Bringing the FCC to the People and the People to the FCC

Benton Foundation

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Digital Beat

Bringing the FCC to the People and the People to the FCC

Victor Pickard, Ph.D.

Pawel Popiel

Our media is precious. It’s how, outside of our strictly personal spheres, we speak to each other, inform each other, learn from each other, entertain each other, increasingly how we govern ourselves.

With these words, Michael Copps opened a public hearing on media ownership rules. The hearing was not in Washington, DC, but Chicago, Illinois. Copps was not a local official, but a commissioner at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He was making sure people living in and around Chicago knew of some big decisions happening at the FCC – and he wanted to hear their concerns before he cast his vote on the matter.

Over a decade later, Copps’s efforts in Chicago and around the country – to bring the FCC to the people and the people to the FCC – still resonate. As a commissioner in the minority during the George W. Bush presidency, Commissioner Copps was remarkably effective in leading a progressive policy program at the FCC – one that connected with activist groups across the country and helped galvanize a larger media reform movement that remains active today.

While Copps’s interventions didn’t always lead to immediate victories, they challenged the balance of power in FCC policymaking by reshaping the debate and facilitating public participation. The legacies of his FCC tenure included raising awareness about media ownership concentration, the crisis of public interest journalism, and the importance of net neutrality, as well as providing a blueprint for public engagement across a wide range of media policy issues.

Originally from Milwaukee, Copps moved to South Carolina with his family in 1959. When he was in his early teens, he grew interested in politics and political life. He started writing letters to senators and getting their autographs and pictures. He attended Wofford College in Spartanburg, and received a doctorate in American history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a graduate student, he considered how the founders of the Unites States emphasized the necessity of building out public infrastructure, investing in public goods, and supporting a robust press. This early training impressed upon him the importance of government’s responsibility for investing in, and managing, common resources.

Copps’s passion for history and its lessons would inform many of the motivations and rationales for his policy decisions during his time at the FCC. Interpreting the FCC’s public-interest mandate through a historical lens provided a normative foundation that often put him at odds with his Republican colleagues, who argued against FCC intervention in media markets.

Commissioner Copps democratized policymaking by opening the FCC up to the public via town hall meetings across the country. Copps’s remarkable skills at oratory made him particularly well-suited to perform this task. As one of his former aides said about the media consolidation battles, “I think if we had those great strategies and we didn’t have Mike Copps as the guy doing it, we would have failed.” As those who know him point out, and as many of his speeches and statements attest, he was an outstanding communicator and an incisive writer. He could translate complex policy issues and their import to people’s everyday lives while avoiding wonky jargon.

Fellow FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said that he and Copps “worked hand in hand to promote media democracy at the FCC, in town halls and other public events around the country.” Adelstein recalls, “In hour after hour of public testimony in field hearings we held together across the country, we maintained rapt attention because we so strongly believed we were hearing the voices of those we were committed to serving.”

Copps and Adelstein were effective, in no small part, because they actively listened to the public, treating town halls not just as public relations or coalition-building exercises, but also as evidence-gathering. The testimonies of community members, journalists, and independent broadcasters, among others, served as a qualitative counterpoint to the traditional econometric market studies at the FCC. They grounded policy terms like “diversity” and “localism” in the observable experiences of people who worked in, and interacted with the products of, these media markets.

Media Democracy AgendaIn our new report published by the Benton Foundation, The Media Democracy Agenda: The Strategy and Legacy of FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, we examine the tactics and policy priorities of former-Commissioner Copps during his 10 years at the FCC. The report fleshes out the core democratic principles that drove Commissioner Copps’s commitment to democratizing the media system. These democratic values included defending media diversity, public-service journalism, transparency in political advertising, and an open Internet. Drawing from three case studies of his major policy initiatives, the report sheds light on the specific tactics and strategies Commissioner Copps deployed during his time at the FCC. By providing an account of such a “usable past,” this report aims to help chart a path toward actualizing a more democratic media system.

For Copps, policy was a legitimate tool for safeguarding the public interest, a term he took to heart.  As a great public communicator, he reframed technocratic debates and rendered them accessible and relevant to everyone. This not only stimulated civic engagement in media reform efforts, but also opened the FCC to a broader range of voices, significantly expanding the conversation about key policy issues, from media ownership concentration to net neutrality.

Commissioner Copps was a great dissenter and public-interest defender. It is this legacy for which he will be remembered. And it is this commitment that we so desperately need from all our public servants today.

Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. He is the author of the book America’s Battle for Media Democracy, and co-editor of the books Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, The Future of Internet Policy, and Media Activism in the Digital Age. He has worked in Washington D.C. as a policy advisor to Congresswoman Diane Watson, as a senior research fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute, and at Free Press (where he now serves as a board member with Commissioner Copps).

Pawel Popiel is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. His research examines the politics underlying media and telecom policymaking. He studies the role of corporate lobbies, public-interest groups, and policymakers in shaping policy debates around the regulation of digital technologies, particularly privacy regulation, net neutrality, and emerging media and tech sector ownership issues.

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