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Future of media report - a feminist challenge

cbyerlys Icon Posted by Carolyn Byerly

June 16th, 2011

Finding women and people of color in the long-awaited Federal Communications Commission report The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age is an exercise in near futility. The 478-page report integrates details on the status of various media platforms and assesses mediated informational needs by communities within the United States in the years to come, ending with a short chapter on recommendations.

Yet those of us know through experience that when women and people of color are omitted or barely mentioned in such a comprehensive undertaking, their interests are most certainly not going to be part of any structural changes. If Congress and the FCC follow this report, the future of media promises to be as white and male as the present.

Authored by Steven Waldman, the report was commissioned by the FCC a couple of years ago to guide legislative and regulatory activity with regard to mass communications in the US. Recognizing that the digital age has changed the way we live, work, shop, interact, and entertain ourselves, the report allegedly considers what today’s people need in the way of information and how that should be provided.

Who are the people considered central to the report?

The report might have examined “informational needs” by considering these with respect to both the current female majority, together with an increasingly racial and ethnically diverse American society. In fact, the executive report even sets forth six principles that guide final recommendations for structural changes, with “taking historically underserved communities” into account (page 7) as one of them.

Yet, through the hundreds of pages, the concept of “underserved communities” remain vague, never really defined. Instead, the report provides a separate 10-page chapter called “Diversity” that deals only with the media consumption and needs of racial minorities, and another 4-page chapter called “People with Disabilities.” Minorities and people with disabilities are mentioned again briefly in the recommendations (pp. 359-360).

By contrast, women’s low ownership, media consumption, social status, and informational needs are not included in the report at all. The word women appears once that I could find, that being on page 360 in a statement that the Commission has already voted to ask Congress to reinstate the tax-certificate program as a way of stimulating “minority and women-owned businesses” (that could include media companies). Even in this mention, women are subordinate to “minorities” – a term, incidentally, that is losing currency in our multiracial, multiethnic society.

My despair over women’s exclusion from such an important document is only deepened by what I see to be a longstanding reluctance of feminists to put media policy on the political agenda. Feminists have always been vocal about sexist content in the news or television programming, and even in discrimination in hiring and promotion within the media professions. Yet, we seem frozen, unable or unwilling to explore why the content of these media continue to misrepresent or neglect our interests. Until there are more feminist voices on these matters, and informed policy deliberation from a feminist perspective on where women’s media interests lie, policy governing media ownership and content will remain men’s domains. Independent women’s media play a crucial role as they always have, but women will never have a full voice or presence in the larger public sphere without mainstream media.

At last count, women owned fewer than 6% of the broadcast stations (TV & radio) in the nation. Broadcast and cable stations, as well as the remaining daily newspapers are owned by huge corporations whose boards of directors are nearly all white and male.

We deserve better than this. Media policy stands as the compelling feminist challenge before us.

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