FCC Chairs’ Roundtable: A Discussion Focused on the Impact of Diversity and Inclusion

by John Burns on January 29, 2014

BBSJ2014 FCC Chairs RoundtableOn January 15th and 16th, media, communications, and telecommunications professionals; elected officials; and public and civic leaders gathered to participate in the Minority Media and Telecom Council’s 5th Annual Broadband & Social Justice Summit.  This year’s theme was Bridging the Gap: Infrastructure, Education & Equity in the Digital Economy, featuring a number of plenaries with dynamic leaders and the best and brightest minds in the field of communication.

One of the highlights of the Summit was the FCC Chairs’ Roundtable, which was moderated by David Honig, Co-founder and President of MMTC, and Julia Johnson, and MMTC Board Chair.  The discussion focused on the shifts caused by the evolving Internet ecosystem, the importance diversity and inclusion play in closing the digital divide, and creating a sustainable industry that will allow for more minority owners and diverse voices to emerge.  The session featured a keynote by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and a discussion with former chairs Mignon Clyburn, Richard E. Wiley, Michael J. Copps, Reed Hundt, and Michael Powell.  Although they are no longer FCC chairs, they have all continued to be prominent leaders in media and telecom and have shown a commitment to diversity.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Wheeler stated, “The struggle for minority participation in the media has been long, heroic, and right.”  From that framework, Wheeler emphasized the need to engage in a new campaign that will build on past experiences and identify new opportunities for growth and engagement.  He contended that diversity of ownership and, concurrently, diversity of voice, in the communications industry can be achieved by embracing new opportunities.  He went on to express his outrage that there are no minority-owned television stations in the U.S., but suggested that those that “embrace change can become transformative.”  In drawing on the importance of engagement and inclusion, Wheeler unequivocally mandated the need for an accessible Internet, one that would encourage growth and innovation while also deterring abuse.    He stated, “Our job is to ensure growth and innovation through an open Internet.”

Expanding on Chairman Wheeler’s emphasis on the importance of leveraging opportunities, Hundt reminded attendees that there remains an extraordinary gap in access to education and technology, which is currently stomping out many potential minority entrepreneurs.  Hundt stated, “In this country, we have a library and classroom problem,” but maintained that “we have the tools and communications to fix these issues, which is central to our democracy.”

Powell echoed Wheeler’s and Hundt’s sentiments. “It is imperative that minorities become technologically literate in order to engage in this technology revolution,” he stated.  However, he concluded that there remain many barriers to achieving technological literacy, especially considering that computer skills and computer curriculum are absent from the majority of American high schools, and particularly those in minority and underserved communities.

Commissioner Clyburn also addressed the issue of disparity in access and contended that many minority entrepreneurs do not receive the support that they should, as there remains a preconceived institutional train of thought as to what careers certain individuals should pursue.   In proposing a solution, Clyburn stated, “If you want to change the way the ecosystem looks, you need to make it more inviting and open.”  While the majority of the panel focused on the need to close the achievement gap through removing certain barriers to access, Former Chairman Wiley impressed upon those in attendance that it is also vital to “build value in our own families and communities to ensure that we are engaged and prepared to compete and succeed in this new revolution.”

The FCC Chairs’ Roundtable discussion was enlightening and informative, and it reminded us that we are engaged in a transitional time, one that presents great promise in this Internet ecosystem.  However, as discussed, there remain institutional inequities which are perpetuated by a growing digital divide and absence of minority voices and ownership.  For that reason, the panelists invited us to effectuate change not only through regulations and legislative reforms, but through other efforts to ensure that more minorities have a seat at the table.  In the words of Commissioner Clyburn, we need to enact the Rooney Rule in the communications industry.*

View the entire FCC Chairs’ Roundtable from the Fifth Annual Broadband and Social Justice Summit here.

*Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.  It is sometimes cited as an example of affirmative action, though there is no quota or preference given to minorities in the hiring of candidates.

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