‘Owning Our Airwaves’ panel discusses issues of diversity in media

Michael Copps (left) and Mike Doyle (right) discuss their concerns over a lack of diversity in the media. (credit: Thomas Hofman/Photo Editor) Michael Copps (left) and Mike Doyle (right) discuss their concerns over a lack of diversity in the media. (credit: Thomas Hofman/Photo Editor)

A panel of media experts, policymakers, and Pittsburgh residents engaged in a community dialogue last Monday that covered a variety of issues concerning quality of reporting and the state of media in Pittsburgh. Titled “Owning Our Airwaves: A Community Dialogue with Media Policymakers,” the event was held in the University Center’s McConomy Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Panelists discussed reforms that, if implemented, would ensure that Pittsburgh residents have accurate reporting from a diverse array of viewpoints. They also discussed government and corporate accountability in promoting policies that foster these viewpoints. Diversity in viewpoints among women and racial minorities was also of paramount concern to panelists.

The panel featured moderator Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press, a national nonpartisan organization that advocates media reforms. Congressman Mike Doyle (D–Pa.) and Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps were distinguished guests on the panel.

Joining them were other experts: Deborah Acklin, president and CEO of WQED Multimedia; Marge Krueger of Communications Workers of America; Khari Mosley of the Urban Green Growth Collective and Pittsburgh United; Jon Peha, professor at Carnegie Mellon and chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission; and Chris Ramirez of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

The evening began with a listening session as panelists gave their opening remarks. The rest of the event was dedicated to a Q&A session.

The discussion arose in light of the FCC’s 2010 Annual Ownership Review. Beginning in 2002, media ownership reviews have occurred every four years, paying particular attention to media consolidation. Current deliberations center around concerns of cross-ownership arrangements that proponents argue would improve journalism with enhanced resources. Critics argue that such arrangements reduce staff and limit the number of voices in the media marketplace. The newly formed Congressional “super- committee,” pursuant in its obligations to cut the federal budget, will also determine the budget for public media.
Each panelist started the discussion with individual opening remarks.

Wood initiated a discussion about diversity. “Free Press believes that, to enrich our society, the media must report on and portray diverse ideas or opinions,” he said.

According to Wood, “Ensuring diversity of voices on the air specifically by making broadcast licenses available to women and people of color is not just a nice idea. It’s federal law, which requires the FCC to avoid excessive concentration of licenses and to disseminate licenses among a wide variety of applicants.”

He argued that the FCC has not fulfilled that mandate. Despite a growth in minority populations, he noted that FCC license figures have stayed flat or have started to drop for these minorities.

The notion of giving certain communities a voice in reporting was a common theme. The panelists argued that a truly free press is dependent upon local involvement and increased democratization.

Doyle advocated empowering local low-power radio stations throughout the U.S. He championed the bipartisan Local Community Radio Act, which encourages the formation of low-power community radio stations in cities, towns, and suburbs across the country. “Finally, anyone with the passion and drive will be able to apply for a license to run a radio station,” Doyle said.

Copps also endorsed the notion of “a media that fosters localism, diversity, and competition.” Drawing from his own experience, Copps explained how the FCC under Commissioner Michael Powell “wanted to make major changes to the media ownership rules to help a few big special interests buy up more and more independent local outlets.”

Copps combated Powell’s efforts through town-hall meetings held by members of Congress and citizen groups. “Three million people wrote to Congress and the FCC saying ‘no’ to Chairman Powell’s rules — thumbs down,” he said. He added that Congress overturned Powell’s rules, and the Third Circuit Court in Pennsylvania deemed the laws deficient. Copps, lauding these efforts by ordinary citizens, declared, “A movement was born.”

Throughout the proceedings, panel members discussed their concerns about an increase in media consolidation and a decrease in diversity. These two threads permeated the discussion about freedom of the press, which Mosley declared as “the hallmark of our democracy.”