC’s grant of licenses to use increasingly scarce public airwaves. Herein lies the technological controversy.

As yet, the FCC has not seen fit to implement race-conscious policies that would facilitate the entry of minorities into broadcasting and support those already in the mix. Such changes would would have to fulfill strict scrutiny for the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Strict scrutiny is a form of judicial review that determines constitutionality that requires laws to further a “compelling government interest,” and be “narrowly tailored” to achieve that interest (Cornell Law School, “Strict Scrutiny”). Ironically and frustratingly, this interpretation of equal protection clause means that proving that race-conscious policies promoting media ownership diversity are needed is held to the same standard of scrutiny as voter-ID laws seeking to suppress voters of color. Kimberle Crenshaw noted in both her formative works on intersectionality the ways that anti-discrimination frameworks limit institutional change and cement inadequate notions of racism and sexism in the law (Carbado 304). This case in particular reveals how the concept of equality in 14th amendment has come to be used to stall efforts towards racial justice in broadcasting industry.

Thus far, the FCC has requested studies on media ownership diversity that would link ownership by people of color to diverse content that would benefit viewers, thus substantiating the policies’ compelling government interest. This line of evidence seeks to replicate that of Grutter v. Bollinger, where the Supreme Court ruled that allowing narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions is a compelling government interest because of the educational benefits of a diverse student body for all students (Cantebury 267).

The issue with this strategy, however, is its fundamental essentialism. This is not to say that owners of color do not provide crucial in language and culturally relevant content for their communities. They do, and that is a huge reason for promoting diversity in ownership. However, the duty of providing in-language and culturally specific content cannot fall entirely on minority owners. It is so incredibly twisted that the FCC is commanding expensive social scientific research from civil rights organization to prove that diverse owners = diverse content, thereby naturalizing the burden of pursuing racial justice on the shoulders of people of color, before they will act on the backwardness of the broadcasting industry. Furthermore, the laughable number of broadcasting stations owned by people of color means that for any studies to produce statistically significant data, ownership numbers would have to increase first. This Catch-22 is the cherry on top of a huge pile of hypocrisy that is the FCC and its refusal to support interpretations of race-conscious ownership policies that would fulfill strict scrutiny in a less inaccurate and discriminatory manner.

One particularly apt method includes the comparison of increasing media ownership diversity to the Small Business Administration’s Section 8(a) Business Development Program that provides access to government contracting opportunities historically denied to companies owned by people of color. The precedent set by this program would instead require studies substantiating existing acknowledgment that the government has historically discriminated against people of color in the distribution of broadcast licenses.

Unfortunately, the solution for this issue can only come from the FCC as they are the ones who have the power to distribute broadcast licenses. Whether they will choose to actually serve the whole public or continue dragging their feet by forcing civil rights organizations to pursue unscientific studies will depend on the amount of attention on the issue by the public (not very much) and who makes up the commission in the coming years (please anyone more friendly than the people right now).

As shown by even the limited snippet of data on media ownership diversity, the use of race neutral strategies to promote ownership diversity has not worked. If the public does indeed own the airwaves, the FCC has a compelling government interest and the power to at least steer media ownership towards some semblance of proportionality. Just as the Section 8(a) program of the Small Business Association works to remedy the government’s history of suppressing minority entrepreneurship and to account for current discrimination, a race and gender conscious program would put the FCC on the right track to encourage entrepreneurial spirit among historically underrepresented groups as well as improve access to culturally relevant and sensitive content by communities of color.

Works Cited:

Canterbury, Edward Paul. “Grutter v. Bollinger.” Ohio Northern University Law Review. 267 (2004).

Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.

“Over-the-Air TV Renaissance Continues as Pay TV Cord-Cutting Rises,” National Association of Broadcasters. 21 June 2013. Press Release.

“2014 Ownership Report Data.” Federal Communications Commission. 27 Jun 2014. Web.

“Strict Scrutiny,” Cornell University Law School. Accessed 2 Nov 2014. Definition.


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