Securing the Right to Be Heard: A New Book Explores How a 1960's Case about Race in Mississippi Transformed Television News and the Federal Communications Commission

Article excerpt

When viewers turn on the morning news on WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, they see an integrated news team. Both evening anchors are African-American. No big deal today. Just a few decades ago in Mississippi--and indeed across the country--that was not the case. Virtually all TV newscasters were white, as were the people behind the cameras. It took a landmark communications law case and a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to bring about this sea change. The case, largely forgotten today, also ushered in an era of public participation in federal regulatory matters that had never been seen before and might not be again anytime soon.

In the 1950's, white Mississippians were resisting the desegregation of their schools after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that separate schools for white and black children were inherently unequal. Medgar Evers, executive secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, repeatedly tried--unsuccessfully--to get WLBT to give black citizens time to respond to programs he felt presented only the white point of view on the issue. He had the Fairness Doctrine on his side, that is, that stations then had to present programs on public issues and enable broadcast of all sides of those issues that were controversial. Evers complained to the FCC, which took little action. In 1963, he finally did appear on WLBT and responded eloquently to a broadcast by Jackson's mayor, who had refused to meet leaders of the black community or to respond favorably to their rising demands for fair treatment. Only a few weeks later, Evers was ambushed and killed.

The Legal Challenge Begins

The following year--1964, just before hundreds of students from the North went to Mississippi to help register black voters and teach in Freedom Schools--the Reverend Everett Parker and the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ launched what would be a 16-year legal battle over the Jackson station. Parker trained a group of whites who were willing to get involved--a decision not lightly made in those years--to monitor the programming on WLBT. Then Parker, joined by two Mississippi black leaders, Aaron Henry and the Reverend R.L.T. Smith, filed a challenge against the WLBT license, then up for renewal. They claimed that WLBT failed to serve the interest of the large black audience--some 45 percent of Jackson's population--and did not fairly present controversial issues, especially in the area of race relations.

It's hard to believe today, but until the courts decided this case, the only people who could participate in FCC matters were those with an economic stake in the issue or people who could claim electrical interference from broadcasters' signals. So the FCC said that the church's Office of Communication and its allies had no standing in the case and renewed the license. It did, however, acknowledge that the station, owned then by Lamar Life Broadcasting, was less than zealous in its adherence to the Fairness Doctrine.

The church appealed the FCC ruling, saying that its charges merited a public hearing. The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed. Writing for the court, Judge Warren Burger said that "in order to safeguard the public interest in broadcasting ... we hold that some 'audience participation' must be allowed in license renewal proceedings." This decision opened the doors to the public interest movement that saw groups challenging licenses, negotiating concessions from broadcasters trying to sell stations, and seeking everything from an end to cigarette advertising to improvements in children's television programming.

The appeals court ordered a hearing, which was held in Jackson in 1967. By this time, WLBT had changed its lawyers, hiring the influential Washington firm of Arnold & Porter, Paul Porter being a former FCC chairman. It had also fired the manager who seemed to be the lightning rod in the case and started hiring black announcers and broadcasting black church services. …