Biden administration is challenged on federal ad spending disparity with Black-owned media

EXCLUSIVE: In a letter obtained by theGrio, members of the Congressional Black Caucus call out the gap in the government's advertising dollars spent on Black-owned media vs. white-owned companies targeting Black audiences.

US President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris (L), speaks about the Child Tax Credit relief payments that are part of the American Rescue Plan during an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, July 15, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Editors Note: Byron Allen, who is Black and American, is the CEO of Allen Entertainment Group, the parent company of theGrio. 

The Biden administration is falling short when it comes to its equity efforts in its media advertisement buys targeting the Black community. In fact, white-owned media companies targeting Black audiences are receiving federal dollars at exponentially higher rates than Black-owned media.

The federal media advertising campaign focused on COVID-19 public education and awareness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is only one example. 

A letter obtained by theGrio from HHS Assistant Secretary Melanie Anne Egorin revealed that white-owned, Black-targeted media companies received approximately $45 million compared to approximately $20 million spent with Black-owned media as part of the COVID-19 advertising program. 

These findings from HHS were in response to a letter sent to President Joe Biden by Democratic U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia. In his letter, Johnson questioned the government’s advertising spending with Black-owned media—which reaches a critical base of the Democratic Party—and found them to be grossly under contracted when the federal advertisements are spent in comparison to Black-targeted media that are white-owned.

Rep. Hank Johnson
Rep. Hank Johnson (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)

“Unfortunately, the failure of the federal government to spend COVID-19 advertising dollars with Black-owned media and advertising firms is simply the continuation of a problem that has existed for years,” Johnson wrote in his March 2 letter to President Biden that was obtained by theGrio. “We appreciate that your administration met with leaders in Black-owned media to discuss this topic in early 2021, however, we are not aware of any action that resulted from this meeting and the problem continues to undermine Black-owned businesses.”

Congressman Johnson told theGrio exclusively, “The federal government has historically failed to spend federal advertising dollars with Black-owned media and advertising firms, which has led to messaging not being effectively disseminated to the Black community. 

He added, “Life and death consequences arise when, for instance, Black communities are not effectively messaged about COVID-19 relief funding, the availability of PPP, the need for frequent testing, and the efficacy of vaccines. Moreover, Black-owned media and advertising agencies being excluded from federal contracting opportunities are a vestige of Jim Crow racism that must be ended now.”  

Johnson, who sits on the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, requested in his letter that the Biden administration reinstate President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13170, which ensured nondiscrimination in federal procurement opportunities for minority businesses.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks to reporters during a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House Briefing Room December 10, 2010 Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill Auth-Pool/Getty Images)

The executive order required federal departments and agencies to ensure that Small Disadvantaged Business Programs (SDBs) and Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs) are included in the procurement of federal contracts. Under Clinton’s order, federal agencies were required to pay fair market rates and ensure advertising was equitably placed with media companies owned by minorities.

According to Congressman Hanks, Clinton’s executive order was revoked under President George W. Bush. It was later reinstated by President Barack Obama, only to be revoked yet again by President Donald Trump.

The data shared in the HHS letter in response to Congressman Johnson revealed that corporate white-owned media like BET (owned by Viacom), Spotify, the Oprah Winfrey Network (majority-owned by Discovery), and even the morning radio show, The Breakfast Club (owned by iHeart Media)—which all target Black audiences—have raked in tens of millions of dollars more than Black-owned media. 

The findings show that administration officials have made a preferential distinction toward white-owned, Black-targeted media by giving them larger portions of the media buy budget. For the HHS COVID-19 ad buy campaign, the agency revealed that 12.5% (approximately $45 million) was spent with Black-targeted media, but approximately 5.5% was spent with Black-owned media.

In total, HHS said that 18% (approximately $65 million) of the COVID-19 public education campaign was spent targeting Black audiences overall. Despite the disparity of that 18% between white-owned companies that target Black audiences and Black-owned media, the administration touted that the federal ad buy campaign is “well beyond parity for the Black community, which makes up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population.”

When it comes to Black-owned media that has received funding from the Biden Administration, Dr. Ben Chavis, head of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) told theGrio that in total his organization and its member newspapers have “received several million dollars” in ads — primarily from Health and Human Services. 

Flanked by Dr. Luis Padilla (L), associate Administrator for Health Workforce at Health Resources and Services Administration, and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy (R), Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about Covid-19 vaccine equity in the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex November 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sources close to the matter exclusively offered theGrio some hard figures as it relates to the HHS advertising buy campaign for Black-owned media outlets. TV One, Urban One and CleoTV, all owned by Cathy Hughes, received $924,000, $89,000 and $924,00 respectively, theGrio received $32,500, WVOK-FM received $8,000, and Core Communications received $50,000.

On Monday, members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Biden at the White House. The issue of the number of federal dollars spent on Black-owned media is said to have been one of the items on the agenda discussed along with other equity-related issues.

