On Media Reform and Hate Speech

by Guest Contributor Hannah Miller

The media reform movement is an offshoot and part of the civil rights movement. It was born in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. Everett Parker of the United Church of Christ initiated a lawsuit against white-owned TV stations in the South for consistently portraying African Americans in a racist manner, while refusing to show any coverage of the civil rights movement.

Because of their pressure, the FCC shut down a Mississippi TV station, stating that the power and influence that media companies have gives them the responsibility to operate with the broader public interest at heart – with special consideration given to oppressed minorities.

Since then, political pressure has been brought to bear against the FCC and Congress on a wide variety of issues: female and minority ownership of stations and publications, the dangers of consolidation of the media, the need to build public communications infrastructure like cable access stations or city-owned Internet networks, and the need for everyone to have broadband access.

The percentage of our time that the American public spends with media has been steadily climbing for 40 years, and with that, its influence over our lives. The media is our environment, and the battle I am engaged in is over the nature of this environment: whether it is an environment in which ordinary people have a voice – or whether we are to passively absorb content controlled by a small number of people and corporations. Whether the media is democratic, and reflects a variety of voices.

Why is this important? I will take an extreme example of the media’s power, when it is used by one group over another. In 1994, radio stations played a significant role in the Rwandan genocide, broadcasting hate-filled rants and giving directions to how to kill Tutsis, resulting in a genocide that killed approximately 500,000 Tutsis in 100 days.

I use this example because it is similar to a battle we are fighting now: hate speech online. Researchers at UCLA have just completed a study that shows a recent rise in hate speech online and in broadcast media, particularly against Latinos, while the number of hate crimes against Latinos has been rising. The report is pretty harrowing – a short summary is posted here.

I’m just gonna put in one quote, from neo-Nazi radio host Hal Turner, who wrote on his website in March 2006:

“We’re going to have to start killing these people. I advocate using extreme violence against illegal aliens. Clean your guns. Have plenty of ammunition. Find out where the largest gathering of illegal aliens will be. Go to the area well in advance, scope out several places where to position yourself, and then do what has to be done.”

This is illegal, and the FCC currently does nothing about this.

The National Hispanic Media Coalition is asking the FCC to open a docket to take comments on hate speech in order to determine what action, if any, needs to be taken. As an organization of writers and producers, the NHMC itself is very concerned about upholding freedom of speech; but NHMC and many of its partner organizations think that the FCC has a moral obligation to enforce current law, and find other ways to turn down the volume of hate speech that reinforces racist hatred and keeps many people from even participating online.

I’d like to make an appeal to you folks especially to write a note to the FCC, or through NHMC, or blog about it, in order to open a docket. They won’t do this unless they hear from the community – and site managers are the best people for them to hear from. The FCC has not studied hate speech seriously in 15 years – since before the popularization of the Internet!

Here is how to get in touch with Inez Gonzalez, of the NHMC: igonzalez@nhmc.org.

We are working on a lot of stuff right now, and I will be sure to highlight things as they come up. What you are doing, by presenting platforms by which people can freely communicate, is a democratic act in and of itself; my job is to make sure that the system is set up so that you can continue doing that.

Hannah Miller is the National Field Director for the Media and Democracy Coalition.