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Veteran Civil Rights Lawyer Challenged Over Media Diversity Role

Minority Media and Telecommunications Council President David Honig has devoted his life to civil rights issues, particularly those revolving around the media and telecom policy.

But no issue has defined Honig and his organization as much as the struggle over rules designed to encourage a diversity of ownership among broadcast stations and newspapers in local markets.

Honig formed the MMTC in 1986 after the Federal Communications Commission unexpectedly voted to suspend two of its three policies designed to give minorities an opportunity to purchase TV and radio outlets. This was an era when the commission frequently held hearings to consider whether awarding a broadcast license to a new station or renewing an existing license was in the public interest.

Those hearings stopped almost entirely after the FCC shifted to auctions in 1993. Scrutiny of broadcast license holders on discrimination grounds has also ground to a halt, after the commission denied 14 applications for renewal in the 1970s on that basis.

But the number of minority journalists employed in the United States has stayed level or declined in recent years, as minorities have been particularly hard hit by the broader industry’s economic difficulties. Honig and his group view relaxing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule as a potential way to save newspapers and the local coverage they provide, which Honig said are often the most important beats to minorities.

The MMTC paid for a survey of minority- and women-owned stations on the issue, but its findings, which argue that relaxing the newspaper-broadcast rule in larger markets wouldn’t harm diversity, have earned Honig and the MMTC the ire of their former coalition partners.

The Center for Public Integrity published a long piece earlier this month suggesting that the MMTC’s positions were influenced by the many telecom companies that contribute to it in some way. Honig was adamant that his group does not make decisions based on the positions of its sponsors.

“We’ve already seen the study challenged based on incorrect perceptions of the author’s personal views, and our organization was very frankly spoken of in an unkind way,” Honig said.

Honig said the contributions from media and telecom firms make a small portion of the organization’s budget. A much larger percentage comes from its brokerage business helping companies sell stations to minority media entrepreneurs.

He also pointed to the 71 open proposals his organization has pending at the FCC, many of which are designed to encourage new entrants into broadcasting.

Some critics have suggested the MMTC is not aggressive enough about pushing its agenda at the FCC. Honig disagreed, noting that despite his organization’s small staff of 13, they are still “up on eighth floor [of the FCC] practically every week.”

Honig acknowledged his organization could be taking the FCC to court with more frequency but said “once you do that, you’ve burned your bridges. It’s a step to be taken in most extreme cases.”

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