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Remarks by
William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
to the
National Association of Black Journalists
Washington, DC July 30, 1998

Thank you Roy. It's wonderful to reconnect with you after all these years. What that introduction did not say is that my first work experiences were in broadcast journalism. Later, as a lawyer, many of my clients were media companies. I feel like I've always had a kinship with your profession. So it is a special honor for me to be here with you today.

Today I want to talk with you about the importance of diversity in the media, the steps we're taking at the FCC to promote equal opportunity in the media, and why the digital revolution is both a story you should cover and a pathway to new opportunity for African-American journalists.

Two weeks ago, I was on a panel talking about broadcast ownership at the NAACP convention in Atlanta. Ted Turner was on the panel, too.

At one point, Ted told the audience to think of him as a small businessman, because in today's economy of global media giants, he thinks of himself as a little guy.

When he said this the audience at the NAACP laughed.

After all, who thinks of Ted Turner as a small businessman?

The answer, apparently, is Ted Turner.

How we are perceived, and how we perceive ourselves, means everything. Perceptions influenced me and my friends, growing up in Los Angeles. In those days, not too long ago, blacks and other minorities were rarely seen on television. I remember very well the excitement in my family when we saw those first -- and very rare -- images of African- Americans on the television screen.

Once, the Bank of America used a black actor in a TV commercial. He was only on for a fleeting moment but my mother was so pleased that she went right out and changed the family bank account.

Years later, we are still asking the same questions. What does it mean to see African- Americans portrayed on television? Or represented in a meeting of TV and radio station owners? Or on the masthead of a newspaper? Is it really important to the kind of society we strive to create?

I believe it is.

Back in the 1960s, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to examine race relations in this country. One of the Commission's findings was that control of the media affects the way in which blacks and other minorities are portrayed.

Our country surely has changed a lot since then, much of it for the better, but the reality is that race and gender -- and the way they are portrayed by our media -- still matter.

This is something that most Americans know intuitively. I know this because I have lived it. Everyone in this room knows this because you have lived it. Women know this because they have lived it. Members of religious minorities know this because they have lived it.

So why am I talking about this?

Because the value of diversity in the media is under legal assault. Some of you may have reported on a decision this spring by a federal appeals court which, if not reversed, will do away with the FCC's rules that require broadcasters to recruit qualified minority and women job applicants.

We're appealing the decision. But let's understand what's at stake here. The FCC's rules say that the public interest requires diversity of voices in the media. Our rules promote equal opportunity in employment because the media should reflect the rich racial diversity of our country.

The court disagreed. It said that there is no compelling reason for the government to promote diversity in the media.

But of course there is a compelling interest. We know this because we live in the real world. We know that the background of a journalist reporting a story matters. Our experience and identity influence how we view the world. And how we view the world inescapably influences how we report and analyze news. The court's decision ignores the fundamental truth about the media: that reporting is done by people.

This is so obvious, even little kids understand this fundamental truth.

A survey released last spring by Children Now asked the question, "How often do you see your race on TV?" Seventy-two percent of white kids said very often. Only 42 % of African-American kids said very often. Far fewer Latino or Asian kids said they see their race on TV at all.

Yet four out of five children of color said they believe it is important to see their race on television.

Camille Cosby made this point in a recent essay in USA Today. She wrote that her son's killer "did not learn to hate black people in his native country, the Ukraine, where the black population was near zero. Nor was he likely to see America's intolerable, stereotypical movies and television programs about blacks, which were not shown in the Soviet Union before the killer and his family moved to America in the late 1980s." Her point -- he learned his hatred here in America.

I thought about Camille Cosby's moving essay on her son's murder when recently I read a very interesting study by Dr. Robert Entman of North Carolina State University. He studied the portrayal of African-Americans on TV news programs. He concluded that "TV news, especially local news, paints a picture of blacks as violent and threatening towards whites, self-interested and demanding towards the body politic -- continually causing or being victimized by problems that seem endless."

He found, for example, that TV news treats black crime suspects as anonymous, faceless people, disconnected from community or family, whereas news coverage of white crime suspects more typically humanize them, by explaining more about their families and backgrounds. Here, TV news is conveying a subtle, yet powerful message about race in America.

The perceptions and life experiences of the people with the power to convey those messages matter.

I once read an account of the Montgomery bus boycott back in 1954. At one point, a story moved on the AP wire that black leaders called an end to the boycott in return for more "courtesy" on the buses.

The reporter who wrote that story thought he had the facts right.

But another young reporter named Carl Rowan couldn't believe the story was true. He called Martin Luther King, Jr. to confirm it.

Of course, the story wasn't true. King and the other leaders started frantically digging, found out it was a hoax engineered by the Montgomery city commissioners -- and alerted people that the boycott was still on.

Was it a coincidence that a black reporter had the sensitivity to know that story couldn't be true?

Of course not.

Reporting is an interplay between objectivity and a reporter's -- or editor's -- sense of what stories are important to cover.

