What's a Reformer to Do?

What a curious year for communications policy reformers! Those of us who consider ourselves activists in the causes of media democracy, ubiquitous broadband, an Open Internet, more competition in our communications industries, and helping minorities and women to equal opportunity in owning and managing these businesses find ourselves stymied by half steps (or, too often, no steps) and a campaign season where the choices are shaping up as four more years of the same or, alternatively, four years of something worse. What’s a reformer to do?

Some argue that four more years of the same is the most to which we can aspire. Others cling to a wistful hope that a re-elected Administration will feel freer to embrace reforms that, deep-down, it supposedly wanted all along. A few say let the fires rage until things get so bad that radical change becomes the only choice four years hence. It’s not an attractive options list. Luckily, there is another way. But this way demands an aggressive set of policies with enough oomph, organization and discipline behind it to compel candidates’ attention—and support—starting now, running through Election Day, and into the critical year thereafter.

We have a telecommunications infrastructure that holds extraordinary promise to expand opportunity for all Americans—but we lack the sense of mission needed to get the job done. We have some very general guidelines for an Open Internet—but every week brings new problems of gate-keeping that demonstrate the urgency to pass and implement clear rules of the road. We have a media infrastructure where real news and investigative reporting are the exception rather than the rule—but we’ve done nothing to stop the hemorrhage that is draining our civic dialogue of the depth and vibrancy that enlightened self-government requires. Finally, in a country with one-third of the population now minorities, we have blocked the road to minority and female ownership in communications by a stubborn refusal to confront the problem.

A word about each.

Broadband. Building out high-speed broadband infrastructure (not to mention repairing the roads, bridges and transportation infrastructures that are falling apart in front of our eyes) would provide jobs, build muscle into our weakened economy, and expand opportunity across the land. It would also put 313 million Americans on the information highway they need to navigate in order to ride successfully across the Twenty-first century. The broadband build-out I am talking about can come only from a deeper commitment of resources than has thus far been made—and this commitment must come from both the private and public sectors. Broadband is essential investment in America’s future. Every generation is challenged to take advantage of the opportunities presented to it. When one-third of our nation doesn’t have access to opportunity-creating broadband in their homes, it is time to ponder what another generation of Americans did when it discovered one-third of its population ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished. Times were tough then too, but we answered with reform rather than reluctance.

In addition to meaningful funding for broadband, we also must stem the tide of industry consolidation that the private sector has encouraged and the public sector has blessed for most of the past generation. Four more years of consolidation, brought to us by either political party, will foreclose any possibility for competition in these industries. Many of us were encouraged by the actions of the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission against the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger, but that deal was preceded by so many merger approvals that we are already very far down the road to telecom monopoly and oligopoly. A defining new test is upon us: the proposed Verizon-cable deal that would hugely diminish competition in both wireline and wireless services. The time for “No” is now.

Internet Openness. Broadband and the Internet must always ride on openness. The attempt to “gate-keep” accompanies every new technology. That’s inevitable, part of the dynamic of competition. But allowing it to happen is not inevitable. Allowing it to happen leads inevitably to the cableization of the Internet.

I am constantly amazed that not just industry, but so many in government, too, deny there is a problem here. Yet when does a week go by when we don’t learn about a new dispute over openness, pricing, data restrictions, locked devices, privacy invasions, the perils of search? What do they mean “no problems”? On the contrary, these are technologies and services under siege. Consumers are under siege. Expect more of the same—perhaps much more—if policy-makers and policy-implementers don’t come ‘round very quickly to this realization: Internet rules delayed mean Internet openness denied. Rather than “regulating the Internet,” this is about making sure that consumer and competitive safeguards are in place when gate-keepers attempt to erect their toll-booths. We must not wait to act until gate-keeping power has grown beyond our ability to rein it in. Here, too, we’ve traveled too far down the road to fritter away more time.

Media Infrastructure. No part of our communications infrastructure has incurred more injury than media. And none has received such inadequate attention in Washington. The public sector, apart from a few intrepid advocates who don’t control the levers of power, shows little sign of life on this life-blood issue of democracy. This head-in-the-sand approach is a head-on threat to our public dialogue and, indeed, to our system of self-government. If there is one great need we have right now it is to become again a news-literate society, engaged in the substance of issues and armed with the facts needed to make good decisions for the future of ourselves and our country. But what we have is a dearth of facts amid a flood of bloviated opinion. A shortfall of substance amid buckets of fluff. Important stories going not just untold, but undiscovered. The powerful going unaccountable. Investigative journalism hanging by the thinnest of threads. Reporters searching for jobs instead of stories.

