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Ex-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps on Media Consolidation, Broadband Expansion, Threats to Journalism

Juan Gonzalez: The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday testing the constitutionality of a Bush-era regulation that allows the Federal Communications Commission to levy stiff fines on broadcasters for the use of vulgar language or nude images. The rule applies to radio and over TV network broadcast over the air, but not to cable TV.

Juan Gonzalez: The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday testing the constitutionality of a Bush-era regulation that allows the Federal Communications Commission to levy stiff fines on broadcasters for the use of vulgar language or nude images. The rule applies to radio and over TV network broadcast over the air, but not to cable TV.

Several justices questioned how the FCC determines what is indecent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted the FCC found swearing in the Steven Spielberg World Ward II film, Saving Private Ryan, was not indecent, but that swear words uttered by musicians in a documentary by Martin Scorsese about blues musicians were. It allowed networks to broadcast nudity in Spielberg’s filmSchindler’s List, but not a few seconds of partial nudity in the TV programNYPD Blue.

Amy Goodman: During the hearing, Justice Elena Kagan added, quote, “The way that this policy seems to work, it’s like nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg.”

Well, to discuss the FCC regulations on decency and, more broadly, media consolidation, the freedom of the internet and the issues around good journalism, we’re joined by the FCC’s seventh longest-serving commissioner, Michael Copps. He served two terms with the Federal Communications Commission, starting in 2001, and has just retired in the last month.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Commissioner Michael Copps.

Michael Copps: It is great to be back with you.

Amy Goodman: Congratulations on your tenure. Can you talk about, in this last decade that you’ve been on the FCC, what you think have been the most important developments around communications in this country and the greatest failures?

Michael Copps: Well, I think, on the accomplishment side, finally we developed a strategy for the deployment of broadband around the country. This is the most opportunity-creating technology perhaps in the history of humankind. It is going to be something that helps us address every problem that is before the country. Every citizen has not only a right to this technology, but an urgent need to be able to obtain it. So, for eight years before the present administration, we were operating under the assumption that the market would get broadband out everywhere, even to those places where there was no reason for the market to go. This is the great infrastructure-building challenge of the early part of the 21st century. Just as throughout history we’ve had infrastructure challenges with roads and bridges and canals and railroads and highways and electricity and plain old telephone service, our challenge now is how to figure out how to get broadband to every American, no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of the individual lives. We can talk more about that, broadband.

We’re making a little progress, finally, on internet freedom, open internet—that awful term, network neutrality, which I don’t like to use. But if we’re going to have this broadband technology and have the internet available to everybody, it has to be open to everybody. It has to be accessible to everybody. It can’t be run by gatekeepers and toll booth operators. It has to serve the purposes of us all. I would like to have gone farther than the Commission has gone so far, but at least it made a start.

Failures—I think, number one, you know I have a passion on media issues. I’m extremely worried about the future of our media, because I think it impinges so directly on the future of our democracy and the future of self-government. And I think, between the private sector and the public sector, we have wreaked untold havoc on the media environment, and I hope we can have an opportunity to talk about that this morning.

And then, finally, I’ll just say I think we have managed to open up the FCC a little bit more, so that we’re reaching out to stakeholders who don’t traditionally have that lawyer or the lobbyist or the fancy packaged briefs to bring to theFCC. We’re actually going out and listening to minorities more than we did, to disabilities communities, to Native Americans. And if this is going to be a consumer protection agency, which it’s supposed to be, you have to always keep working on that. None of this de-emphasizes the excessive clout that big corporations and big money wield in Washington right now. I’m saying we’re doing a little bit better, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

Juan Gonzalez: Well, Commissioner Copps, on the issue of universal broadband policy, why is it that this country has fallen behind, when it comes to—compared to many other countries in the world, in terms of citizen access not only to broadband, but to high-speed broadband?

Michael Copps: We forgot how we built America. We always, when we built infrastructure in the past, had the public sector and the private sector working together. The private sector is the lead economic engine pulling the locomotive, but heading toward a vision, heading toward a national goal, when we were building those railroads and becoming a continental power and building the interstate highway system. And then we got off on this tangent, beginning in the '80s, that the market would solve all of these problems. You didn't need government, you didn’t need a vision. So, we went from being first or second in broadband in 2001, when I joined the Federal Communications Commission, to now 15th, 20th, 24th. I don’t know precisely where. It depends on whose ratings you read. But I know, wherever we are, it’s down there where your country and mine should never be finding itself.