A number of sources close to this issue say the administration has ad buys for organizations that have a large reach. However, HHS and Biden administration sources credit their efforts at advertising with Black-owned media and white-owned, Black-targeted media as the reason for closing the vaccine disparity gap. Cumulatively, the reach of Black-owned media is extraordinary. TheGrio alone has an average reach of 7.5 million people every month.

“Our focus is two-fold: to invest in Black-owned media and reach as many Black audiences as possible,” said HHS Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Kamara Jones. “In order to maximize our impact in the Black community, we must invest in both Black-owned and operated media and Black targeted media.”

HHS noted that it hired a Black-owned and operated agency, Creative Marketing Resources, that is tasked with overseeing the “creative development, targeting, and media buying of the advertising that targets Black audiences.”

“Creative Marketing Resource’s experience and expertise in this space has helped HHS develop culturally resonant creative products and make strategic media buys to maximize our impact in the Black community,” read the letter from HHS to Congressman Johnson. “Media dollars go directly to the media vendors. The primary contractor and subcontractors who help buy the media do not receive a markup on money spent for advertising.”

There have been conversations both casual and high level on the issue of equity and increased federal contracts with Black and minority-owned businesses. During the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma commemorating Black Wall Street, President Biden announced a new goal of doing just that. Tulsa became the backdrop for the push for President Biden to create an executive order in support of more federal advertising dollars going to Black-owned media. 

President Joe Biden speaks as he commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, at the Greenwood Cultural Center, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Congressman Johnson’s letter urging the Biden administration to increase its spending with Black-owned media has been signed by 35 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Those who signed the letter include:

Florida Congresswoman Val Demmings, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, California Congresswoman Karen Bass, California Congressman Juan Vargas, Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore, New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Georgia Congresswoman Nikema Williams, Pennsylvania Congressman Dwight Evans, Florida Congresswoman Sheila  Cherfilus-McCormick, New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne Jr., Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, Washington State Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland, Louisiana Congressman Troy Carter, Illinois Congresswoman Robin L. Kelly, Georgia Congresswoman Lucy McBath, Maryland Congressman Anthony Brown, Ohio Congresswoman Shontel Brown, Texas Congressman Al Green, North Carolina Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, Ph. D, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, Michigan Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Ed. D, Georgia Congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux, Virginia Congressman A. Donald McEachin, North Carolina Congressman G. K. Butterfield, California Congressman Tony Cardenas, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester.

“The federal government spends billions of dollars a year in paid advertising. However, the federal government’s process for allocating advertising dollars fails to recognize and value the unique relationship that Black-owned media have with their audiences,” the letter reads.

The administration believes it has increased Black-owned media buys by over 100%, however, the recent complaints from members of Congress and Black media owners have been loud. The issue has become a frequently asked question on media calls with Biden officials like White House senior advisor Cedric Richmond.

The subject is a sensitive one due to a conflict of interest to directly ask a White House official for money while also covering the administration. Such was the case when American Urban Radio Networks (AURN) Correspondent Ebonee McMorris earlier this year asked Richmond about White House advertising money for Black-owned media while on a call with a host of Black journalists.

AURN during its heyday had hundreds of FM and AM radio stations with affiliates playing their news product, but it now has less than 35 such stations at last count. Most of those stations are on the radio AM band. 

During another press call with Richmond, Roland Martin, CEO of Nu Vision Media, asked a more nuanced question on this matter citing the letter by Congressman Johnson. The White House said they would get back to Martin offline.

Roland Martin speaks during The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival on the steps of the Texas State Capitol on July 31, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for MoveOn)

Martin acknowledged to theGrio that he received $250,000 from the United States Census in September of 2020, which is separate from the HHS ad buy campaign received by Black-owned media companies. He also expressed vehemently that he publicly acknowledged that money on his internet show last year. 

White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and her staff met on Feb. 16, 2021, with a group of Black-owned media outlets and advertising agencies pushing for money for advertising on COVID-19. The group of participants included: Nu Vision Media, NNPA, Urban Edge Network/HBCU League Pass, Liquid Soul, and Carol Williams Agency. 

Media mogul Byron Allen, who owns theGrio, has been beating the drum about the great disparity in advertising dollars corporations and even the federal government give to mainstream media versus Black-owned media. 

Allen has been leading the charge over the past few years putting American corporations like General Motors and McDonald’s on notice over their paltry advertisement spending with Black-owned media – all while these companies reap great profits from Black consumers.
Byron Allen / Getty

Allen has since sued McDonald’s Corporation over this matter. As for GM, officials are said to have refused to give Allen any ad dollars and instead, out of spite, gave advertising money to his Black-owned competitors, including NNPA. Meanwhile, those ad dollars are said to have been much less than what Allen requested for the consortium of Black-owned media companies. 

Allen in the past has stated these corporations should spend advertising dollars in Black media as they do with white media companies especially when these profitable companies have high-profit margins from minority America. 

Now the story begs the question of whether the White House and administration officials will come together with Black-owned media to resolve the great gap in federal advertising dollars for Black-owned media and create an even playing field with white-owned corporations targeting Black America by reinstating Executive Order 13170?

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