Media mergers and empty promises for Latina/os

By Jason A. Smith and Randy Abreu

In early March, ahead of the 2018 Oscars, the National Hispanic Media Coalition staged a protest citing the lack of Latina/o representation among the nominees and the media landscape more broadly. The cultural struggles of media exclusion are well-worn, but a central part of these struggles is the role of media policy.

In 2011, a merger between Comcast and NBC Universal was approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on multiple conditions that upheld consumers’ rights. For Latina/os, these conditions meant the company would provide opportunities for communities of color and establish minority channels.

As media consolidation in the United States has become more common, so too have social movement groups that work to challenge these mergers. In the United States, the FCC is the governmental agency where most of the initial merger-related battles take place; Latina/os have been engaged in these battles for the last thirty years. As part of their struggles, they have had to adapt and work within policy spaces to advance the concerns of Latina/os over media representation and participation.

In recent work, we reflect on the time period in which Comcast sought approval of the merger, and demonstrate how the process left Latina/o communities with nothing more than broken promises. As the conditions of Comcast’s merger are set to expire this September, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division at the end of 2017 urging the agency to investigate the anti-consumer behavior of Comcast since its merger. If these conditions are set to potentially undergo further scrutiny, critical attention should be placed on memorandum of understandings (MOUs) and the role of racialization in the policy-making process.

MOUs are voluntary

When the Comcast/NBCU merger was approved by the FCC, promises were made to ensure that the merger would meet the agency’s public interest standard related to diversity in the media landscape. In a MOU with Latina/o organizations, Comcast promised to focus on increased visibility of Latina/o s in multiple areas such as corporate governance, workforce, procurement of third-party services, programming, and philanthropy. As approval of the merger was being sought at the FCC, these focus areas were consistently used by Comcast to make their case to the regulator. Certain Latina/o organizations even cited the MOU in their meetings with FCC officials, urging the agency to approve the merger.

As MOUs are voluntary formal agreements between two or more parties, they do not hold any enforceable legislative power. “Voluntary” then, becomes the key measure of the agreements made between Comcast and Latina/o organizations. When the FCC approved the merger, some of the commissioners praised the voluntary commitments that were reached, however the agency did not adapt the language or essence of the MOU into its formal conditions. By failing to include the agreements set forth in the MOU as enforceable standards to meet scrutiny, the FCC fundamentally set up a scenario in which Comcast had no obligation to support diversifying the media landscape.

Racializing media policy 

Briefly stated, racialization refers to a political process in which interest groups struggle for policy outcomes framed through racial categories. The MOU served as a conduit for racialization, as the overt labeling of and requests by Latina/os played a role in the FCC’s approval of the merger. For Comcast, the MOU reflected the economic interests of the company, utilizing the categorical label of “Latina/o” to demonstrate its focus on diversity. The company’s two Latina/o -channels were additionally framed as part of their media portfolios, leveraging content from their other holdings to be sold to Latina/o audiences – largely reflecting a recycling of content rather than producing new, Latina/o -led content.

Latina/o organizations were also constrained by the language and subject of the MOU. As it was framed under the economic interests of Comcast, Latina/o leaders adopted some of the same interests that benefited Comcast in the long-run. This power imbalance over the MOU being set on Comcast’s terms reflects how structural inequalities regarding race are perpetuated, in which communities of color are left with the short-end of the stick. Once Comcast was able to have Latina/o organizations sign-on to the merger, it utilized a race-conscious categorization to show a commitment to diversity, all the while never following through on those commitments.

In a 2016 report assessing the aftermath of the merger, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University found that Comcast failed to incorporate Latina/os behind the camera, stereotyped portrayals increased in its film and television productions, and Latina/o leaders within the company were segregated and paid less.

Media representation and participation are increasingly becoming hot-button topics that demonstrate how policy is tied to our everyday culture. Policy scholars and practitioners in this field should critically take up the concept of racialization toward future debates regarding ownership – particularly when media mergers are on the table (as the AT&T/Time Warner merger currently is) and MOUs are used as tools to push legislative approval. If Comcast undergoes federal scrutiny when its conditions expire, then lawmakers should employ these perspectives when deciding what is valuable for its citizens.

This article is based on the paper “MOU or an IOU? Latina/os and the Racialization of Media Policy,” currently available open-access at Ethnic & Racial Studies. This post originally appeared in the London School of Economics USAPP blog on March 30, 2018. http://bit.ly/2pTjJ7r

The AT&T/Time Warner Merger and the Threat to Racial Representation

By Jason A. Smith

Last month one media behemoth, AT&T, stated it would purchase another, Time Warner, for $85.4 million. AT&T provides a telecommunications service, while Time Warner provides content. The merger represents just one more step in decades of media consolidation, the placing of control over media and media provision into fewer and fewer hands. This graphic, from the Wall Street Journal, illustrates the history of mergers for the latest companies to propose a merger:

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The purchase raises several issues regarding consumer protections – particularly over privacy, competition, price hikes, and monopoly power in certain markets – and one of these is related to race.

A third of the American population identifies as Latino, African American, Asian American, and Native American, yet members of these groups own only 5% of television stations and 7% of radio stations. Large-scale mergers like the proposed one between AT&T and Time Warner exacerbate this exclusion. Minority-owned media companies tend to be smaller and mergers make it even harder to compete with larger and larger media conglomerates. As a result, minority-owned companies close or are sold and the barriers to entry get raised as well. The research is clear: media consolidation is bad for media diversity.