Amy Goodman: What about that—

Michael Copps: So you have to have a strategy. We didn’t have—we didn’t have the strategy, and a sense of mission, even now, although the Commission has reformed universal service, which is the system that subsidized telephones for rural areas and low-income areas. We’ve got to see this not as a problem that jiggering with the universal service system can resolve. This has to be a national vision. Somebody has to say, this stuff is really important to the future of the United States of America, if we’re going to create jobs, become competitive in the world economy, create opportunity for all of our citizens.

Amy Goodman: What about that? I don’t know if people in the United States understand the level to which, in countries throughout Europe and in Asia, as well, there is universal access to broadband.

Michael Copps: Right.

Amy Goodman: It’s sort of like being able to go to a public school. But in this country, the large swaths of the country that don’t have access to this, that it’s a wholly issue of private enterprise and who can afford to get online.

Michael Copps: Right. Well, it’s a two-pronged problem. It’s a question of deployment and getting the connections out there—wireline, wireless, fiber, what it is. And also it’s a question of adoption. People need to understand how important this is. I am a strong proponent that one of our national priorities needs to be digital or media or news literacy, call it whatever you want, educating all of us, particularly the young children. I’d like to see a K-through-12 digital literacy, media literacy program, where you teach folks not only how to use this stuff for their own advancement, but also what to look out for and what to trust and what’s a trustworthy news site, what’s a reliable one, what’s news, what’s opinion, what’s fact, what’s rumor. So, media literacy is high on the list of our national needs, so people can really understand how important this is. If they’re going to find a job, you don’t find a job anymore by stuffing your résumé in an envelope and sending it off to a Fortune 500 company. They won’t even look at it. They hire only online, when they hire.

Juan Gonzalez: Well, Commissioner Copps, I’d like to ask you about another aspect of this same broadband issue, which is wireless. One of the last decisions or cases that you were involved with was the T-Mobile, AT&T—the AT&T’s attempt to merge with T-Mobile. And the increasing importance of wireless smartphones in terms of how people get their information and their data, and the issue of whether internet freedom, or what people call net neutrality, will be preserved in wireless communications?

Michael Copps: Well, I certainly hope so. That was one of the shortfalls when the Commission addressed network neutrality, that the majority concluded that it was a different technology and was not ready to have those rules applied to it. I disagree strongly with that. Every day, thousands and thousands of people are disconnecting the land line and going wireless. A huge part of the future of the broadband internet is going to be wireless. So we need—you know, we need to be technology neutral. We need to be working with fiber where fiber is appropriate, with wireline, with satellite in those places where it is. But we need to realize that you have to have rules of the road. And I think wireless is far enough along where it should be expected to be open access, internet freedom. Otherwise, we’ll have the wireless network build out, and it will be exempt from all these rules, and you’ll end up with tollbooths and gatekeepers, and you will have badly beaten down the whole historic potential of the internet to improve our lives.

Amy Goodman: Michael Copps, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Afterwards, we’ll be talking about policy in Iran. We’ll be joined by Trita Parsi, who has a new book out called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. But now it’s Michael Copps, who has just retired from the Federal Communications after more than a decade of service. This isDemocracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

Amy Goodman: Our guest is one of the longest-reigning FCCcommissioners. He just retired last month. Michael Copps was a Democratic Federal Communications commissioner, served more than 10 years. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

Juan Gonzalez: Well, Commissioner Copps, you not only were a long-serving commissioner, but many reform advocates consider you the—perhaps the most progressive commissioner in the history of the agency, certainly dating back to the days of Nicholas Johnson, but probably, in terms of your impact, even more so, specifically because of your efforts in the earlier part of the last decade to get the public directly involved in media policy. When Chairman Michael Powell, President Bush’s first chairman, attempted to the deregulate ownership rules, you took an extraordinary step of going out across the United States, holding informal public hearings to hear what the American people felt about their media system and how ownership should be regulated. Could you talk a little bit about your decision to do that and the impact that that had in getting citizens involved in media policy?

