Ernest J. Wilson III, dean of USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.
This op-ed originally appeared at The Root on Feb. 17.
Today, in early 2013, American media and entertainment face a curious condition. On the one hand, African Americans and other people of color are flocking to movies, Twitter, television and blogs in ever-greater numbers and percentages. We are huge consumers of media.
On the other hand, the Federal Communications Commission and the Hollywood trade and professional organizations report that the percentages of people of color (and in many categories, women) in senior positions are stagnant or actually declining. Minority ownership is also on the way down. With black ownership and executive ranks dropping, not surprisingly, black-themed shows are falling as well.
In other words: black consumption up, black control declining. The scissors effect. Viewership and media use cutting up, significant media participation cutting down. And equally curious, just as we return a black man to the highest political office in the land, we get fewer black men and women in the “C” suites of American media conglomerates. Right at the same moment that economists and other social scientists agree that media, entertainment and communication are becoming absolutely central to American life, shaping the news and information we get (or don’t get) and defining the ways we define ourselves as a nation and a people, the capacities to tell new, diverse stories is becoming more peripheral. Communication has become more central, people of color more peripheral.
I came to this baleful conclusion as I prepared last November to deliver the annual W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University. Experts from industry, professors from MIT and Harvard University and smart young students came together over three days and talked seriously about these issues. We asked the question, “If W.E.B. Du Bois were with us today, what would he say about the impact of the ‘information revolution’ on communities of color in the United States?”
As former FCC Member Michael Copps, a courageous crusader for wider inclusion into the information society, put it bluntly on the lecture blog, Digital Du Bois, W.E.B. would certainly be angry. And I agree. I think he would be angry because the two most prominent factors that brought brother Obama to the White House were information communication and technology, or “ICT,” which Obama deployed brilliantly to mobilize his ethnic base. Yet as he himself has recognized, the most powerful tools of the modern world — again, ICT — are not getting into the hands of the most dispossessed, who need to use them to improve their lives with better education, better jobs and better citizenship.
Du Bois would be worried because just as he wrote about the precarious position of black people in the transition from America’s agricultural to industrial society, he would recognize how precarious their position is in the transition from the industry society to a knowledge society — in which education and brains replace a strong back and brawn as the means to get ahead.
Put differently, the first digital divide was about access to and consumption of the Internet, the World Wide Web and multiple “cool” applications. Today, the second digital divide is about access to the senior positions and financial capital that would make media content more relevant to more Americans.
The issue of the need for expanded access to senior positions and capital in order to make the big screens and little screens better reflect the kind of society revealed by the last election has already arrived. These are matters not only of TV entertainment but of the necessary social cohesion, mutual understanding and respect for alternative or parallel narratives required for a democratic and globally competitive nation, especially one in which minorities will be the majority in just a generation.
Alas, there is no simple solution to these challenges, and many of us must play our part:
* Hollywood needs to expand its pipelines of recruitment and aggressively seek out and mentor diverse talents who are already available to write even more popular TV, radio, video games and other content — and not just at entry levels, but all along the upward professional tracks that characterize the Los Angeles media guild system.
* Washington, especially the Federal Communications Commission, needs to guarantee the openness, competitiveness and minimal barriers to entry that innovation requires. This can start with supporting the research required to let the FCC Commissioners know what will happen to the voices of women, people of color and residents of rural areas and urban neighborhoods if further consolidation of large media conglomerates is encouraged.
* Communities of color need to seize whatever educational opportunities they can (which shrunk as the economy fell to its knees) and learn the skills and cultures of media and entertainment.
* Educators must broaden their siloed views of teaching to get ahead. Black study experts should pay more attention to the empowerment (and disempowerment) possibilities of the new ICTs, just as those in the communication field must pay more attention to diversity not as an afterthought but as an issue that must be front and central.
There is a lot of responsibility and work to go around. But we all must start by recognizing that the scissors effect can cut deeply and permanently if we don’t take steps now to protect and nurture our American future. This is not a black or white issue. This is an American issue.