The term bribery usually conjures images of corrupt businessmen jamming fistfuls of cash into the pockets of public officials in exchange for favors. But the exchange can work the other way as well—public officials can also dole out official goodies in exchange for political support needed to advance their own political agendas. The most famous example, of course, may have been the fabled Tammany Hall scandal where New York City politicians gave patronage jobs to new immigrants who had to promise their obliging vote for the incumbents on Election Day.
But if there was ever a modern day parody of Tammany Hall—where a public official sought to cajole his would-be adversaries with real or illusory favors—it is in our modern day Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And while it may not be bribery in the crass sense, the chairman of the Commission seems bent on luring key Black and Hispanic leaders to support an agenda that has been widely criticized for the negative impact it will have on minority media outlets.
Minority ownership in broadcast television has reached abysmal proportions. According to a study by media advocates Free Press, women own less than 5 percent of all broadcast stations, Latinos own 1.1 percent, and African Americans own just 1.3 percent of the 1,349 full-power television stations in the U.S. Yet, instead of tightening the media consolidation rules and opening broadcast television to more minority programmers, FCC Chairman Martin rushed through a vote on media consolidation before the Commission’s own pending proceedings on localism and the public interest were complete.
Broadcasters are already the beneficiaries of a $700 billion giveaway of free government spectrum; but now Chairman Martin wants to give them six channels that cable carriers have to carry free of charge. Rather than making available scores of new channels to local programmers in California, Martin wants to give these channels away to incumbent broadcasters in what can only be described as pay dirt for them.
Oddly, civil rights groups have formed a coalition with many conservative organizations to decry this kind of “welfare for the rich” giveaway that will raise consumer prices and help moneyed broadcasters while subsidizing infomercial, home shopping networks and superfluous weather channels—the likely beneficiaries of leasable spectrum of the broadcasters.
Under attack, Martin has recoiled and said that minority programmers like TV One could lease some time from broadcasters as well, and thereby forestall the marginalization of minority voices on cable television—a trend which Martin acknowledges but seeks to aggravate through his proposals. Rev. Jesse Jackson and most civil rights leaders publicly rebuke this as a patronizing “consolation prize” and accused him of harboring an “anti-diversity agenda.” Martin’s fellow Democrats were similarly dismissive—Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein referred to the plan derisively as “media sharecropping.”
To Martin, the criticism seems to be water off the back. Astagehand to special prosecutor Ken Starr during the Clinton impeachment fiasco, and later a “voter-challenge” attorney in the 2000 Bush-Gore election recount when African American votes were systematically discounted, Chairman Martin has shown a blithe disregard for diversity in our cable television sets seeking, among other things, to promote a la carte cable pricing—a government rule which nearly every expert has said is intended to kill small and minority cable television programmers like SiTV.
But a public official has a different role than an aide to a partisan impeachment or a voter suppression attorney in a presidential campaign. The FCC is charged by Congress with promoting diversity in communications ownership. And if President Bush has any interest in reaching out to the majority of the public that disapproves of his job performance, he might want to instruct his staff on the difference between campaigning and governing.
Dr. E. Faye Williams n is National Chair of the National Congress of Black Women.