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Net Neutrality Repeal Undermines Black Efforts to Combat Racial Bias in the Media, Activists Say

Congress has 60 days to undo the repeal and win Black votes.

An activist displays a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle, Washington, on December 6, 2014. (Photo: Scott Lum)

During a recent review of how Black families are portrayed by various corporate media outlets, media scholar Travis Dixon observed that Fox News portrayed Black families as poor or in need of welfare assistance eight times more often than white families. On hit shows like “Hannity” and “The Kelly File,” Black fathers were portrayed as unavailable to their children several times, but absentee white dads never came up.

Laura Ingraham even mentioned “the fatherless issue” during a 2015 episode of “The Kelly File” while discussing a racially charged videotape, reinforcing an old, harmful media myth that persists despite evidence showing that Black fathers are actually often more involved in parenting than white fathers.

Fox News is known for its conservative bias, but the misrepresentations span the political spectrum, according to a report Dixon authored for the online digital rights group Color of Change. The New York Times ranked second to Breitbart among print and digital news outlets that represented Black families as poor far more often than white families.

Overall, Dixon found that the media overrepresented Black families in depictions of poverty and crime compared to actual rates of poverty and crime among Blacks, while white families were underrepresented. This reinforces racist stereotypes of Black people, particularly when the structural roots of Black poverty stretching back to segregation and slavery are not examined.

Activists working for racial justice and Black liberation rely on a neutral internet to challenge media stereotypes, combat cultural racism and organize movements.

This media bias is nothing new. Scholars have spent decades documenting racial stereotypes in the media and how they shape public perceptions of social groups. Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” and its persistence in the mainstream media is a classic example such racism at work. However, Dixon’s stark reminder comes as the Trump administration is paving the way for a new wave of media consolidation and kills regulations designed to keep the internet free and open to voices that can challenge dominant — and racist — narratives.

Over the past year, the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has methodically rolled back protections that civil and digital rights groups fought hard to establish under the Obama administration. The deregulatory bonanza climaxed last week when the FCC adopted Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to repeal popular net neutrality rules that prevented internet service providers from playing favorites with online content. Many activists working for racial justice and Black liberation rely on a neutral internet to challenge media stereotypes, combat cultural racism and organize movements like Black Lives Matter.

“The vote to repeal net neutrality is easily the most unpopular decision the FCC has ever made,” said Malkia Cyril, a civil rights activist and director of the Center for Media Justice, in an email to Truthout. “The level of corruption and outright disdain for democracy shown by the Republican members of the FCC has been atrocious.”

The FCC has also loosened broadcast ownership rules and is considering raising the cap on how many local television stations a single company can own. This move would directly benefit Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a right-leaning media conglomerate that is waiting for Republicans to clear regulations standing in the way of its proposed merger with Tribune Media. That merger would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of households nationwide.

Brandi Collins, a senior campaign director at Color of Change, said one reason Black people are so misrepresented in the media is that 90 percent of outlets are owned by only seven corporations, and Sinclair’s proposed merger would further consolidate ownership in the hands of conservative white men. Sinclair stations regularly pump out the same harmful narratives about Black people identified in Dixon’s report, but the company does not have the same conservative reputation as Fox News, so viewers may absorb racist messaging without an assumption of bias.

“This endangers our lives in a number of ways … whether its policymaking, the medical treatment we receive or whether we are more likely to be gunned down by police without any questions asked,” Collins told Truthout in an interview.

Net neutrality is popular even among Republican voters, but it remains to be seen whether GOP lawmakers are willing to buck Pai and Trump.

Just as politicians used the “welfare queen” myth to promote and justify their attack on social safety nets in the 1990s, control of media messaging translates to control of policymaking, Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson points out in a foreword to Dixon’s report. Right-wing forces across various media outlets, he writes, have exploited the “unwritten rules of media reporting and coverage” to “change the rules of written policy.” It is no accident that media outlets portray Black families as a “drain on the system” while failing to cover stories that would demonstrate their resiliency “in the face of unjust tides they are swimming against.”

“Widening the lens would show that [Black families] are floundering mostly because corporate and conservative decision makers put them in harm’s way, using them as leverage for profit and politics,” Robinson writes.

This explains why so many activists of color and civil rights organizers, along with progressives everywhere, have their sights set on the FCC. People of color, and particularly women of color, are vastly underrepresented in the media ownership class. Social media and the internet have allowed marginalized people to bypass traditional gatekeepers and get their message out despite a lack of Black and Brown broadcast station owners, but Pai’s net neutrality repeal has handed control of the internet over to big business.

“As a part of the civil rights community, I’ve worked for many years to educate our community about the importance of legally viable net neutrality rules … to equal voice and opportunity in America,” Cyril said. “As a result, organizations like BYP 100 representing Black youth, United We Dream representing migrant communities, and even the NAACP, among others, have come out strongly in support of those rules.”

Like a number of digital rights groups and several Democratic state attorneys general, the Center for Media Justice has vowed to sue the FCC over the repeal. Cyril said details of the challenge are forthcoming, but noted that net neutrality had “solid legal grounding,” and advocates challenging the repeal are likely to win in court. Members of Congress are also drafting legislation to replace the FCC’s rules, but critics say at least one proposal has been watered down to appease big telecom companies that spend millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions every year.

“I am also certain big ISPs [internet service providers] like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T will use the bully pulpit just handed to them by President Trump to try to intimidate civil rights organizations and unions into accepting a weaker legislative solution,” Cyril said. “We can’t accept anything less than full equality, online and offline.”

Democrats in Congress have already proposed reversing Pai’s sweeping net neutrality repeal under the Congressional Review Act, a tool typically used by Republicans to undo regulations. The law must be invoked within 60 days, giving Democrats a limited amount of time to find enough Republican defectors to put together a majority. Net neutrality is popular even among Republican voters, but it remains to be seen whether GOP lawmakers are willing to buck Pai and President Trump. Meanwhile, Cyril said protests would continue as legal challenges wind through the courts.

“We saw in Alabama that Black voters can make a real difference in elections,” Cyril said. “I think it’s time for the Democratic Party to stop trying to woo Black and Brown voters and start working to better represent us. The midterm election is coming. I wouldn’t underestimate how important free speech is to Black voters. Not now, not ever.”

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