Michael Copps: Well, it’s interesting, Juan. When I first arrived at the FCCin 2001, and I think the then-chairman was already considering loosening our media ownership rules so that fewer and fewer mega media companies could gobble up more and more independent family-owned media outlets, and I think the majority probably thought this is pretty much of an inside-the-Beltway game, nobody is interested in numbers of outlets anybody can own outside the Beltway, so we’ll just do it here. And my colleague, Jonathan Adelstein, and I believed otherwise. And we took to the road, attended a lot of hearings. Probably, in the years I was at the FCC, I went to 75 or so hearings held by members of Congress, advocacy groups, consumer groups, a few by the Commission, not nearly enough.

And back at that particular time that your reference, we just saw across the nation a tremendous amount of interest and an appreciation for the fact that something had been lost in media, a realization that all of this consolidation that we had been through had led to closing of newsrooms, firing of reporters. Right now we’ve got thousands and thousands of reporters who are walking the streets in search of a job, and they should be walking the beats in search of a story. The American people are not being properly informed. But anyhow, back to the point. After the first year of those hearings and all of these consumer and advocacy groups working so hard, more than three million Americans—more than three million—contacted the FCC and the Congress, said, “We don’t want any part of these rules. Don’t pass these rules.” They had already been rammed through the Commission, but because of this public reaction, the Senate voted to overturn them, the House voted against them, and then the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia sent them back.

But we’re still diddling around with those rules here, almost 10 years later. We haven’t tightened the rules. We haven’t done anything about media consolidation. And the situation gets worse and worse, and the consolidation goes on and on. And so people say, “Oh, well, it’s all over with.” Not so. We had NBCU-Comcast earlier this year, Sinclair buying up a bunch of stations, Cumulus and Citadel. And I think when the economy turns a little bit, you’re going to see a lot more of this consolidation. And every time you consolidate, you lose a local voice, you lose an element of localism, you lose coverage of the—of a community’s ethnic diversity and its cultural diversity. And it’s bad for America.

Juan Gonzalez: Well, and specifically in terms of that ethnic or racial diversity, twice now the federal court in—the district court in Philadelphia has overturned the deregulation of media ownership, specifically raising the fact that the FCC is not dealing with the question of the impact on racial minorities in the country, of increasing concentration of ownership in the media system, that we’re increasingly becoming a racially diverse country, but one where the media still remain largely in the hands of the white population of the country. Could you address that?

Michael Copps: Well, it’s like the Commission on this issue is tone deaf. You’re right. They have told us that. And yet, we still haven’t done anything substantive to right the wrongs and the injustice of minorities owning so few of our media outlets. We’re a country now that’s approximately one-third minority. People of color own around 3 or 3.5 percent of full-power commercial television stations in the United States of America. A little better, but not much, all single digits, on radio, on female ownership. So, why should we be surprised then, with so few of these big companies owning all these outlets, that we get this caricature of ethnic groups and the stereotypes and the lack of coverage of what these groups are contributing to American society? We have got to take forthright, progressive steps to right this wrong. Owning a station has a lot to do with the kind of programming that’s going to be on that station. Diversity of ownership and diversity of viewpoint, I think, go hand in hand. It’s a tremendous problem, and the Commission has a long, long way to go to even begin to make a dent on it.

Amy Goodman: On the issue of regulation and monopolies, Commissioner Copps, you were the only commissioner to vote against the Universal-Comcast merger. Explain the significance of what this merger is all about.

Michael Copps: Well, it’s just a question of too much power in too few. And this was a merger that was not only old media, but new media, too, and the internet and broadband. And one thing we have to really be careful of in this country—we know what’s happened as a result of consolidation in radio and television and cable. Now we have this awesome new technology of broadband and the internet. Are we going to allow it to go down that same road, denying its historical potential, and let it become the province of gatekeepers and controlled by a few?

You know, I’ve spent 10 years at the Commission, and it’s all—it’s just, every day, one company comes in. “We want to get bigger.” And the majority, many times over the past years, has said, “Fine.” They approve that. So then the competitor comes in and says, “We’ve got to get bigger.” And it’s just do this day after day after day, while the consolidation continues, and localism and diversity and competition suffer, and the American people suffer with it.

Juan Gonzalez: Commissioner, I wanted to ask you about the whole issue of journalism and the future of journalism. You’ve often expressed your concerns about this. The reality is that the advertiser-driven model of the old media, which basically sustained the salaries of reporters in newspapers and television stations, is fading away. The new media, there’s lots of people working in new media, but they’re not getting paid decent salaries to maintain families and buy homes. What should be the role of government in, somehow or other, assuring—and how could it assure—that local news is produced by people who work at these jobs on a full-time basis and can afford to maintain families doing that work?

