The largest District-based African-American-owned newspaper has garnered the support of an influential media association as it pursues its quest to continue to be considered a general circulation newspaper in the city.
David Honig, the president of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council said that The Washington Informer is justified in fighting for its status as a newspaper of general circulation in light of recent developments. The Washington Informer lost a District contract worth more than $30,000 to the Washington Times because the Southeast-based newspaper targets "specific ethnic groups."
"The term general circulation has always meant that a publication is available by subscription or at points of purchase," said Honig, 63. "The term addresses geographic distribution and product availability, not content audience."
Honig noted that the "government has a very high First Amendment burden of showing that it can discriminate based on content and the same high burden of showing it may discriminate based on the race of the audience."
"The District government does not even come close to meeting these tests, which are the highest in constitutional law," said Honig who lives in Northwest.
The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council is an advocacy group seeking diversity in media and telecommunications and closing the digital divide. Honig has lectured extensively on diversity in media and he has cited the 1930s case of the Kansas City American, a black-owned newspaper that sought to purchase a radio station but was denied by the Federal Radio Commission because it did not reach a "general audience."
"There has been a history of black media being excluded by municipalities from the placement of legal notices based on the 'general circulation' test but those battles were all fought and won by the mid-1960s," Honig said. "I have not heard of a case like The Washington Informer case arising since about 1965."
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray mailed a letter of concern to the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer saying, in essence, that the unclaimed properties list generally goes to two publications, one daily and one that is free, as is the case of The Washington Informer.
Johnny Barnes, an attorney retained by The Washington Informer to handle the matter, said that the District government filed a report on Tuesday, August 28 to justify its decision in support of the Times. Barnes, 63, said that he and the paper will respond to the agency report.
"They are fighting us tooth and nail," he said.
The D.C. Contract Appeals Board has 20 days to issue a ruling, which will likely come before the end of September.
A spokesman for the chief financial officer told The Washington Informer that his office has no comment unless a lawsuit is filed.
Honig’s somewhat surprised by the controversy.
"The fact that this is happening in the District of Columbia, of all places, embeds an irony about which I will say nothing, because I can't," Honig said. "I'm speechless. As all civil rights lawyers say to another all the time, ‘just when we thought we’d seen everything ....’”
Barnes, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, said that he’s ready for the fight.
"You pray for a battle but prepare for a war," he said.