Media D*versity

by Joseph Miller, Guest Contributor on November 12, 2012

Media advocacy has always focused on the shortcomings of regulators and media giants.  Although the faults of both regulators and the media industry are significant, advocates rarely discuss the role candidates for national office might play in rousing interest in media diversity among the electorate.

How long should we wait for a regulatory or industry-led initiative to improve media diversity? Despite its mandate under Section 257 of the Communications Act, the Federal Communications Commission has failed to collect and aggregate minority ownership data in a form the public can use.  With the exception of tiny glimmers of change in newsroom diversity, hiring, retention, and promotion, diversity at top media companies is dismal. Among Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity 2012, Cox Communications (#25) and Time Warner (#40) were the only media companies listed. Factoring in companies that are more relevant in a converged media industry, AT&T (#4) and Verizon Communications (#39) we also featured.  But there is really not much need to look further than the senior management teams of top media companies, which are overwhelmingly white (see Disney, Comcast , Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom) despite the fact that minorities comprise 27.6 percent of the U.S. population, to see the lack of racial, ethnic and gender diversity among those who control so much of what we see and hear.

But the most daunting challenge for policymakers is not to confirm whether these disparities exist—everyone knows they do—it is to address the underlying reasons for the lack of a political impetus to address them.

Why don’t we care? Despite the central role of the media in democratic politics, made clear by the record amounts of money the Obama and Romney campaigns have spent on political advertising, media diversity is frankly not that high up on the average American’s priority list.  A recent Time Warner Cable report finds that, while subscriber survey respondents were willing to pay $25 more per month for general, “opinion” diversity, they were willing to pay just $7 more per month for any improvement in “information that reflects the interests of women and minorities.”

The demographics of most media companies’ senior ranks bear little resemblance to the demographic cross-section of the public media executives work tirelessly to reach.  According to 4th Estate.net, which evaluated front page stories from 38 different newspapers between January and mid-October, 2012, non-white reporters wrote a paltry 9% of stories on the economy, 9.2% of stories on social issues, and 7.3% of stories about foreign policy.  Most startlingly, 98.2% of stories on immigration—an issue that is most contentious with respect to U.S. policies toward Latino immigrants—were written by white reporters. Why is the state of diversity in the media so discouraging? Do the media lack diversity because there is a lack of consumer demand for it? Or is it the other way around—has the media industry suppressed demand for diversity to preserve its control by non-minorities?

This is more than just a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the media is a consequence of post-racial politics.

If a candidate perceives a particular initiative will secure a substantial number of votes from a powerful racial constituency, historically that candidate will make the issue resonate with voters.  For some, the race appeal is made using racial code language. Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, famously noted: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks.  The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”  Thus, while the Supreme Court has encouraged states to pursue race-neutral policies to achieve diversity, politicians have actually turned that doctrine on its head: some politicians have advanced racial-neutral initiatives—such as the “War on Drugs” or the fight against “Voter Fraud”—to perpetuate inequality.

Ohio State Moritz College of Law Professor Michelle Alexander has done extensive research on the means by which some policies without a specific racial component have actually perpetuated the same disparities that were so prevalent during the Jim Crow era. Specifically, Ms. Alexander has argued that, despite the fact that drug crimes were actually declining, the Reagan administration decided in 1982 to pursue Nixon’s idea of a War on Drugs to garner the votes of whites who felt threatened by the advances of the Civil Rights Movement.  President Bill Clinton carried the torch, trying to convince white voters that he would be even tougher on drugs and crime than his Republican predecessors.

The current fight against “Voter Fraud” is another campaign some believe is racially-encoded and designed to suppress minority votes. These kinds of race-neutral campaigns leave their opponents in the unenviable position of being on the defensive having to assert a racial impact in an environment in which the mere mention of race is frowned upon.

The post-racial nature of today’s political discourse precludes politicians from addressing race head-on. Politicians are unlikely to explicitly address race in their campaigns as there is a fair risk that doing so would be considered taboo—or, at best, impolite—and alienate voters.  Accordingly, media diversity has been relegated to the bottom of the pile of campaign initiatives candidates are likely to advance.  This is unfortunate since politicians play such a powerful role in legitimating even the most dubious platforms.

Joe Miller, Esq., is Deputy Director and Senior Policy Counsel of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. This piece originally appeared on his blog.

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