America has always had media critics—from Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin in 1775 to the folks at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Media Matters for America today. And they have played a vital role in exposing the mistakes and misdeeds first of subservient newspapers and more recently of broadcast and digital news outlets.
But the media reform movement that steps from complaining about irresponsible and malicious broadcasters to actually holding them to account is a more recent phenomenon. And it is entirely reasonable to suggest that the man who initiated what we today understand as a national media reform movement is Dr. Everett C. Parker, the amazing activist who successfully challenged media complicity with the Southern segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s.
Dr. Parker wrote a new chapter in American history with the fight he led, as founding director of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, to deny the license renewal of a powerful Southern television station that refused to cover the civil rights movement.
“Every movement has thousands of individuals, whose names we never know, forming its backbone,” recalls the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “The civil rights movement, for instance, was the product of countless individuals standing and working together throughout the South and across the country. But there are always those individuals who emerge to give a face to a movement—provide leadership, vision and moral authority. In the area of media reform, it was Rev. Dr. Everett C. Parker.”
Dr. Parker, who turns 100 on January 17, has spent the better part of a lifetime “irritating and worrying the broadcast establishment”—to quote a review of his activism published some years ago by Broadcasting magazine.
But it was a request from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that set Parker on the course that would make him “the conscience of the broadcast industry and the Federal Communications Commission.” With other religious leaders, Parker met with Dr. King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King complained that one of great challenges facing the emerging civil rights movement was the failure of Southern media outlets to cover it. Major television and radio stations, and most newspapers, were not just dismissive of or critical of the movement. They literally refused to cover it—going to far as to blur television screens and announce they were having “technical difficulties” when images of King and other civil rights campaigners appeared on the national NBC news.
One of the worst offenders was WLBT-TV, a station broadcasting out of Jackson, Mississippi.
When WLBT’s broadcast license came up for renewal, Parker and the UCC’s Office of Communications organized a challenge, arguing that WLBT was not meeting its responsibility to broadcast in the public interest on airwaves that belonged to all the people—not just white Southern segregationists. The Federal Communications Commission had the power to pull the license. But the politically appointed and politically connected commissioners bowed to pressure from still-powerful Southern interests—and a broadcast industry that was determined to fight the application of basic standards. “Talk about obstacles being thrown in the path!” recalls former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a student of the regulatory process who has long celebrated Parker’s work. “At WLBT, many of its friends from other broadcast stations, and high-paid industry lawyers and lobbyists all swarmed the FCC and argued that ordinary people without a property interest in a station had no standing to appeal a license. And the FCC, to its shame, agreed.”