Everett C. Parker, at 102; won landmark fight over media race bias
NEW YORK — The Rev. Everett C. Parker, who won a landmark broadcasting case and led a civil rights crusade to hold television and radio stations accountable for presenting racially biased programming and for failing to hire blacks and other minorities, died Thursday in White Plains, N.Y. He was 102.
His death was announced by the United Church of Christ, where he was the founder and directed its office of communications. With church support, he used the office as his civil rights platform for 30 years.
In a nation with a history of racial discrimination, it was not unusual decades ago for minorities to be ignored or to have their dignity trampled in radio and television broadcasts. Station executives, under no pressure from federal regulators, gave little thought to segregated shows or on-the-air slurs, let alone to minority hiring.
But as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Rev. Parker, a minister and spokesman for the socially conscious, 1.75-million-member United Church of Christ, began to survey the performances of radio and television stations in the South. He identified WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., as a flagrant purveyor of racist programming.
While blacks made up 43 percent of the station’s viewing audience, he found, WLBT did not cover civil rights news or the black community, and often referred to blacks pejoratively. Typically the only blacks shown were in police custody.
Rev. Parker, who had worked in broadcasting, asked the National Association of Broadcasters to issue guidelines to give blacks a more positive presence on television, but the industry group refused.
On behalf of his church and some viewers, he petitioned the Federal Communications Commission in 1964 to deny WLBT a license renewal for failing to serve the public interest, as required by law.
The FCC conceded the facts but dismissed the petition, saying the church, and even viewers, had no standing to challenge the license. Only broadcasters or others with an “economic” interest had such standing, the commission said.
“I thought that through,” Rev. Parker recalled later, “and concluded that the public did have ‘standing,’ and an economic interest, because they owned radios and television sets.”
An appeal was filed, and in 1966, Warren E. Burger, then a US appellate judge, recognized the right of the church and viewers to petition the FCC. But after a hearing, the commission renewed the station’s license, leading to another appeal.
In 1969, Burger, soon to be chief justice of the US Supreme Court, ruled that the FCC’s record in the case was “beyond repair,” and ordered WLBT’s license revoked.
“After nearly five decades of operation,” Burger wrote, “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.”
The decision marked the first time that a license had been lifted for a station’s failure to serve the public interest, and it established the right of ordinary citizens to challenge a license. It began a new era of heightened sensitivity by the FCC and broadcasters to communities and minorities.
Armed with the power to threaten licenses, Rev. Parker, in the 1970s and ’80s, joined other religious and civic groups — the Citizens’ Communications Center, the Media Access Project, and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen organization, among others — in challenging television and radio stations on broadcast content and other issues, including employment discrimination.
After another petition by Rev. Parker showing that minorities were underrepresented in the industry, the FCC issued rules banning unfair employment practices by broadcasters. But Rev. Parker found that informal meetings with station executives, rather than federal complaints, often led to reforms in hiring and content.
Rev. Parker recruited volunteers in many cities to monitor broadcasters’ programs and hiring practices. He widened his campaign to include network, cable, and telecommunications policies; set up programs to train minority broadcasters; produced documentaries and children’s programs, wrote several books; and lectured at Fordham University in New York. He became known as the dean of civil rights reforms in broadcasting.
“All we’ve ever wanted to do is make it possible for people to express themselves through the system of broadcasting,” he told The New York Times when he retired in 1983. “If broadcasters are to serve the public interest, they need to be reminded that they serve all the publics.”
Everett Carlton Parker was born on Jan. 17, 1913, in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1935, joined the Depression-era Works Progress Administration as a radio producer, and in 1936-37 was the station manager of WJBW in New Orleans.