Michael Copps: Well, you’ve put your finger on, I think, maybe the biggest problem that the country faces right now, and that’s what’s happened to media journalism. Most of the news that we get in the United States of Americ, 90 to 95 percent of it, still comes from the newspaper newsroom and the broadcast television newsroom. It’s not coming from blogs or the internet. There are wonderful, interesting and innovative experiments out there, but this is the reality. The problem is, there is so much less of that news, because of the developments in the private sector that we talked about with consolidation and because of the abdication of its public interest responsibilities by the FCC over the last 30 years in not insisting on some public interest guidelines and enough news.

I got so impassioned about this problem, because I think the future of our self-government, the future of our democracy, hinges upon having an informed electorate, an electorate with sufficient depth and breadth of information that they can make sense out of all of the complex problems that we face and make intelligent decisions for the future of the country. And goodness knows, we face some of the most awesome challenges right now in terms of our economy coming back, our global competitiveness being able to return, creating opportunity, health—you know, the whole list. But all of those issues are going to depend upon decisions made by the people, and those have to be fact-based. And you can’t have a situation where we’re saying, “Well, yeah, it’s too bad what happened to newspapers and broadcast, but the new media is going to fix that,” because we don’t have a model there for that.

I guess maybe the first thing we need to do is just stop thinking about old media and new media and just think about: we have a media environment right now in front of us. Part of it’s traditional, but it’s all one thing. This is how we inform ourselves. This is our information infrastructure. What are we going to do about it now? We can’t sit around and wait. We can’t watch journalism hemorrhage. We can’t watch investigative journalism go down the tubes. So this has to become really a national priority.

There are down payments. There are things we can do right now, that the FCCcould do tomorrow morning. For instance, in the world of broadcasting, you know, we used to have some guidelines, public interest guidelines, that we would look at when a broadcaster came in to renew his or her license every three years. Well, all of that’s gone now, beginning in 1980. We had— '81, we had an FCC chairman who said, you know, a television set is nothing but a toaster with pictures. And that's how they went on to conduct their public interest oversight. They got rid of all the public interest guidelines. The license period went from three to eight years. Now you send in a postcard, and basically, no questions asked, you get it back. I’m not saying that having some public interest guidelines is going to solve our media problem, but it would be a down payment. And it would have immediate effects in broadcast. It would have some spillover effects in newspapers, because so many newspapers and broadcast stations are owned together. And it would get—it would get a dialogue going and confront this problem of what is the public interest on the internet.

We have to have a discussion in the United States of America if we’re going to move the town square of democracy to the internet and pave it with broadband bricks. How are we going to assure that it’s accessible to all, open to all, and not only can you type something and send it into the ether, but that you’re going to be heard, that you have some access to the conversation? That’s public interest. And there is public interest consideration on what the future of the internet is going to look like. There is a role, and we need to have a calm, cool, rational discussion about this very, very soon, or we’re going to lose the opportunity, really, to craft a media future that’s worthy of the country.

And this goes back in history. The builders of this country have always been interested in creating information infrastructure. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison were presiding over this new experiment in democracy. And they knew that it hinged, this experiment, on an informed electorate. So they made sure—the writers of the First Amendment, they made sure that we had newspapers getting out to every American. They built post roads. The subsidized newspaper rates so that the news could get out. And that’s—that’s the kind of challenge we have to look at now. Our challenge in this century is the very same thing. The technologies change. Names change. The democratic—the small “d” democratic—challenge remains the same: make sure that electorate is informed, if you wish to sustain self-government.

Amy Goodman: Commissioner Copps, I wanted to ask you about the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on Tuesday testing the constitutionality of a Bush-era regulation that allows the FCC to levy stiff fines on broadcasters for the use of vulgar language or nude images. The rule applies to radio and broadcast networks over the air, but not to cable TV. It all began in 1973, when Pacifica Radio station WBAI aired an unedited version of comedian George Carlin’s “The Seven Dirty Words” monologue. John Douglas, an active member of Morality in the Media, claimed he heard the broadcast while driving with his then-15-year-old son and complained to the FCC that the content was inappropriate for that time of day. I want to just play for a moment George Carlin reading the words that started it all.

