It is 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. You are given a phone number. You know you cannot place this call from home. Instead, you find an anonymous public telephone booth, dial a number and are connected to Rev. Robert LT. Smith, an African-American business owner who had the temerity to run for Congress from Mississippi in 1962. You make arrangements to meet him. Late at night, at his house, which is protected by floodlight and guards, you run back and forth from your car—escaping into the night to avoid detection. Your prize? His signature on a petition at the Federal Communications Commission documenting that the local television station has been part of the segregationist effort to prevent the spread of civil rights in Mississippi.
This is one part of a famous 15-year battle conducted by the United Church of Christ to bring the benefits of the civil rights movement to African-Americans in Mississippi using the values of media justice and communications rights. The real-life hero? Rev. Dr. Everett C. Parker, the founder of UCC’s media justice ministry, and “father of the broadcast reform movement.”
At the time WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi routinely slanted the news against civil rights. It cut off Thurgood Marshall in an NBC national news feed, it denied African-Americans the ability to present their views when Mississippi elected officials promoted segregation—not only a violation of journalistic integrity, but also a violation of broadcasting rules at the time. Dr. Parker knew of these troubles, and also had met with Martin Luther King, Jr., who had asked him to help with television stations across the south.
The UCC Takes a Stand
With support from the UCC and other religious groups, Dr. Parker started an effort to challenge the TV station legally—to get the station’s owners where it would hurt them financially. Local broadcast television stations—then and now—get free licenses to use the public airwaves. The licenses are awarded by the Federal Communications Commission and are renewed regularly. Although no group of citizens had ever done it before, Dr. Parker wanted to challenge the TV station’s license and stop them from discriminating against African-Americans.
To do that, Dr. Parker had to document the ways in which WLBT had discriminated. Dr. Parker had two key assets. First, he worked with local professors in Mississippi with experience in television ratings to document all the programs in a week on the air—in an era before VCRs or video recorders. Second, he had access to the television station’s public file, where the FCC required TV stations to document samples of their programming (the public file exists to this day—although it needs to be improved—more on that later). Using these two tools, the UCC’s media justice ministry filed a petition at the FCC. It was not an easy battle, many lawyers helped along the way as the FCC denied the petition, and local people and officials in Jackson made life hard for those who assisted the effort. Finally, after more than a decade and two court decisions written by Warren Burger—the judge who would go on to be the author of many Supreme Court civil rights opinions—the FCC was required to take the license away from WBLT’s owners. The FCC was ordered to determine who could serve all the citizens of Jackson—both Black and white. Not only that, but through the court cases, the UCC established the right of all individuals to challenge television stations to live up to their obligations as public trustees who hold licenses to use public property—the airwaves.
The Work Continues Today
Today, holding television and radio stations accountable is just as important. Not only do some radio stations transmit vitriol and hate speech today, but, especially in an election season, television stations play a critical role in political advertising. It is anticipated this year that the presidential campaign alone will churn out almost $2 billion in spending on advertising. And many of those advertisements will be by the new, secretive superPACs created since the Supreme Court Citizens United decision. New FCC rules just adopted this year at the urging of UCC’s media justice ministry can help bring the disinfectant of sunshine to a process that is mired in the infection of secretive influence of money on politics.
Just this year, the FCC ordered television stations to put their public files online. Yes, that’s right, the very same files that Dr. Parker used in the 1960s—when he had to travel to the station and look at paper folders in file cabinets—are still only available on paper in the same format today. The FCC’s new rule will be the most disclosure for the secretive superPACs we can get before the 2012 election.
The FCC’s rules, however, have some limitations as they are phased in, and that is where the current grassroots effort comes in. The FCC only required television stations in the top 50 markets to put their files online. This means, that many cities in swing-states for the November elections will be excluded. For example, cities like Dayton and Toledo, Ohio are not included.
What can you do?
UCC’s media justice ministry is teaming up with the Sunlight foundation to put all the public file information online. We are looking for people around the country to follow in Dr. Parker’s footsteps and visit a television station, copy the political file, and send it to us so we can put it on the Internet where everyone can see it. Once these files are online, local residents and journalists will be able to track spending and the people behind it. Learn more.
Besides visiting a public file, we encourage you to sign up with UCC’s media justice ministry, named OC Inc. as it continues to fight for the FCC’s new rules in court. Just like in 1963, the broadcasters are fighting this obligation to serve their communities. We need everyone to help.