What happens when you invite the FCC’s two veteran commissioners to speak about the media at a Rainbow PUSH Coalition symposium? When one of the commissioners is Michael Copps, and the other is Robert McDowell, you get two very different views of where things stand and how they could be improved, as we saw on Nov. 20.
Copps, a Democrat, is a long-time foe of large media companies. So he uses phrases like “excessive media consolidation,” “big media run awry,” “tsunami of consolidation,” and the punchline: “Minorities have suffered greatly because of consolidation.”
One of his proposals to “put some justice back into our ownership policies” would involve a “public interest licensing system for broadcasters.” Copps would like the Commission to “go back to having some guidelines to make sure stations are consulting with their audiences on what kinds of programming people would like.” But wait, I think we already have such a system. It’s called “ratings.”
Copps also favors something called a “full file review,” which would have the Commission award certain broadcast licenses by considering an applicant’s “experiences in overcoming disadvantages,” including race and gender discrimination. (This sounds like a lawsuit waiting to be filed, but that’s another story.) In other words, Copps views the FCC as the referee in a fight between “big media” and the little guy, where the solution is a tight rein on ownership regulations.
Robert McDowell sees things differently. For minorities to get ahead in broadcasting and other media, Republican McDowell is quite clear about what is needed: access to capital. “An important priority for me in my three-and-a-half years on the Commission has been to help create a competitive environment that allows minority entrepreneurs and other new entrants a real opportunity to build viable communications businesses,” he told the Rainbow PUSH group.
McDowell noted that he enthusiastically supported the Commission’s 2007 Diversity Order, which contained nine measures to help small entrepreneurs acquire capital or use their financial resources more efficiently. He has also called for a tax certificate program to help disadvantaged businesses.
At the same time, McDowell is keenly aware of the unintended and hurtful consequences of regulations (of the sort favored by Copps) aimed at helping small, local media owners – like a “localism” proposal to reinstate a 20-year-old rule requiring stations to be manned throughout their broadcast day (technology notwithstanding), or onerous “enhanced disclosure” requirements so complex that they could require the hiring of additional employees.
In short: On the question of disadvantaged minorities, Copps sees the culprit as large media companies. From his perspective, the FCC must be a strict regulator of media ownership. McDowell sees the culprit as the lack of access to capital. He would envision the FCC as a facilitator, creating policies to generate financial opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Whose view is more accurate and whose solution is more likely to succeed? On both counts, my money is on McDowell.