March 8, 2022 – The way that race and racism intersect with American media over the last 100 years was presented in a two-day webinar held Feb. 25-26. The event was organized by the University of Houston and Georgetown Law Centers, and Free Press. The inspiration for the conversation came from Free Press’ Media 2070 project, which is examining the part media has played in, “the stories, the narrative, the visibility, and invisibility [of Black and Brown communities],” said Alicia Bell, Co-Founder of Media 2070 and now Director of Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. More than 900 people registered to attend the two-day event that discussed the past, present, future, regulatory and economic response, and reparations for racism in American media.
“It is incumbent upon us to address our own unconscious biases,” said William A. Treanor, Executive Vice President and Professor of Law Georgetown Law Center. Treanor introduced co-presenter, UH Law Center’s Dean Leonard Baynes, who he has known for many years saying, “He is a real visionary.”
Baynes said he was thankful for Treanor’s friendship and partnership in the webinar. Baynes explained that less than 1% of media is owned by African Americans in the U.S. and “the goal of the conference is to examine these issues of underrepresentation of African Americans in media.”
The first day included a conversation between Dean Baynes and Cathy Hughes, Founder and Chairperson of Urban One, Inc., the largest African American-owned and operated media company in the nation. “I really saw the opportunity to reach as many people as possible because my mission was to give voice to the voiceless, my community was the voiceless;” Hughes said about building a station for African Americans.
In a panel discussion, Mignon Clyburn, former FCC Commissioner and now President of MLC Strategies, LLC noted that it wasn’t until 1973 that the first television license was awarded by the FCC to an African American. “I highlight the FCC as an agency that I love … but it’s essential for all of us during this conversation to note that the challenges of race, racism, and American media do not exist in a vacuum,” said Clyburn.
This was reinforced by Catherine Sandoval, Associate Professor from Santa Clara University of Law in another panel focused on the history of racism in broadcast media. Sandoval pointed out that “the media environment was created by the FCC and the FCC’s policies,” and that when it comes to emergency alerts, broadcasting plays a critical role in notifying all communities and it can become a “matter of life and death” if those communities don’t have access.
Joseph Torres, Senior Director of Strategy and Engagement at Free Press explained that the media is like any other system in the United States. “It wasn’t created to help the Black community it was actually created to harm the Black community.” Torres and other speakers referenced a recent apology from the Baltimore Sun newspaper about how their work impacted and “oppressed Black Marylanders.” The paper wrote how “through its news coverage and editorial opinions, The Sun sharpened, preserved and furthered the structural racism that still subjugates Black Marylanders in our communities today.” Panelists explained how that apology from the Baltimore Sun is a form of sea change that has not been seen before.
James L. Nelson, the Vinson & Elkins Professor and Associate Professor of Law and Business at the University of Houston Law Center, echoed that he has seen change happening in the world of corporate law. “It looks like this time around corporate CEOs are on board,” said Nelson. “This time the world’s largest asset manager is sending letters to shareholders including issues of workplace diversity.”
Cheryl L. Wade, the Dean Harold F. McNiece Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law, is seeing something similar around accountability in corporate America. “Shareholders can sue if media corporations don’t have people of color at the top,” explained Wade. “Shareholder proposals at least provide opportunity for meaningful discourse, to think more deeply and not just be reactionary to racism.”
Ultimately, Free Press’ Media 2070 project is focused on reparations, and panelist Eric Miller, a Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, wants to hold all American institutions accountable. “We ought not just to ask what is the amount that is owed; we need to ask what are the ways in which institutions including the media, silence Black people,” said Miller. “We should demand that the media ... document the ways in which institutions treat the victims, the white perpetrators of the moment.”
In wrapping up the conference, Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who unfortunately was unable to join the webinar, sent a statement with some concrete political action she was proposing for reparations. “HR 40 … creates a framework for a discussion of restorative justice,” said Jackson Lee’s statement. “It would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery over the last 400 years.”
The second day of the event included law faculty from across the country presenting papers and discussing various media and diversity topics.
UH Law Center Dean Baynes concluded the event recognizing the “wonderful” and “vibrant” conversation that was had. The full line-up of speakers and presenters can be found here. For more information on how the conference came about, click here.
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