After the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences committed to increasing diversity on screen and technology companies have vowed to increase their workforce diversity, but such commitments have done relatively little to improve representation. Such “gentlemen’s agreements” are largely voluntary and are mostly false promises for communities of color.

Advocacy groups and federal authorities should not rely on Memorandum of Understandings to advance inclusion goals. When the AT&T/Time Warner deal gets to the Federal Communications Commission, scrutiny in the name of “public interest” should include the issue of minorities’ inclusion in both the media and technology industries. As a diverse nation struggling with ongoing racial injustices, leaving underrepresented communities out of media merger debates is a disservice not only to those communities, but to us all.

Jason A. Smith is a PhD candidate in the Public Sociology program at George Mason University. His research focuses on race and the media. He recently co-edited the book Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century U.S. Media (Routledge, 2016). He tweets occasionally.

This post originally appeared in Sociological Images on November 10, 2016

 

The ‘technique’ of blackface

Snapchat_blackface1By Jason A. Smith

Outrage over the Bob Marley Snapchat filter was swift following its brief appearance on the mobile application’s platform on April 20 (The 420 pot smoking holiday). The idea of mimicking Bob Marley in appreciation of a day dedicated to smoking marijuana enabled users to don the hat, dreads, and…blackface!? News outlets that day covered the issue pretty quickly. CNN.money and The Verge noted the negative reactions voiced on social media in regard to the filter. Tech publisher Wired released a brief article condemning it, calling it racially tone-deaf.

The racial implications of the Bob Marley filter are multifaceted, yet I would like to focus on the larger cultural logic occurring both above and behind the scenes at an organization like Snapchat. The creation of a filter that tapped into blackface iconography demonstrates the complexity of our relationship to various forms of technology – as well as how we choose to represent ourselves through those technologies. French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote in The Technological Society of ‘technique’ as an encompassing train of thought or practice based on rationality that achieves its desired end. Ellul spoke of technique in relation to advances in technology and human affairs in the aftermath of World War II, yet his emphasis was not on the technology itself, but rather the social processes that informed the technology. This means that in relation to a mobile application like Snapchat we bring our social baggage with us when we use it, and so do developers when they decide to design a new filter. Jessie Daniels addresses racial technique in her current projects regarding colorblind racism and the internet – in which the default for tech insiders is a desire to not see race. This theoretically rich work pulls us out of the notion that technology is neutral within a society that has embedded racial meanings flowing through various actors and institutions, and where those who develop the technology we use on a daily basis are unprepared to acknowledge the racial disparities which persist, and the racial prejudice that can—and does—permeate their designs.

This understanding of technique, when combined with critical race theory, allows us to ask if the presence of blackface in technology is any big surprise in a presumably “post-racial” world. I am positive that any critical race scholar would, without hesitation, answer, “No, it’s not.”  And that’s because we are definitively not post-racial. The intentions behind the filter might have been innocent or playful by developers, but the use of blackface within society has a long and complex history – particularly in regard to its use as a tool to perpetuate systemic racial inequalities in the dehumanizing and “othering” of African Americans in the United States. Hollywood has traditionally been the long time perpetrator of promoting blackface, and variations of it, through utilizing stereotypes that adapt to a given historical moment in society. Yet the racial implications of blackface extend beyond the screens in which we view film. Over the past couple of years tensions brought up over racialized costumes during Halloween and college parties demonstrate the reach and continuation of blackface. With such a contemporary example that has generated conflict within the general public, it seems as if the tech innovators at Snapchat would have known better. I guess that is just wishful thinking. This movement and use of blackface from film, to parties, to the mobile app demonstrates what Ellul meant in regard to technique. The continuation of blackface in our society presently is not necessarily linked to the technologies that produce them, but through the ways in which individuals develop and utilize those technologies. The presumed innocence of using blackface to ‘celebrate’ an individual within a logic of providing ‘daily-new’ filters for consumer use reflects a gross oversight in what blackface means within the larger cultural sphere of public life.

The continued existence of racism in society is undertaken through multiple shifts and debates, in which no actor or institution stands in isolation. This case of the Bob Marley filter only highlights the ways that historical racist images are allowed to perpetuate themselves in the present – becoming not-so-historical in the process as they reincarnate through new mediums. I have no doubt that some cases might be found of individuals using the filter, or commenting on it, in overtly racist ways. Yet, as mentioned above, voices also sprang up to condemn the filter as racially insensitive in various social media and news sites. The technique of blackface is malleable in that it lingers on through practices that are uncritically carried out by tech developers, but those practices are also challenged through other means across various technologies. Unraveling this technique requires disrupting the structural racism that upholds it. Brushing off the filter as a misstep by Snapchat or condemning the developers as socially out of touch, is antithetical to the critical race project, a project that is less interested in identifying those who fail at race relations and more interested in identifying the social conditions that allow racism to persist.

 

Jason A. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Public Sociology at George Mason University whose research centers on the areas of race and the media. His dissertation will look at the Federal Communications Commission and policy decisions regarding diversity in the media for minorities and women. Along with Bhoomi K. Thakore, he is a co-editor of the forthcoming volume Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century US Media (Routledge, May 2016). He is on twitter occasionally.

This post originally appeared on Cyborgology on May 2, 2016