You must be the change you want to see in the world

Benton Foundation

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Digital Beat

You must be the change you want to see in the world

Mignon Clyburn

Among the hundreds of people waiting to visit Mahatma Gandhi one day was a mother who sought help in battling her son’s obsession with eating sugar. When it was their turn in line, instead of immediately counseling the boy, Gandhi asked the pair to come back in two weeks.

Following a two-hour wait on the day of their return, the anxious mother repeated her request. Gandhi promptly spoke with her son and the boy agreed to work on breaking his sugar fixation.

The mother expressed her gratitude, of course, but remained puzzled as to why Gandhi refused to counsel her son during their first visit. His response, for me, represents one of the most teachable moments in world history

Gandhi shared that he could not initially talk to the boy about his sugar habit because Gandhi himself was eating sugar at that time. How could he legitimately speak to her son about not eating sugar, Gandhi reportedly asked, if he had yet to ‘take the journey himself ’?

This powerful lesson, from an encounter many years ago and thousands of miles away, aligns so well with my belief that the best advice comes from people who themselves have walked the path one is about to take.

This report appraises the strategies and priorities of one of the Federal Communications Commission’s most consequential members, a commissioner who sought to change the agency by making it more accountable to the American people.

Sworn in on May 31, 2001, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps’s regulatory journey would span two terms including a stint as acting chairman during the first half of 2009. His bold vision for “a more democratic media system” led to the establishment of “The Media Democracy Agenda” – a “reformist contract” between the public, media corporations, and the government. It demanded accountability and keenly focused on the critical role of our nation’s broadcasters – those “first informers” awarded free use of valuable commercial spectrum in exchange for “serving the public interest.”

That agenda also challenged the commission, which is responsible for the integrity of U.S. broadcast systems, to use the instruments in its regulatory toolbox – namely policy – to safeguard the public interest, respond when there are market failures, and be open and transparent to the citizens it serves. The agenda highlighted the media’s responsibility “in holding the powerful accountable, informing democracy’s dialogue,” and reflecting the core values and rich diversity of their local communities of license. Most notably, the agenda called for the public to be included in the decision-making process. This “reformist agenda” set off a regulatory sea change inside and outside of the agency

But for a few exceptions, the agency that regulates a sector responsible for more than one-sixth of our nation’s economy, was very adept at flying below the public’s radar. Very few American citizens knew or paid attention to what the FCC did – that is until Commissioner Copps took “the FCC to the people.” He lit the flames that sparked a nationwide, grassroots-organizing movement which educated, enlightened, and inspired us about the power and importance of our (tele)communications platforms. People began to focus more on the agency’s policy agenda and flocked to the more than 50 meetings and hearings on media ownership and the perils of concentrated power. Soon, the “college professor turned regulatory protector of the public interest” became a grassroots rock star. His fight against media ownership consolidation took hold and difficult concepts that often confused the public were made plain because Commissioner Copps spoke in relatable terms about critical communications issues. With awareness came a growing popularity for his positions; not only were the inside-the-Beltway and FCC insiders annoyed, more than a few corporate feathers were ruffled.

I often say that “the FCC is one of the most important agencies no one has ever heard of.” Well, of course, until there is a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl or someone uses vulgar or profane language over the airwaves. However, way before social media enabled millions to reach, motivate, and even bypass legacy outlets that often ignore voices with contrary positions, there was Commissioner Michael J. Copps, “master organizer and coalition builder,” sounding the alarm about media ownership consolidation, rallying thousands at town halls, dissenting against issues out-of-sync with the public interest, and educating the previously uninformed and powerless. By opening the FCC process to the public, Commissioner Copps helped make possible the public’s participation in our ongoing Net Neutrality debate.

Commissioner Copps frowned on regulators who succumbed to being insular in their decision-making. His unwavering support for those seeking to level the playing field continues to inspire. While I often saw myself as being a “voice for the voiceless” during my nearly nine years of service on the FCC, I must say that much of my daily inspiration and boosts of courage needed to fight the often-lonely battles for diversity, inclusion, digital equity, and more, came directly from the strategic playbook of my favorite regulatory professor.

This report rightly affirms that “Michael J. Copps was a great dissenter and public interest defender.” But for any person or group on their own journey to level the playing field, become more relatable as a communicator, or leave the world better than they found it, this report is one of the best primers available to learn best practices and honor a person who continues to reimagine and fight for democratized principles.

Mignon L. Clyburn served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission. She was sworn in for her first term as commissioner on August 3, 2009; sworn in for a second term on February 19, 2013; and served until June 6, 2018. She also served as Acting FCC Chairwoman from May 20, 2013 through November 4, 2013.

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Kevin Taglang

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