Selecting A New FCC Chair

At first blush it sounds so silly. The first topic of conversation at just about every communications lobbyist lunch these days is: “So, what are you hearing about who will be the next Chair of the FCC?” The same list of rumored candidates is then tossed on the table and dissected, with sometimes a brand new name thrown in just to spice things up. The follow-up question is usually: “When is Chairman Genachowski going to leave?” The pros and cons of various departure dates are then analyzed, even though the current Chairman has shared no hint of his intentions. Handicapping possible successors, while interesting, doesn’t get us very far.

Is it all just silly speculation? Is this nothing more than one more expense-deductible meal while we all wait breathlessly for white smoke to belch forth from the Oval Office chimney? I think not.

It’s a question of focus. Our focus should not be on rehashing rumors from the gossip mill. It should be laser-beam attention to obtaining clear public policy commitments, from both the Administration and the eventual FCC nominee, on a priority list of telecommunications and media challenges that confront the nation. Some of these go beyond the purview of the agency itself, but they are nevertheless integral to what the FCC will be doing in the next four years. That is why the priorities a President lays out when he makes a nomination are hugely important. If the President is really going to push to bring high-speed broadband to all Americans—no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives—that mission goes beyond the FCC, yet FCC policies would be critical to its accomplishment. If the President is serious about moving against the excessive media industry consolidation that he discussed as a Senator, and about reasserting the public interest in media policy that he also talked and wrote about as a candidate, he needs to give the new FCC Chair an explicit charge to use the laws on the books to make these things happen. These are the Administration’s Promises to Keep. In no way does this interfere with the independence of the agency; it gives life to its mission and vindication to the consumer and citizen protection responsibilities that reside at the heart of the FCC’s statutory mission.

Most readers of these monthly comments know of my belief that vital components of the public interest in the communications sphere are in disarray. They have been denied, for more than 30 years, the attention they require if we are to have a news and information infrastructure that is the necessary foundation for governing our nation in this era of daunting challenge. For example, other nations are years ahead of us in harnessing the awesome potential of broadband and the Internet. Broadband is the critical infrastructure of the Twenty-first century, and without its ubiquitous deployment and adoption we will not jump-start our stalled economy, create the jobs we so desperately need, improve our schools, or provide modern and effective healthcare to all our citizens. And without a dynamic media ecosystem, one in which the ills of traditional media are repaired even as we work to build new democratic forums on the Internet, we will deny ourselves the tools we must have if we are to be informed citizens and intelligent voters.

I want to know before the next FCC Chair bangs down the gavel for the first time that she or he actually intends to move a proactive public interest agenda. I want to know that she or he really “gets it” that our present news and information ecosystem has been harmfully diminished by years of hyper-consolidation and an almost equally long period of public policy abdication of critical public interest oversight responsibilities.

For the FCC to say “Yes” to just about every merger, acquisition or combination in restraint of the common good is not protecting the public interest—it’s just creating more media monopolies. Deregulating away so many of the consumer protection, pro-competition, and public interest guidelines that generations of reformers fought for and won is not protecting the public interest—yet industry titans only want to deregulate more. Allowing broadcasters to obtain and renew their licenses to use the people’s airwaves without specific guidelines to ensure diversity, localism and competition is not protecting the public interest—it’s dumbing-down our civic dialogue. Permitting telecom cabals and media monopolies to treat the public spectrum as just another playing field for financial speculation is not protecting the public interest—it’s adding fuel to the same fire that inflicted such harm on our whole economy. And treating the new media of broadband and the Internet as if they had no connection to traditional telecom and media policy is not protecting the public interest—it is instead short-circuiting both the potential of new technologies and the letter and spirit of the law.

I have written about these issues on this website every month for almost a year now, so I won’t dive more deeply into them today. Let me repeat instead my strong conviction that it is perfectly legitimate—and I would argue essential—to obtain these public interest commitments now, before any nomination for FCC chair moves forward. These commitments need to come from the top—not only for the success of a particular government agency, but also for progress on the broad range of challenges the President outlined in his State of the Union Address. I believe that without a news and information infrastructure that really covers our national challenges, that digs for facts and truth, that fosters a dynamic democratic dialogue, and provides opportunity for everyone to participate in the practical art of self-government, none of the challenges that our country faces will be, or can be, successfully addressed.

The confirmation process for a new Chair will likely to be a long one. As it ensues, let us continue to urge the present Chair to reverse course on the weakening of media ownership rules that he has proposed to his four FCC colleagues. His proposal flies in the face of what candidate Obama talked about and it can only inflict further injury on an already battered media environment. The pending proposal to loosen the rules limiting newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership is eerily similar to what the FCC proposed during the years of George W. Bush’s Presidency—the one that Senator Obama campaigned against. In one way it is even worse, because it proposes elimination of the radio-television cross-ownership rules too, putting at risk small, struggling minority, diversity and women-owned radio stations across the land.

A word on diversity, because it is here that we find the most heart-breaking shortfall of all. American media is overwhelmingly white and male. It comes nowhere close to reflecting the great and wonderful tapestry of our population, the breadth of its issues and viewpoints, the depth of its cultures. In a nation nearly one-third minority (minorities on-track to be a majority by mid-century), racial minorities own 2.2% of all full-power commercial television stations. Women and other diversity groups fare only marginally better. Should we be surprised, then, when diversity populations are denied the coverage they deserve, or that they are so often caricatured and stereotyped when they are covered at all? I’ll say it again—ownership diversity is a major determinant of viewpoint diversity. Yes, media is a civil rights issue, too. I would argue that it is the major civil rights issue of our time.

For the life of me, I do not understand the hesitancy of this Commission, from 2001 until now, to move proactively to guarantee civil rights and equal opportunity in the media sphere. The Commission’s own Diversity Advisory Committee of outside experts has presented to the FCC more than 70 recommendations to incentivize minority and female ownership. It is time to pull these proposals out of the desk drawer, or from whatever dusty bin they occupy, and bring them to a vote. Every civil rights and public interest organization that will be asked to support the eventual nominee should expect this commitment before anyone comes knocking on their doors.

So, yes, this is the time to seek and obtain tangible commitments. Without them, our news and information ecosystem will continue to hemorrhage. These issues go to the core of the challenges the nation confronts. They are central to their resolution. As for me, I don’t want to see any white smoke coming out of that chimney until we know the fire below is burning for the common good.

By Michael Copps.