Welcome to Oakland, Mr. Wheeler

Welcome to Oakland, Mr. Wheeler

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It’s rare you get the chance to talk about media and technology’s impact on your life with someone who actually can do something about it.

But this is exactly the opportunity Oakland residents will have when Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, takes part in a town hall meeting on Thursday, Jan. 9 at Preservation Park at 7 p.m.

The FCC is a regulatory agency whose mission is to ensure that our nation’s broadcast and telecom policies serve the public interest — a mission the agency has too often failed to meet.

But the town hall meeting, hosted by Voices for Internet Freedom, will provide the chairman with his first opportunity to meet with the public outside of Washington to hear their concerns.

And the people of Oakland should have a lot to say.

When Oscar Grant was murdered by police in 2009, racial stereotypes of the 23-year old African American Oakland native were presented in the media. Instead of focusing on the inequality and systemic problems that led to his death, Oakland’s news media focused on Grant as a suspect. Too often, episodic and biased coverage of crime crowds out stories of inequality or achievement. The result is policies that expand incarceration, while solutions for the crisis faced by many Oakland residents remain unheard.

One of the reasons those stories and voices go untold is because the owners of the major media don’t reflect the diversity of the population. People of color make up two-thirds of the population in the Bay Area, but own just 10 percent of the radio and TV outlets in one of largest markets in the country.

Nationally, people of color own just 3 percent of our nation’s full-power TV stations and 8 percent of our full-power radio outlets despite making up close to 40 percent of the U.S. population.

This state of media inequality is the result of government policies that have promoted massive media consolidation and forced smaller, independent and diverse owners off the air. Even though the public owns the airwaves, corporate gatekeepers determine whose stories are being told.

Chairman Wheeler has a chance to change this. He can start by tightening media ownership rules that determine how many stations one company can own in a single market. This would provide smaller and independent businesses, especially those owned by people of color, with a greater opportunity to get into the media game.

In other words, the chairman has to come up with a plan on how to get more people of color into broadcasting, rather than adopting policies that continues to force them out of the business.

Many of us — at least those who can afford a broadband connection — have turned to the Internet to find out what’s happening in their communities, to make their voices heard on important social and political issues and to search for job opportunities and other ways to better their lives. Making sure Internet users aren’t abused is the FCC’s responsibility, too.

Yet the promise of the Internet is being undermined by powerful phone and cable companies that want to interfere with and censor Web traffic by getting rid of so-called Net Neutrality rules. Companies like Comcast and AT&T want to create fast lanes online for Web sites that can pay more for preferential treatment while slowing down those sites that can’t afford it.

The Internet has been an unparalleled arena for free speech, economic innovation and democratic participation, but if these gatekeepers get their way, it will look more like cable TV – where they pick and choose the channels for you.

And once they’re stuck in the slow lane on the information superhighway, it will be that much harder for racial and social justice groups to organize vulnerable communities around such issues as the fight for just education, economic, housing and media policies.

And soon, a federal court is expected to make a decision on a lawsuit brought by Verizon against the FCC’s current Net Neutrality rules that placed certain restrictions on the ability of broadband companies to discriminate online. If Verizon wins, it could strip the FCC of its authority to protect an Open Internet as well as its ability to extend broadband services to rural and low-income households.

Mr. Wheeler didn’t create this mess – but it will soon be landing on his desk.
And when it does, he should be thinking not just about what the Washington lobbyists want. He should be thinking about the far-reaching, real-world fallout of his decisions.

Now is the time for Oakland residents to make their voices heard, make sure the FCC chairman understands the impact of media inequality on their lives, and find out what Mr. Wheeler plans to do about it.

Malkia Cyril is the executive director of the Oakland-based Center for Media Justice and Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press. Both organizations are members of Voices for Internet Freedom, a coalition of groups representing communities of color in the fight to protect the open Internet. For those who can't make it to the town hall, it will be streamed live at www.internetvoices.org