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UCC Media Justice Update

Posts in category: "media diversity"

Behind the Scenes in Fighting for Media Justice in Court

On June 11, 2019, the UCC's media justice ministry's policy advisor, Cheryl Leanza, argued in federal court against the Federal Communications Commission's new rules that permit significantly more consolidation in radio and television. Ms. Leanza, who is also counsel at the law firm Best, Best & Krieger, argued on behalf of UCC OC Inc. and the other public interest petitioners against the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit which sits in Philadelphia.  

The public interest organizations' core argument is that the FCC failed to consider whether its decision would harm ownership in broadcasting by women and people of color. The court appeared receptive.

In particular, the court was concerned that the FCC had de-linked the impact of consolidation from race and gender ownership diversity based on a flimsy historical analysis that, among other flaws, used racial minority ownership data but did not include data about women. The judges repeatedly pointed out that the FCC had no data on women.  One judge remarked, "Ten times zero is still zero," and "If we approve this, the headlines will read '3rd Circuit flunks statistics 101.'"

Another important point under debate was the effectiveness of two similarly named but slightly different definitions, called "eligible entities," which the FCC supposedly uses to increase ownership diversity. But the FCC conceded the first version of the definition won't help promote diversity--even after the same court had sent back the definition in the last two rounds of litigation. The second version of the term is part of a program to promote diverse radio ownership, but that program left no policy to promote diversity television ownership. And the data the FCC used to create that definition showed that at least 80 percent of the beneficiaries will not be women or people of color.

 
In addition to the main case about deregulation and race/gender ownership diversity, two other petitioners argued. The Minority and Media Telecommunications Council (MMTC) argued about flaws in the radio incubator program, and a group of television owners (Independent Television Group) asked the court to end the restriction on top-4 TV combinations. 
Listen to a recording of the oral argument. Cheryl’s argument starts around 18:40, and her rebuttal is around 1:14:20.
For more background on this case, read our previous blog posts:

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Sustaining our Leadership Role, UCC Members Speak out in Federal Court to Stop Media Mergers

Friday April 12, UCC OC Inc. continued its effort to block federal rules that are permitting vastly increased consolidation in television, radio and newspapers in local communities. Following up on its opening brief, filed last December, UCC OC Inc. and its allies filed their response to the Federal Communications Commission and industry briefs which defend consolidation. 

 

The question of legal "standing" is an important issue at this stage of the case. In order to bring a lawsuit, a person or an organization must have standing, that is, must demonstrate that they have been, or will be, harmed by the actions they are challenging. The UCC has a special connection to legal standing, as OC Inc.'s groundbreaking lawsuits in the 1960s under the leadership of Rev. Everett Parker, established the right of viewers and listeners to participate at the FCC and in court. Today, the doctrine of standing has been narrowed over the years by the courts, raising barriers to participation. Without standing, ordinary people and public interest organizations cannot legally protect the rights of viewers, listeners and independent content creators.

 

In the case of the current suit, UCC OC Inc. showed that the church has standing--through harm to its members and harm to its own work caused by the federal rule changes. To do this, UCC OC Inc. relied on declarations of a proud UCC member and its board chair. OC Inc. is very grateful to Tony Miller, of St. John's UCC in Chambersburg, PA, near Harrisburg. His declaration showed that if local TV news is degraded, he might have trouble protecting the earth by tracking the permit approval process of a local powerline proposal. He would also have less information about his home community of Shippensburg, PA, and would receive even less information about local efforts to protect LGBTQ rights or local primary elections. UCC OC Inc.'s board chair, Earl Williams, Jr., member of South Euclid UCC in Cleveland, explained that the church's work as a whole is harmed by media mergers and the lack of representation in media and news. Citing the General Synod resolutions on Anti-Racism in the Church, Williams explained that when members of the church do not receive sufficient information from local media, the UCC "must work harder to educate our members about the history of race in the United States, the impact of structural racism, and the present-day incarnations of that racism."

 

Ravi Kapur, winner of OC Inc.'s 2017 McGannon Award and member of Free Press (one of the other participants in the suit) described the impact of consolidation on his efforts, as an entrepreneur of South Asian descent, to serve underserved communities. He owns TV stations in Chicago, San Francisco, and Orlando and in Fargo, ND and owns Diya TV, the first 24-hour U.S. broadcast network serving the South Asian audience, broadcasting to more than 70 million people in a dozen markets nationwide. Kapur described the challenges of expanding his company and successfully serving communities in given widespread media consolidation. He highlighted the innovation creative station owners can bring, explaining his TV station in Fargo "produces more local programming than every other television station in North Dakota combined" and his new efforts to create a new stream of Native American programming there.

 

These UCC members and allies are helping to push back rules that will permit more consolidation in local media. If these rules had not been changed, mergers like the mega-merger proposed by Sinclair Broadcasting or the Nexstar takeover of Tribune would not be possible. Studies show that people still rely tremendously on local TV news--even people who read their news on the Internet rely on local TV journalism, especially at the current time when so many local newspapers are failing.

 

Your support of OC Inc.'s work makes this effort possible.

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Trump FCC Affirms Operating Blind for 15 Years on Equal Employment Opportunity

Today the Trump FCC refused to comply with the law. The Communications Act requires the FCC to collect broadcasting and cable equal employment opportunity (EEO) data. While the Bush FCC voted to collect that data in 2004 under then-Chairman Michael Powell, the FCC's leadership has ignored its statutory obligation for 15 years and reaffirmed that refusal at today's open meeting.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights raised this concern with the FCC last summer when the FCC expended resources to eliminate an inconsequential form while ignoring its must more important legal obligation to collect EEO hiring data. 

