The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is set to begin work on a report detailing advertising spending by federal agencies—particularly as it pertains to Black and Latino media companies.
“After several senators joined our request, including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Shumer, GAO sent us an update in February saying that the request would take about six months of work,” said Benjamin Fritsch, a spokesman for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who first called for the report during a press conference with National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) members and representatives of the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP).
The GAO is a government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress.
Charles Young, the managing director of public affairs for the GAO acknowledged that the request for a new report was formally received in February.
“Staffing was not expected to be freed up from existing work for several months and we now expect to begin the work in August or September,” Young said.
In March 2016, Norton called on the office to issue a report on federal advertising contracts and subcontracts with minority-owned newspapers and media companies.
Norton said that the federal government serves as the largest advertiser in the country, and it’s important that news outlets and media companies owned or published by individuals of color with a primary mission to serve communities of color have the same opportunities as other media outlets, especially as African-Americans and Hispanic Americans continue to grow in number in the United States.
“We believe that this request is particularly timely, because GAO will be conducting an audit of spending by federal agencies on public relations and advertising,” Norton said.
One month after publicly making the request, Norton circulated a letter to members of Congress to support her call to GAO to issue a new report.
In 2007, the GAO, which acts as the authoritative audit unit for the federal government, probed the spending on advertising contracts with minority-owned businesses by five agencies—the Department of Defense, Department of the Treasury, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The agency found that just five percent of the $4.3 billion available for advertising campaigns went to minority-owned businesses. Thirty-one of Norton’s colleagues in Congress signed the letter, including CBC Chair Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and legendary congressmen John Lewis (D-Ga.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and former CBC Chair G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).
Seven months later in November, a group of Senators, including Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also signed a letter and joined the call for accountability in the federal government’s advertising practices – or lack thereof when it comes to minority-owned news outlets.
Several aides to the lawmakers did note that journalists, who work for Black- and Hispanic-owned media outlets must do a better job of keeping the issue on the pages of their newspapers.
Dorothy Leavell, the new chairwoman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) has vowed to do just that and she said she’s grateful to Norton.
“We are extremely appreciative of Congresswoman Norton for taking the initiative on this,” said Leavell, who is also the publisher of the Crusader Newspaper Group. Leavell added that the wait for the GAO report has been long enough. “Anymore delay will not be tolerated.”
Leavell also said that it was unacceptable that federal agencies have largely excluded Black-owned media companies from delivering messages from the U.S. government to the Black community.
“I urge the officials at GAO to start today in their investigation and conclude it immediately,” said Leavell.
However, Young said it typically takes months before a request to the GAO is acted upon.
Also, the change in administration had nothing to do with the length of time this process has taken since Norton’s call about 15 months ago, he said.
“The change in administration does not have an impact, just the various other GAO reviews already underway,” Young said, noting that the GAO did not receive a formal request until February.
Headquartered in D.C. and with offices in several cities including Atlanta and Los Angeles, the GAO was founded in 1921. In a Fiscal Year 2016 report, the agency noted that it had provided nearly 2,100 recommendations to improve government operations.
Approximately 73 percent of the recommendations GAO made four years earlier in Fiscal Year 2012, have already been implemented, thus making any suggestion on advertising with minority-owned media an important step in the quest for Black and Hispanic-owned papers to receive advertising dollars.
“The NNPA anticipates that the new GAO report will once again substantiate what we already know and that is Black American-owned newspapers and media companies are not afforded equality and equity for annual federal advertising spending,” said NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. “This is a serious problem that urgently needs to be rectified by the government of the United States.”
Karen Carter Richards, the publisher of the Houston Forward Times and NNPA First Vice Chair said that the federal government is the largest advertiser in the country.
“The lack of advertising by federal agencies as it relates to African-American and other minority media companies must be addressed,” said Carter Richards. “We remain optimistic that the findings in this GAO report will lead to the necessary changes we need to ensure communities of color have the same opportunities as other media outlets.”
Bernal Smith, the publisher of the New Tri-State Defender in Memphis and second vice chair of the NNPA, said the U.S. government stands as one of the biggest marketing and advertising entities in the world in terms of dollars spent.
He cited a 2012 report that revealed government ad spending had reached $16 billion.
“That was five years ago and that number is not likely to have gone down,” said Smith. “Being a publisher, and knowing what others are getting, clearly the Black Press has not been a part of those ad buys and, by and large, we’ve been on the outside looking in.”