In 2019, alongside our partners at Dove, the National Urban League, and Color of Change, Western Center became a founding member of the CROWN coalition to stop discrimination based on hair – specifically, to protect Black people’s right to wear their hair naturally. Since the CROWN Act passed in California, similar measures have passed across the country, and conversations about discrimination and representation have spread like wildfire. Every day people share examples of overcoming discrimination and taking pride in representation – embracing their true, whole selves. Putting an end to race-based discrimination is one step in the fight for equity in workplaces, schools, and on our screens, and representation is another. There is also a deeper well to look to as we cleanse the groundwater of this country’s white supremacy – looking at who owns what.
Diversity in media is about more than representation on screen – it’s also about who has the power to decide what content is put in front of audiences and who gets to influence culture. Media is culture, and culture shows our values. While we’ve seen a push for more diversity and representation on screen, not enough has been done to diversify media ownership.
Like other highly monopolized industries, mergers and acquisitions between media companies are frequent. As it stands, there are six major media companies and five major tech companies dominating the media landscape, meaning a relatively small number of people control film production, television, news, and other media. Through consolidations, large companies continue to set the tone for media discourse, ethics, and actions over smaller entities that try to compete or are eventually absorbed. That is why in 2022 so many people still are not adequately seen, heard, or represented in our content.
Everyone has a story, but when the same kind of stories with the same kind of characters continue to be uplifted over others, it’s a signal to the culture about who is important and relatable. But it is a faulty signal – the small, homogenous group of media owners who make decisions about “what audiences want to see” have too limited a perspective to really know. Even when project (Black Panther) after project (anything created by Shonda Rhimes) after project (Insecure) proves old business models wrong, the same people continue to hold the power to greenlight or cancel projects, and storytelling is stifled.
Ten years ago, writer and producer Issa Rae was told she needed a white character for her projects to be successful and for audiences to care. That sentiment, which still exists, is a product of the explicitly racist history of American media, founded by the same white supremacy as the rest of the country. But ever the trailblazer, Issa expanded the network of creators in Hollywood through her show, and continues to do so – an example of Toni Morrison’s wisdom: “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Issa stands on the shoulders of trailblazing creator/ owners like Oprah Winfrey, Ava Duvernay, Reese Witherspoon, and Tyler Perry, all of whom create countless opportunities for talented people from diverse backgrounds. But for every new model for content production and distribution, there is a legacy media brand holding back bourgeoning creators. And while companies like Netflix offer a welcome disruption for media production and distribution, when we look at ownership, it is clear there’s a long way to go.
It’s not just the media industry that needs a shift in ownership, in fact, the idea of ownership anywhere in the U.S. is complicated by its history of slavery. The racial dynamics of ownership are particularly stark in sports, where discussions about the need for change happen, but ownership largely stays the same. Of course, sports connect right back to media, and a small group of people unwilling to give up profitable reins to change racist systems.
There is a silver lining – the beautiful thing about culture is that it can be shaped into anything we want, and in that way, creators have the freedom to construct whatever narratives they want. However, as things stand, most don’t have the backing to reach a mass audience, so they’re stuck hoping someone with power will “take a chance” and see the value in their stories.
The media industry is notoriously hard to break into and extremely susceptible to “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” But media consumers should be able to find relatable content providing a true reflection of what modern society looks like. With that goal in mind, the evolution of the media landscape must include more open doors for diversity in media ownership so more diverse voices are supported, greenlit, and shared.