In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — better known as the Kerner Commission — released a landmark report examining what had caused a series of violent uprisings in cities across the country. The report warned that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Among other racial problems, the report cited the mass media’s coverage of the uprisings and its treatment of Black people in general. News outlets had failed to convey to their main audience of white people the underlying causes of the riots, such as rampant poverty and inequality, and Black people did not see themselves accurately represented in the media. The report called on the media to expand coverage of the Black community, integrate the activities and civic concerns of Black people into everyday news coverage and bring more Black journalists into the field.
For outgoing Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Mignon Clyburn, the Kerner report is a historical milestone. Since then, Black and Latinx activists have challenged local broadcasters for failing to serve their communities and worked to create media that center their stories, but US media have also experienced rampant corporate consolidation and the rise of right-wing outlets like Fox News.
“The sad part of it is, there are only a few conclusions in that report that are not applicable to today,” Clyburn told a panel of leaders from media and digital rights groups focused on people of color during a discussion on Tuesday.
Clyburn’s acknowledgment that there is much more work to be done comes as the commissioner prepares to leave the FCC, where she has served for eight years, including a stint as the commission’s first Black chairwoman in 2013. During her tenure, Clyburn has consistently fought for people of color and consumers in general. Her commitment to the underserved brought her close to media justice and digital rights groups like the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Color of Change, which showered her with praise during a virtual “town hall” this week.
“I remember just being incredibly impressed with how clear you are about the community that you serve,” Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson told Clyburn, remembering his first visit to her office at the FCC.
The advocates lauded Clyburn for meeting directly with people impacted by FCC policies and amplifying their voice on the national stage. They cheered her commitment to bringing down phone rates for prisoners that tear families apart and pull them into debt. They thanked her for defending the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone and internet service for low-income households.
Clyburn is also a strong advocate of net neutrality rules that prevent internet providers with playing favorites with online content. As Clyburn and her allies pointed out on Tuesday, many people still get their news from traditional media like local TV, but only a small handful of television broadcasting licenses are in Black hands. The internet has acted as a sort of equalizer in the notably unequal world of media ownership, allowing people of color to amplify their stories and challenge racist narratives in real time.
“I’m not posing a solution necessarily, but I can say that these [web] platforms that are currently more open — if we win the fight for keeping them more open — then maybe we can work our way into ownership of the legacy platforms,” Clyburn said of media ownership among communities of color.
The future of net neutrality is highly uncertain. Clyburn is leaving the FCC amid a Trump-era deregulatory blitz spearheaded by Chairman Ajit Pai, who has used his Republican majority on the commission to issue an order repealing landmark net neutrality rules that Clyburn helped establish in 2015. Clyburn has seen much of the progress she championed at the FCC unravel under Pai, who initiated a long list of deregulatory moves that Clyburn says will harm people the FCC is charged with protecting: low-income families, underserved Indigenous communities, disabled people, as well as women and people of color.
Pai has also shown little interest in a cause central to Clyburn’s legacy — reducing exorbitant phone rates paid by prisoners and their families. After years of work by grassroots activists, the FCC issued a historic order capping costs for calls to and from prisons and jails in 2016. However, a lawsuit filed by prison phone companies has held up the order in the court, leaving higher rates in place. It’s a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to get things done in the FCC’s highly politicized atmosphere, even when a strong advocate for marginalized people is in a leadership position.
“It was a no-brainer that this would be something that I would be an advocate for,” Clyburn said when asked why she chose to be a champion for prisoners. “What kind of legacy would I have if everything is good and shiny [but] my people from my communities cannot afford to keep in touch with their loved ones?”
Meanwhile, Clyburn’s Democratic colleagues in Congress are working to hammer Republicans over net neutrality. Polls consistently show that voters in both parties don’t trust internet providers and do support the net neutrality rules Pai awkwardly threw out. Senate Democrats introduced a resolution on Wednesday to undo Pai’s decision to repeal the FCC rules amid a mass online day of action held by web platforms and net neutrality advocates. The resolution faces an uphill battle but could force Republicans to abandon the party line or take an unpopular, anti-consumer position ahead of the midterms.
Clyburn said that the FCC has shifted from a “consumer-centric, consumer-based approach to an industry-led point of view” now that Pai is in charge. Democrats are betting that this won’t fly with voters and are positioning themselves as the party that stands up for digital consumers in the internet age. Thanks to Clyburn and media justice activists, issues like net neutrality also resonate with communities of color in the party’s base. Clyburn says she plans to continue her advocacy outside the FCC. Her fellow Democrats would do well to keep her close. There is still plenty of work to be done.