Changing Signals for Minority Media

IN 1970, WKYC-TV in Cleveland offered Eddie Edwards the break he was looking for. The station gave him a job.

It was a different era then. Civil rights was a major issue, Chicano activists formed a political party, and the United States appointed its first two woman generals.

WKYC too made an effort to diversify its work force and hired the young Mr. Edwards, who is black.

Today, Edwards owns an independent TV station here in Pittsburgh. But the world has changed. This year, Congress is helping to launch America on its most critical review yet of affirmative action -- programs that for decades have helped open doors for Edwards and other minorities.

Two of the first salvos have landed in his own backyard -- the communications industry.

Last month, the Republican-controlled Congress repealed a long-standing tax break that encouraged minority ownership of broadcasting companies. Yesterday, President Clinton reluctantly signed the bill into law.

Also last month, a federal court halted government plans to help minorities and women move into the burgeoning business of wireless communications.

Congress and the courts are struggling to chart a new course for affirmative action -- a course that depends on perceptions of past success.

But measuring the programs' effectiveness depends on the yardsticks used. For example when Edwards broke into television, few minorities held executive jobs.

Today, some 320 TV and radio stations are owned by minorities -- an eightfold increase since 1978, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began offering a tax deferment to companies willing to sell their stations to minorities.

While the gains are impressive, minorities now own just 2.9 percent of the nation's stations. But they make up a quarter of the US population.

Has the FCC done enough, then, to redress the balance? Not according to Edwards's yardstick.

''I look at some of the guys that didn't get a break in my neighborhood,'' he says. ''They're unemployed today.'' And despite affirmative action, ''black men and women still do not represent a healthy percentage of the management positions in broadcasting.

But according to Michael Carvin, a Washington attorney who has worked on affirmative action in communications, the FCC program and affirmative action generally have gone too far. It is bureaucratic, out-of-date, and discriminates against nonminorities. ''The most persuasive argument for affirmative action ... is that it was a temporary program to help disadvantaged minorities,'' he says. But ''it can no longer be justified as a temporary measure 30 years after the Civil Rights Act.''

What appeared to sway Congress to repeal the minority tax break, however, was the perception that the FCC program was benefiting large media companies and a few wealthy minority individuals.

Capitol Hill's attention focused on Frank Washington, a black businessman, who was heading a $2.3 billion deal to buy the cable-TV properties of Viacom Inc.

Mr. Washington had been involved in other media deals with minority tax breaks and was a former FCC staffer who had helped devise the original FCC program.

Much of his money came from an investment group with ties to cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. It seemed that Washington's minority status was being used to help large corporations get big tax breaks.

But the FCC defended its program, saying the proposed Viacom deal was an anomaly. Viacom's expected tax deferments alone dwarfed the total selling price of any of the other FCC minority tax-deferment deals. Still, the damage was done, and Congress voted to repeal the program.

Minority broadcasters are angry at what they perceive as the first shot in a broad attack on affirmative action. ''I don't think the majority of Americans understand affirmative action,'' says Jim Winston, executive director and general counsel of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters Inc. Affirmative action, he says, ''was intended to open up opportunities for people who are qualified but, for various reasons, are not given opportunities to compete.''

Just as Congress was eliminating one FCC affirmative-action program, the US Court of Appeals challenged another. Last month, it halted plans for an FCC auction of a new mobile-telephone service called personal communications services or PCS.

The reason: A Jackson, Miss., telephone company had filed suit, claiming the auction's bidding credits -- which would give an automatic 15 to 25 percent boost to bids from women and minorities -- would be unconstitutional.

According to the FCC, the company -- Telephone Electronics Corporation -- has offered to drop the suit if it's allowed to participate in the auction and receives a 10 percent small-business bidding discount.

Under current FCC guidelines, the company is too large to participate. Both Telephone Electronics and its Washington attorney, James Troup, declined to comment for this story.

And FCC Chairman Reed Hundt defends the program as appropriate. ''Minorities and women have a harder time raising money in this country. It's been overwhelmingly proved,'' he says.

''We're going to hold this auction,'' he adds.

The auction credits encourage greater participation without giving away any money, he adds. ''We're talking about giving women and minorities the chance to pay us.''

But critics of the plan argue that, unlike broadcasting, where a station owner might influence what millions of people watch, PCS is strictly point-to-point communication, like today's cellular phone service.

The auction credits have ''nothing to do with increasing any kind of diversity of content,'' says J. Gregory Sidak, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

If Congress really wants to diversify broadcast content, he says, it might consider subsidizing programming rather than stations.

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