When viewers turn on the morning news on WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, they see an integrated news team. Both evening anchors are African-American. No big deal today. Just a few decades ago in Mississippi—and indeed across the country—that was not the case. Virtually all TV newscasters were white, as were the people behind the cameras. It took a landmark communications law case and a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to bring about this sea change. The case, largely forgotten today, also ushered in an era of public participation in federal regulatory matters that had never been seen before and might not be again anytime soon.
In the 1950’s, white Mississippians were resisting the desegregation of their schools after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that separate schools for white and black children were inherently unequal. Medgar Evers, executive secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, repeatedly tried—unsuccessfully—to get WLBT to give black citizens time to respond to programs he felt presented only the white point of view on the issue. He had the Fairness Doctrine on his side, that is, that stations then had to present programs on public issues and enable broadcast of all sides of those issues that were controversial. Evers complained to the FCC, which took little action. In 1963, he finally did appear on WLBT and responded eloquently to a broadcast by Jackson’s mayor, who had refused to meet leaders of the black community or to respond favorably to their rising demands for fair treatment. Only a few weeks later, Evers was ambushed and killed.
The Legal Challenge Begins
The following year—1964, just before hundreds of students from the North went to Mississippi to help register black voters and teach in Freedom Schools—the Reverend Everett Parker and the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ launched what would be a 16-year legal battle over the Jackson station. Parker trained a group of whites who were willing to get involved—a decision not lightly made in those years—to monitor the programming on WLBT. Then Parker, joined by two Mississippi black leaders, Aaron Henry and the Reverend R.L.T. Smith, filed a challenge against the WLBT license, then up for renewal. They claimed that WLBT failed to serve the interest of the large black audience—some 45 percent of Jackson’s population—and did not fairly present controversial issues, especially in the area of race relations.
It’s hard to believe today, but until the courts decided this case, the only people who could participate in FCC matters were those with an economic stake in the issue or people who could claim electrical interference from broadcasters’ signals. So the FCC said that the church’s Office of Communication and its allies had no standing in the case and renewed the license. It did, however, acknowledge that the station, owned then by Lamar Life Broadcasting, was less than zealous in its adherence to the Fairness Doctrine. The church appealed the FCC ruling, saying that its charges merited a public hearing. The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed.
Writing for the court, Judge Warren Burger said that “in order to safeguard the public interest in broadcasting … we hold that some ‘audience participation’ must be allowed in license renewal proceedings.” This decision opened the doors to the public interest movement that saw groups challenging licenses, negotiating concessions from broadcasters trying to sell stations, and seeking everything from an end to cigarette advertising to improvements in children’s television programming.
The appeals court ordered a hearing, which was held in Jackson in 1967. By this time, WLBT had changed its lawyers, hiring the influential Washington firm of Arnold & Porter, Paul Porter being a former FCC chairman. It had also fired the manager who seemed to be the lightning rod in the case and started hiring black announcers and broadcasting black church services. But it would eventually prove too little, too late, as the case continued through the FCC and the courts.
The Courts Decide
In 1968, despite a strong dissent by commissioners Kenneth Cox and Nicholas Johnson, the FCC once again renewed the license and once again the challengers appealed and won. It was Burger’s last opinion before moving up to be chief justice of the United States. Brimming with indignation, Burger wrote that the court had not intended that the members of the public be treated as interlopers. He found the record beyond repair and ordered the FCC to open proceedings for a new licensee. Lamar Broadcasting could participate, but it was clear to everyone that it would not retain the license.
The two WLBT decisions stunned the industry. In effect, they told stations around the country that if they discriminated against their black audiences and had few black employees, they, too, could be in trouble. At about the same time, the Office of Communication asked the FCC to issue rules requiring equal employment opportunity in broadcasting. The tide was turning in that direction anyway in the late 1960’s, but the WLBT case made it difficult for the commission to turn its back on this request.
While the FCC was considering who should run the station permanently, it named an interim operator—and that’s when change really started to occur. Communications Improvement, Inc. had an integrated board and wanted four things from management: that it hire more blacks; that it create an integrated children’s program; that it provide more balanced news coverage, and that it continue to make a profit. After a few months, the board fired the holdover station manager from Lamar’s ownership days and hired the first black station manager in the country, William Dilday. He sent reporters on stories that they had never covered before. Ultimately, the station won a prestigious Peabody Award for exposing the conflicts of interest of a leading state legislator.
Meanwhile, five groups vied for the permanent license. Washington Post reporter Bill Greider described their battle in a 1973 article as “a mudball fight in a small room.” Throughout this part of the case, each group had tried to turn up whatever harmful information it could find about the others. Often they were successful. The most Republican of the groups was at first awarded the license. Then investigations turned up information about the business dealings of one of its members, and the case was reopened. After years of attempting to reach a settlement—delayed in part because some of the participants weren’t willing to commit to majority black ownership—the principal players finally reached an agreement. A merged group with, indeed, majority black ownership received the license. Aaron Henry, once denied the chance to buy airtime on WLBT because of his race, became chairman of the board. WLBT remained majority black owned until 2000, when it merged with a chain of stations now know as Liberty Corp.
Why This Case Matters
The case is history. The FCC has deregulated much of broadcasting and has put the Fairness Doctrine on the shelf. The courts have made it impossible for the commission to have any equal employment rules with teeth. The public interest movement has waned—although there remain dedicated groups seeking to combat consolidation of media ownership and fight for affirmative action programs. So what difference did this case make?
At a critical time in U.S. history, federal regulators had to listen to citizens, not just to broadcasters. The first WLBT decision gave the public a venue for taking action against broadcasters that were ignoring them and their issues. People started to think differently about how television affected their lives, and young attorneys established public interest communications law firms to help community groups “talk back to their television sets,” to use former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson’s phrase. The spirit of protest was well under way through the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements, and the legal precedent this case established allowed activists to train their sights on broadcasters.
The case also buttressed the Fairness Doctrine while it still was in effect, reminding stations that they had the obligation to present controversial issues and allow response time for people who disagreed. Even without the doctrine, the standard of fairness today is higher for local TV stations now than it was at the beginning of this case.
As a result of this case and the equal employment rules, the FCC required, for nearly three decades, that broadcasters do more to hire and promote minorities and women. These rules helped lead to the diversity that you now see on your TV newscast. And in Mississippi itself, WLBT intensified its coverage of the black community at a time of vast change in that state. Most of all, perhaps, this case showed once again what one small group of individuals could do to make government responsive if they were willing to stay the course.
Kay Mills, a former Los Angeles Times editorial writer, is the author of “Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television,” a book about the WLBT case that was published this year by the University Press of Mississippi.