Even in a town filled to the gunwales with sagacious and selfless public servants (wink, wink), FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now in his tenth and final year as such, stands out from the crowd. Evidence of his colorful take on policy issues has been on display right from the beginning.
In 2001, for instance, in just his first months on the job, Copps issued statements condemning allegedly indecent radio comments by Howard Stern (September); the TV broadcast of a Victoria’s Secret program (November); and the airing of liquor advertising (December).
When he wasn’t condemning indecent language, scantily clad women, or Demon Rum, Copps was laying the groundwork for what would become his signature spiel: a four-part jeremiad that excoriates the current state of journalism (not enough “localism” or investigative reporting); blames this state of affairs on media consolidation; recommends more spending on public broadcasting; and decries what he sees as insufficient “public interest” obligations on the licensed media (and perhaps the unlicensed media as well).
Copps is not alone in holding such views, but there’s something about the way he presents them – especially now when the political, legal, and economic winds are blowing in a very different direction – that's borderline amusing. Where once his fire and brimstone suggested a kind of Elmer Gantry, it now seems rather like Elmer Fudd. (“I hate wabbits!”)
Who could forget, just five months before the 2008 presidential election, the speech that Copps gave to the so-called National Conference on Media Reform? Organized annually by those wonderful “progressives” at Free Press, Copps never misses one of these things; they are, he says, his favorite place to be.
Anyhow, in June of 2008, the commissioner was practically giddy at the prospect of working that old time religion on the nation’s communications policies:
On a night like tonight almost anything seems possible, doesn’t it? To tell you the truth, I feel like that a lot these days. I know we can get this done. We can climb into the bright uplands of real democracy. Because as we change media, we change everything. We empower 300 million Americans to deal with all those issues that Big Media has dumbed-down or just plain ignored at terrible cost to our democracy. There is no real democracy without media democracy.
Never mind the risible imagery of the Free Press crowd, backpacks and all, climbing those “bright uplands,” or the pristine gimcrackery in the real democracy/media democracy linkage – what's notable is the contrast between those remarks and a speech Copps gave just a week ago.
Speaking again to the National Conference on Media Reform (who else?), Copps let it all hang out:
I’m here because I’m more worried than ever about the state of America’s media and what it’s doing to our country…. For the consolidated owners of radio and TV, the license to broadcast became a license to despoil….
What we’re dealing with here is a bad case of Big Media substance abuse – and they just can’t break the habit. These folks have no intention, even as the economy improves, of reopening shuttered newsrooms or rehiring laid-off reporters. They might even fire more, just to prove to Wall Street that the bottom line still rules….
You and I knew all along that the realization of our dreams waited on a new era of reform in Washington. Then the new era came and we all just knew that media reform was right around the corner. Twenty-seven months later we are still waiting. Waiting for even a down payment on media reform, like an honest-to-goodness broadcast license renewal process to replace the utterly ridiculous, no-questions-asked regime now in place. Or some public interest guidelines to encourage broadcast news and diversity and localism.
Really, it’s almost enough to make a grown man cry. All those uplands unclimbed! And Big Media moguls, firing people left and right, just to prove something to Wall Street. Hearing such stuff, you know that Copps earnestly believes he’s put his finger on the problem. After all, what else could it be?
Still, there’s something a little otherworldly about the gentleman’s lament, as though he’s been just a bystander looking in. For the past 10 years Michael Copps has been one of five commissioners at the FCC, even chairman for a while, and since 2009 he has been a member of the majority there.
So if now, as he’s on his way out the door, Copps feels that the FCC has foozled its play, perhaps he should consider pointing one of those accusatory fingers at himself. Maybe the problem all along hasn’t been consolidation or avarice, maybe it’s been that what ails the media, and the way forward, are more complex than to be availing of the kind of nostrums Copps and Free Press have been peddling.
Maybe the problem is that the Internet has upset the business model of almost all of the “old media,” denying them, most importantly, the kind of ad revenue that has been their lifeblood. Seen from this perspective, exhortations to deny the efficiencies of consolidation, or to require more stringent “public interest” obligations, or to recommend greater funding of public broadcasting are not just irrelevant, they’re appalling.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.