The discussion over expanding diversity in Hollywood should include the massive racial disparity in media company ownership.
The discussion of diversity in Hollywood, or the lack thereof, has been at a fever pitch since the nominations for the Oscar awards were released. The announcement by the Academy Awards was followed with videos made by several celebrities announcing boycotts and attempts by the Academy to regain their trust with a quickly enacted change in the awards voting policy.[pullquote]It’s inside media ownership that we see the starkest disparity between blacks and whites, across all major platforms: film, television, print, and digital.[/pullquote]
Yet the real discourse on diversity and inclusion doesn’t center on who’s in front of the camera or even who’s directing its lens. We need to focus the conversation on who owns the camera and the content the camera creates.
Put simply, #BlackMediaMatters. It’s inside media ownership where we see the starkest disparity between blacks and whites, across all major platforms: film, television, print, and digital.
According to one recent Federal Communications Commission filing on full-power television stations, whites owned 1,070 stations (77.2 percent) in 2013 while non-whites owned a mere 41 stations (3 percent). African Americans owned just 9 stations (0.6 percent). The remaining stations have no majority interest, but appear likely to be white-owned as well.
Joseph Torres and Derek Turner of the media watchdog group Free Press put the current grand total of black-owned and operated full-power TV stations operating in the United States at zero. They point to the FCC’s relaxing of TV ownership regulations as the reason for this disparity.
Nominations for Oscars certainly do serve as a symbol of diversity. But these nominations do little to address the lasting effects that the disenfranchisement of blacks in media has had on content, employment, and wealth for black Americans.
I recently spoke to African American media mogul Byron Allen on the issue. Allen, reportedly a billionaire, is championing black-owned media companies by bringing multiple large-sum lawsuits against cable companies that he argues exclude majority-owned African American companies from carriage deals. He settled one suit with AT&T late last year, and recently filed a $10 billion racial discrimination lawsuit against the FCC and Charter Communications.
“This is the fourth and final chapter of economic inclusion,” says Allen. “Coretta Scott King was a friend, and she said that African Americans have faced four major challenges: ending slavery, ending Jim Crow, achieving civil rights, and gaining economic inclusion.”
One recent blow against black-owned media companies came when Bill Clinton signed the Telecom Act into law in 1996.
“The 1996 Telecom Act was the beginning of the end for Black-owned and Black-formatted radio stations,” according to the Atlanta Black Star. “Backed by President Clinton, the Telecom Act lifted ownership limits and, under the guise of promoting competition in the communications market, ushered in a new era of corporate ownership and deregulation, allowing huge companies to gobble up stations across the country.”
Small black-owned stations were destroyed, virtually overnight.
[pullquote]Real diversity starts with ownership. [/pullquote]This is how a struggling community’s access to wealth through media was destroyed — and why black media matters so much today. Ownership means you can control who is hired at these stations, what messages are displayed in representing your oft-fragile image, and how much time is allotted to entertainment versus substantive dialogue in content.
“Ownership is a central part of our communities struggle to push back against stereotypes and misinformation,” notes Steven Renderos, national organizer with the Center for Media Justice. “It is simply not enough to have access to the airwaves if we don’t also own the means of distribution.”
As the dialogue around the Oscars continues in the coming weeks, we cannot fail to realize how much #BlackMediaMatters to African American communities, and how little the symbol of an Oscar award truly means without ownership of the content being awarded.
Antonio Moore, an attorney based in Los Angeles, is one of the producers of the documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. He has contributed pieces to the Grio, Huffington Post, and Inequality.org on the topics of race, mass incarceration, and economics.