The Federal Communications Commission issued new rules yesterday aimed at increasing minority hiring by broadcasters.
They replace a 30-year-old equal employment opportunity (EEO) program that was struck down as unconstitutional in 1998 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Under the new system, the FCC will require broadcasters to have an active outreach program for hiring women and racial minorities. The companies will have to publicize job openings widely to ensure that minorities and women hear about and can compete for the positions.
The commission does not specify a single method that must be used, though it requires companies to produce an annual report on the results of their efforts. The FCC will not, however, use a company's record against it in deciding whether to renew broadcast licenses--as it did under the old rules.
FCC Chairman William E. Kennard hailed the new initiative as "EEO rules for the 21st Century." The rules say, in effect, "we know there is talent in your communities of many colors and genders--all we're asking you to do is look for it," without demanding that the stations hire anyone in particular, Kennard said.
Kennard compared the hiring issue at stations to the continuing controversy over the paucity of minority characters in network television shows. "We wouldn't be having this national dialogue if everything was copacetic," he said. "We have a problem."
Broadcasters had opposed any new rules that might require extensive record-keeping. "We'll be reviewing the rules," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, "and we're hoping they won't increase the already-considerable paperwork burdens on broadcasters."
The 30-year-old FCC rules governing minority hiring were struck down in 1998 in a case brought by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The FCC had ruled that two radio stations licensed to the synod weren't doing enough to hire minorities.
The FCC considered those recruiting requirements when renewing broadcast licenses, and the court agreed with the synod that the rules hadn't defined what it meant by diverse programming. It also said the government's description of the public interest in diversity was "too abstract to be meaningful."
A group that has had long involvement with the Missouri Synod case applauded the FCC's decision yesterday. "This is the best day for civil rights in communications in a generation," said David Honig, executive director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.
Honig, who represented the NAACP in the case that led to the 1998 decision striking down the old rules, said the commission carefully balanced racial justice and the restrictions on affirmative-action requirements in the district court's decision. "We didn't expect them to come up with rules as strong as we would have written them in a more perfect world. . . . This is a wonderful victory and we sure need some victories."
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. said, "Today, the FCC affirmed again that employment discrimination will not be tolerated in the broadcast industry."
FCC commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth, a frequent dissenter in commission actions, argued in a statement that the rules constituted "a most grievous offense" because they required that companies engage in "the most historically odious sort of discrimination--discrimination based on race" under the guise of promoting equal opportunity.
The rules do not apply as stringently to broadcast stations with fewer than five full-time employees or cable entities with fewer than six full-time employees Those smaller companies need not demonstrate that they have complied with the hiring rules. They are required, however, to file an annual report with the commission that details their outreach efforts.