Think about this. Just one day after the observation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal appeals court struck down another round of affirmative-action rules, crafted to increase job opportunities for minorities and women in the broadcasting industry, declaring them unconstitutional.
Such symbolic timing, given that the ruling came down just four days before Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard, an African American, was to leave office last Friday. "Today's decision is a defeat for diversity," he said in a statement.
Nor was he alone in his disappointment. The National Cable Television Association had supported the FCC's minority recruitment program, filing in support of the rules. "We did not find them burdensome; they were eminently reasonable," said NCTA president Robert Sachs.
Of course, one could counter, why would he have a problem? After all, the rules do not apply to cable.
Sachs' predecessor, Decker Anstrom, now president of the Weather Channel and chairman of the Walter Kaitz Foundation-a cable initiative to bring diversity to the industry-was more vehement in his remarks on the ruling. "It's lamentable that the National Association of Broadcasters led the charge, reflecting that diversity is not a priority," he said.
Nor did Anstrom find it inappropriate for the government, in this case, to keep the media's feet to the fire on the issue of diversity.
In a nutshell, the new rules make it crystal clear that a broadcaster's track record in hiring minorities and women would not be an issue when it came time to renew a station's license, as the previous set of rules had stated.
Nor is that scenario likely to change with the incoming Bush administration, which has clearly stated its opposition to supporting affirmative action rules, said Kaitz president Art Torres.
Without addressing the court ruling, NAB president Eddie Fritts tried to spin his way around the ruling, sounding like he was trying to distance himself from it-even though his paws were all over it-saying that broadcasting still had to make progress on minority employment.
He also said that the NAB endorses the passage of a law to reinstate the minority tax-certificate program, "which proved extremely effective in attracting more minorities into the ownership ranks of broadcasting."
During the last Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had introduced legislation to bring back minority tax certificates, but the measure "didn't have any legs," said NCTA's Sachs, who suggested that, perhaps, McCain was too busy running for president.
Personally, I think the phrase "affirmative action" scares the pants off any business executive faced with government mandated quotas to fill, knowing that these well intended programs often do not produce the intended results.
But having said that, I believe the media must bear some responsibility, given their unparalleled influence over so many lives, to take a stand on issues like diversity, where they can make a difference.
Cable, to its credit, tackles diversity in the workplace on many fronts. For example, next week, executives from Kaitz, the National Association of Minorities in Cable, Women in Cable and Telecommunications and CATHRA, an association for cable company human resources executives, will meet as a group in Chicago to further advance the cause to recruit minorities to the workplace.
But the broadcasters have no such mechanism. So much so that last year when USA Networks Inc. chairman Barry Diller tried to donate $6 million to the diversity cause, he had no place to give it to in the world of over-the-air broadcasters.
Clearly cable has much more to accomplish. Just last week the FCC released its annual cable operator employment report for 1999. Because of consolidation, the industry's workforce shrank and so did the percentage of women employed by cable operators. According to the FCC, of the 2,752 cable jobs lost from 1998 to 1999, a startling 2,025 or 74 percent were held by women.
I'm sure that shocker will be addressed when the cable executives from Kaitz, NAMIC, WICT and CATHRA meet to grapple with minority hiring.