You have to get the facts right when you're covering a story. But you also have to know which stories are worth covering.

As African-Americans you bring a unique perspective that's reflected in the stories you write, just as I bring a unique perspective to my job as the first African-American Chairman of the FCC.

Those perspectives matter because race still matters in America. Now, some argue that we live in a color blind society.

I like Vice President Gore's response to this argument. He says that "those who say we have a color-blind society . . . use their color-blind the way duck hunters use a duck blind. They hide behind it and hope the ducks won't notice."

Well, we notice. That's why I believe that there is a role for government to promote diversity in the media. For nearly 30 years, the FCC rules under challenge in the appeals court have promoted inclusion in broadcast station employment by requiring broadcasters to cast their recruiting net widely.

This has led to more minorities and women in front of and behind the television camera, and inside and outside the radio booth. In 1971, three years after the FCC's EEO rules began, women constituted only 23.3% of full-time broadcast employees, and minorities constituted only 9.1%.

Last year, women constituted 40.8% of broadcast employees and minorities constituted 19.9%. We know the rules work. We know we still need them.

How can anyone living in America today believe that race no longer matters in this society?

I'm glad that many of our Nation's leading media companies agree with me and the Vice President. I'm pleased to announce today that many leading media companies have assured me that they will abide by EEO principles whether required by law to do so or not. I thank these companies: ABC, CBS, Cablevision, Capstar, Clear Channel, Comcast, Cox, Fox, Jacor, Media One, NBC, TCI, Time Warner, and Tribune. These companies know that reaching out and finding talented men and women of all colors to run their companies is good business and the right thing to do. It's right for them. And it's right for the country. I urge others to do the same.

We are appealing the court's decision because we think it's the right thing for all companies.

Just as companies must take responsibility to ensure diversity in the media, so too must we.

As professional journalists, you are judged by the demanding standards of excellence in your profession. As African-American professionals, you will also be judged by the work you do to pave the way for those who will follow in your path.

As African-American professionals, we ought to make a difference. We ought to make a difference by working to bring other people of color into our professions, and to help them to succeed.

I know the value of having someone open the door, because the door was opened for me. When I was in college at Stanford University, people of courage and commitment in San Francisco's African-American community decided that it was unacceptable to have virtually no minorities working in top positions in Bay Area television stations. So they organized and pushed and cajoled, and they made a difference.

They refused to accept the claim that the stations couldn't find qualified minority applicants. So they told them to go out and train people and bring them into the business. So one station went out and found three young minorities for a management training program. Today, one of them is a television producer. One of them is a CBS network correspondent.

And one of them is the first African-American Chairman of the FCC.

I suspect that there are a lot of pioneers in this room, today -- the first black reporter at your paper, the first on the editorial board, the first managing editor. You all know that while it's important to be first, it's also important not to be the last.

You are in positions where you can make a real difference. You can help create opportunity for others in the media; you can influence the dialogue, frame the debate -- both inside and outside your companies. You will make a difference in the media industry. And as you do so, realize that technology is quickly changing what is today, and what will become, the media industry.

The revolution in telecommunications technology is changing the news business dramatically. A recent article in The Economist reported that in the past two years NBC's output of news has gone from three hours of TV news a day to 27 hours a day, plus a constantly updated Web site. News is reported continuously. And the number of outlets increases exponentially.

The Pew Foundation recently reported that in 1995, 4% of Americans used a news web site. This year, 20% of Americans do.

New technology means new ways to tell your stories. New ways to reach your readers. New opportunities.

Throughout the history of communications, those who have succeeded have had a vision of the future and have embraced technological change.

You must embrace it now. High-speed Internet access to the home gives you as journalists new opportunities and new tools.

The new media is a combination of the media you already work in -- print, audio, and video.

Embrace it.

And the new media is being built by small, nimble, high-tech companies which require less capital to succeed than the traditional media companies.

Smart entrepreneurs will seize these opportunities and develop programming and content that will be carried by these new media.

I am working hard at the FCC to create conditions for deployment of high speed data networks into America's homes. These high speed networks will create new and exciting ways for you to reach your readers. I want you to be a part of it.

One hundred and seventy-two years ago a black man named John B. Russwurm graduated from Bowdoin College -- only the third black college graduate in the United States.

After college, he and a friend founded Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States.

In the first issue, the editors wrote, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us."

This was the driving impulse for black journalism in the 19th Century -- and much of the twentieth -- the need to speak for one's self -- to give voice to a then voiceless people. Early in this century, W.E.B. Dubois spoke of this need to find our own voice. He spoke of "a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."

The digital revolution will provide a million new ways for African-American journalists to bring their voices to the American public.

For so long as I am privileged to hold the Chairmanship of the FCC, I will do everything I can to make sure that the communications revolution is an inclusive one -- one that creates opportunity for all Americans.

With your voices, with new tools, and with a renewed commitment to the mission of the Freedom Journal, you will "plead our cause." Because "too long, others have spoken for us."

Thank you.