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.”
Undaunted, Parker and his office went to great expense to collect proof of WLBT’s misdeeds—including evidence of how WLBT and other Southern stations systematically refused to cover not just the civil rights movement but any positive news regarding African-Americans—and then took the issue to court. It was a conservative jurist on the DC Circuit Court, Judge Warren Berger (later the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court), who initially granted standing to Parker and his fellow petitioners and then determined that “the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty.”
In 1969, the US Supreme Court vacated WLBT’s license on the grounds that it had violated the public trust and breached the duty that went with a broadcast license.
The decision changed the way in which Southern stations, and many Northern stations, covered news of civil rights and liberation movements. It also forced the FCC to begin taking seriously challenges to broadcast licenses. Eventually, Parker and the UCC Office of Communication would convince the FCC to accept equal opportunity provisions that began to address hiring barriers at broadcast outlets—as well as barriers to the ownership of broadcast outlets by women and people of color. It was all part of a whole for Parker, who would go on to champion the cause of the Wilmington 10, a group of young North Carolina activists who were wrongly convicted in a notorious civil rights–era prosecution. Parker would live to see outgoing North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue issue pardons of innocence in December 2012 for the nine African-American men and one white woman who received prison sentences totaling nearly 300 years as a result of trumped-up prosecutions in the 1971 case.
As Jackson and others have well recognized, Parkerʼs campaigns have never been about “abstract legal principles.” They have always been about “core principles of justice, equality and fairness.”
And when it came to broadcasting, as Jackson notes, “Dr. Parkerʼs core idea was so simple: The airwaves belong to the people, so the people should have considerable say about how theyʼre used and managed.”
That is the essential premise of the modern media-reform movement.
And Dr. Everett Parker, now 100, is a living testament to the resilience and the determination of the movement he brought into being.