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FCC's Michael Copps worried about media landscape

December 12, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Michael Copps is leaving FCC

For over 10 years, Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps played the role of Howard Beale at the regulatory agency. Like the TV anchor from the movie "Network" -- the role made famous by the late Oscar-winning actor Peter Finch -- he was often mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Copps, who is resigning from the FCC at the end of the month, has always been far more outspoken than the typical regulator. He was unafraid to offend the powerful companies he was charged to keep in line.

Much of Copps' venom was directed at the handful of big media giants -- CBS, News Corp., Comcast Corp., Viacom, Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner -- that own the majority of broadcast and cable networks as well as the local television and radio stations.

While there are hundreds of cable and broadcast outlets, the bulk are controlled by just a few companies. "There are a lot of different puppets, but it is the same ventriloquist in control," Copps likes to say. 

It was not unusual for Copps to be the lone vote of dissent when it came to big deals at the FCC. He gave a thumbs down to Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal this year, saying it put "too much power in one company's hands."

Consolidation, he constantly argued, has led to a lack of diversity both in the executive suites and on the air. Minority and female ownership of television and radio stations is in "abysmal straits," he said in a recent interview with Company Town. 

In his view, the mainstream media has for the most part put serving the public interest on the bottom of their to-do lists. Last year, he said television news was "in its hour of grave peril" and not "producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue."

The reason, he suggested, is that consolidation in the local television and radio business resulted in stations "owned by mega-companies and absentee owners hundreds or even thousands of miles away -- frequently by private equity firms totally unschooled in public interest media."

Copps said that the new owners "often look to that newsroom and the number of reporters there and say we can get by on fewer." The end result, he added, is that "resource-rich investigative journalism hangs by a very thin thread." Copps noted that many television and radio stations, as well as newspapers, have cut down on the number of reporters covering the nation's capital as well as their own local governments.

"In too many cases we have dumbed down the civic dialogue," he said.

Copps would like to see broadband become a bright spot for new voices in the marketplace. However, he fears that the same consolidation that took place in traditional media will happen online as well.

"We're letting broadband go down the same road we let television, cable and radio go down, controlled by too few people," he warned, adding that is a "huge danger to our democracy."

Copps points the finger for much of this at his own agency.

"The FCC has endorsed just about every merger and transaction that has come before it; we seldom meet one we don't like," Copps cracked. The agency, he said, is walking away from oversight of the public interest.

As an example, Copps points to the relaxed rules for television station owners to renew their broadcast licenses. In the past, broadcasters had to renew their licenses every three years and provide comprehensive reports of their news and public affairs efforts. Now it is eight years between renewals and there is much less enforcement of public policy requirements, according to Copps.

"You send a post card and get a license," Copps said.

Copps attributed his brashness to the 15 years he spent working for former Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who was chairman of Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight over the FCC.

"He was a man who told you what was on his mind," Copps said, adding that Hollings "viewed politics in large part as a process of educating. I kind of got in that mind-set too."

Another factor that gave Copps the freedom to speak his mind was that he wasn't worried about his next job while doing his current one. There is a revolving door between government and business in Washington.

For example, Copps' former colleague Meredith Attwell Baker left her gig as a commissioner to go work for Comcast earlier this year and former FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell has had stints in private equity and now is head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., the lobbyist for the cable industry.

President Obama has nominated Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to replace Copps and Republican Ajit Varadaraj Pai to succeed Baker.

Copps, who is 71, said he plans to hit the lecture circuit to make the case for "a media that reflects the needs of the people."

RELATED:

FCC's Copps says journalism is in hour of 'grave peril'

FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker defends move to Comcast

Sen. Rockefeller says media is dumbed down

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News

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