I’ve talked and written about this for years so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice it to say that decades of media consolidation, accompanied by government’s failure to enable a vibrant marketplace of information and ideas, cost the nation dearly. Here, too, we can’t afford to wait. Without media that informs and educates, our chances of mastering the awful challenges our country confronts are altogether dismal. The problems facing us in 2012 are truly daunting. They go to the heart of reinvigorating our economy, regaining our global commercial standing, ensuring good livelihoods for our citizens, and making sure we are once again the Land of Opportunity. There is no guaranteed happy ending here. There aren’t even great odds—unless we wake up to the gravity of the perils on our door-step.

Ownership and Diversity. When whole groups are denied access to opportunity, we fail the Promise of America. Our media is not working for minorities—or women. In a land now approaching one-third minority, people of color own about three percent of full-power commercial TV stations. Women control fewer than six percent of radio. I have always believed that ownership matters. Ownership makes a huge difference when it comes to what news is covered, what issues are broached, and how people are depicted. Diversity of opinion depends to a significant degree on diversity of ownership. So it should come as no surprise in today’s diversity-starved environment that minority groups, when they are covered at all, are so often depicted in stereotype and outrageous caricature. The Federal Communications Commission has received over the past decade scores of recommendations to alleviate this sad reality. But it has done precious little to implement these recommendations. Some will ask: what’s the use in this troubled economy? I say there is plenty we can do right now through public-interest licensing and other initiatives, such as gearing our incentive programs toward individuals who have overcome disadvantages earlier in their lives and by encouraging incubator programs for media start-ups. After that, more comprehensive incentives are in order, such as Congress bringing back the Tax Certificate program that did so much to encourage minority broadcasters during its short life. We need to get these things going now and we need to make sure the FCC has done the legal homework that will be needed to defend such programs from the special interests who will be poised to derail them in court. This preparatory work should have been completed by now.

So much to do, such a tough environment in which to do it. So what do we do?

First, we must push hard now for these priorities—NOW. Electing officials from whom we haven’t asked commitments on these issues is not how representative government works. Nor does allowing successful candidates for office to ignore the campaign commitments they made in order to get elected. Just hoping we can bring these issues up later, after the campaigns are over, is equally forlorn. Saying we’ll settle for little or nothing now because more will somehow come later is a sure-fire recipe for reform starvation. Not taking these issues to the grassroots, where there is already significant support for them, is sentencing important public needs to an inside-the-Beltway fate where the power of big money so often trumps the needs of the people.

Second, reformers in Washington and around the nation must coordinate as never before. We are seeing real stirrings on issues of campaign finance and we are witnessing incipient grassroots movements against the power of special interests in state legislatures. Groups are prioritizing together on these issues, working cooperatively, and pooling resources to make a difference. This is exactly what all of us interested in communications and media democracy need to be doing—now more than ever. Media advocates, consumer organizations, diversity groups, labor unions, small and independent broadcasters, and many others have done outstanding work over the years. But the challenges and dangers are compounding and they threaten us in ways that America has seldom, if ever, been threatened. These issues go to the heart of our country’s ills. Admittedly it is not the best of times to do the work I’ve outlined. But it is the only time we have. And remember this: real reforms usually come out of bad, not happy, times.

Third, we can overcome. We know that people know things are not as they should be. We know that we reformers have positive policy recommendations to make. We know that when we get our message out, even in spite of special interest money and big media, we can still make a difference. We’ve seen pressure from the people move the ball forward on issues of, for example, media ownership rules and the need for an Open Internet. But today’s situation demands that we take the action to a whole new level. I believe we will find a citizenry receptive to our cause when we do that. Real reform comes in cycles. For reasons I will delve into in a later piece, the reform cycle we should have had up-and-running by now across the whole range of public policy issues was short-circuited before a genuine “grassroots-to-corridors-of-power connection” was established. This is the time, this is the year, to wage reform.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries.

By Michael Copps.