 

Commissioners Starks and Rosenworcel raised this question with Chairman Pai this week. Mr. Pai refused to take action to collect the data even though the data collection form is approved and ready to go and one minor open issue has been ready for a decision for 15 years. We are particularly grateful to Commissioners Starks and Rosenworcel for raising these important civil rights issues which were ignored in the draft of the order that was originally released by the FCC.

 

UCC OC Inc. has a special connection to this question. In 1967, Dr. Everett Parker, OC Inc.'s founder, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to adopt pro-active equal employment opportunity (EEO) rules. The following year, after a significant public outcry and the 1968 Kerner Commission report highlighting the negative impact of media coverage which ignored people of color, the Commission adopted those rules. They stood at the forefront of a series of FCC and EEOC efforts which revolutionized EEO obligations and practices throughout the media and telecommunications industry. In 1992, Congress institutionalized these rules into law.

 

While the FCC paused its data collection in 2002 and 2003 after two problematic court decisions, the Bush FCC affirmed in 2004 that collection of statistical data had no constitutional implications and were not barred by those court decisions. The Commission has only one final loose end to wrap up (on the appropriate confidentiality treatment of EEO data) in order to collect EEO statistics.

 

Without data about who is being hired, the FCC and the public have no idea whether the recruitment rules and efforts are working. Today many Silicon Valley companies voluntarily release employment statistics as a form of holding themselves accountable. There is no excuse that broadcasting, which uses public airwaves to operate, does not face the same accountability.

 

The FCC has been failing to collect and use the data about who owns television and radio stations and today has seemingly committed to completely ignoring who works in television and radio. Chairman Pai just created a new Office of Economics and Analytics, but is not collecting the data his agency is required to collect. 


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Celebrating Christmas with a Suit for Media Justice

Today the United Church of Christ's media justice ministry put the week just before Christmas to good use by continuing its long-standing campaign for equity in communications. UCC OC Inc. joined with allies in federal court contesting the Federal Communications Commission's failure to consider the negative impact the FCC's decisions have had on the total number of TV and radio stations owned by people of color and women. In 2017 the Trump FCC changed several rules that will permit significantly more consolidation, particularly in local television markets. Consolidation means fewer voices in local communities and fewer chances to hear from people underrepresented in television.

 

The case, titled Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC, is the fourth law suit since 2002 demonstrating that the FCC has not fulfilled its obligation under law to ensure ownership diversity in broadcasting. The FCC lost all three prior rounds.

 

"The FCC–again–completely failed to lift a finger for people of color and women hoping to own broadcast stations," said Cheryl A. Leanza, OC Inc.'s policy advisor and also lead counsel on the brief. "The federal court in Philadelphia has told the FCC three times that it must take a hard look at how consolidation might harm ownership by women and people of color. The FCC continues to whistle in the dark but take no action."

 

UCC OC Inc. is pleased to work alongside its valuable allies, Common Cause, Communication Workers of America, Free Press, Media Mobilizing Project and Prometheus Radio Project in this important campaign for racial and gender justice in communications.

 

Additional filings will be submitted to the court in February and March. Oral argument is anticipated in Philadelphia in the spring. Best Best & Krieger LLP offered pro bono support on the brief.

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FCC's Shameful Assault on Access to Information, Implications Widespread

The following can be attributed to Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, OC Inc., in response to several votes today at the Federal Communications Commission:

In today’s string of votes, we see Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai agenda unleashed on the United States.  He coyly waited until after his Senate confirmation vote and the most recent Congressional oversight hearing to unleash an unprecedented attack on civil rights and access to information.  The most vulnerable are feeling the most harmful impact.  Tribes, the most in need of affordable accessible communications, will see their subsidies immediately cut and their lands redefined without intergovernmental consultation.  Low income people must anticipate damaging changes as the Commission plans to cut off almost 70 percent of its subscribers and then proposes to add insult to injury with more draconian cuts in the form of a budget cap, lifetime limits on benefits, and more.

Today’s media ownership vote will take effect immediately:  it is not a proposal.  The ruling cuts back and eliminates rules that have been in place since the beginning of broadcast regulation.  We are losing rules that were designed to protect economic competition as well as competition in the marketplace of ideas.  No one looking at today’s media environment could imagine that the FCC, today, would see a media environment in need of fewer fact-checked news stories, fewer journalists, and reduced numbers of independent locally accountable news outlets--but that is what we will get.

This vote puts the final nail in the coffin for ownership diversity at the FCC.  This year’s Trump FCC fully exploits the failings in last year’s vote, which ignored the record in an effort to hide the connection between ownership and content.  The incubator proposal is meaningless, particularly in a consolidated media environment like the one we are about to experience.

With these actions, the Trump administration lays groundwork for less access to information and less voter education and engagement, which increases the likelihood that elections can be skewed by unverified news stories intent on confusion and manipulation. The forthcoming vote on net neutrality will further diminish freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas online.

One rule now stands between the Trump FCC and approval of the Sinclair merger.  Sinclair is poised to fully exploit the rule rollbacks adopted today and waits expectantly for Chairman Pai’s promised revisions to the national TV ownership cap.  Congress set the national TV ownership cap by statute in 2004, but Chairman Pai has promised to change it, evading the statutorily-set limits on FCC power.  After that illegal change, the Sinclair merger will set the state for a new breathtaking wave of consolidation as other media companies rush to catch up.  Congress must ensure the FCC does not evade the limits of its statutory authority.

Rev. Dr. Everett C. Parker, founder of the United Church of Christ's media justice ministry, OC Inc., dedicated his life to accountable and local broadcasting.  I am ashamed that so much of his amazing life's work is being tossed in the trashbin today.

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