George Carlin: There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. “All of you over here; you seven, bad words.” That’s what they told us they were. Remember? “That’s a bad word!” You know bad words. Bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words. You know the seven, don’t you, that you can’t say on television? [Bleep] [bleep] [bleep] [bleep] [bleep] [bleep] [bleep] Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that will infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.

Amy Goodman: Well, that was an edited version of the monologue by comedian George Carlin that aired on Pacifica Radio station WBAI in 1973. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled the FCC could punish WBAI for its broadcast, arguing words relating to sex or excretion when children might be listening were prohibited. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented, noting the Court’s, quote, “depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities.”

Well, remarkably, almost 40 years later, the same issues are before a decidedly more conservative Supreme Court. And we said at the beginning of the broadcast, the New York Times had an interesting piece quoting, oh, Justice Elena Kagan and others saying the Commission has said that swearing in Saving Private Ryan, the Steven Spielberg war movie, was not indecent, while swearing by blues masters in the music documentary by Scorsese was indecent, nudity in Schindler’s List, another Spielberg movie, was allowed, but a few seconds of partial nudity on NYPD Blue was not, leading Justice Elena Kagan to say, “The way that this policy seems to work, it’s like nobody can use dirty words or nudity except for Steven Spielberg.” Michael Copps, your thoughts on this?

Michael Copps: Well, I’ll be candid. I think you put your hands on a dilemma. We also have a national problem here. There are millions of people, with families, who have problems with some of the quality of the language on TV. That was in an article in the Washington Post the other day, that examples of profanity have gone up, I think, like 69 or 70 percent between 2005 and 2009. And the “F” word was bleeped, I think, was it, 11 times in the first two weeks of 2005 and 276 times in the first two weeks of 2011.

Let’s begin with, we have a statute. When you become a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, you take a statute to enforce the law. And the law says you have to have a policy on indecency. The world has changed. There’s no question about that. Values have changed. But there seems to be a lack of discipline we used to have. When we had those public interest guidelines I talked about, we also had some broadcaster voluntary codes of conduct, and they kind of disciplined—disciplined themselves. That’s pretty much gone now, too.

You mentioned earlier on in the program, which I think is even worse than the language, some of the wanton and gratuitous violence that you see on TV. There’s no reason for it. There’s no—there’s no legislation on that. There’s no mandate for the Commission to do anything. But maybe this is another one of those areas where we ought to figure out how we can enhance the level a little bit without coarsening it further. You can’t—I am not for having a rule where somebody is sitting watching programs and giving them a pass/fail. We’ve never had that. The Commission only reacts when particular complaints come in to it. And that’s probably the better way to proceed.

But I think if we picked out one or two of the really egregious examples—and there are—you wouldn’t have to do much more than that, and the word would go out that it would be nice to have [inaudible] of our communications. And broadcast prime-time shows are, of course, hugely important, not just on broadcast TV, but on cable and satellite and everywhere else. There is a difference between some of this and the Private Ryan. And it’s kind of like, you know, when you see it, you know it, and you recognize it. So, I think, instead of getting us into warring camps, what we really need to do is realize it’s a problem for a lot of people, see if we can’t work something out.

Juan Gonzalez: And Commissioner, finally, I’d like to ask you, just in terms of your time on the FCC, any regrets in terms of what you were not able to accomplish during that time?

Michael Copps: Well, I wish we could have done more on the media. I wish we could fix that licensing process, so that we have some public interest guidelines. I would make them news-centric right now. If you’re coming in for a license, what are you doing to enhance public news and public information so we can rebuild the journalism we had? So, the votes that we had on media ownership, I wish they were three-to-two the other way, my way, rather than the ways of the majorities that we had back at those time.

And then the other decision would be to call telecommunications “telecommunications” and regulate them like we always regulated plain old telephone service, instead of getting into this ridiculous semantical debate over, “Well, the internet isn’t really telecommunications,” so all of the consumer protections that advocates fought for for generations, on privacy and consumer protection and public safety and all that, would apply to new communications, too. If we’re all going on the internet, why should we suddenly say, “Well, all of that stuff you want in plain old telephone service, that doesn’t apply to the awesome new technologies of the internet”? So those two things, I think, are the ones I would like to change.

Amy Goodman: Commissioner Copps, we want to thank you for being with us. Michael Copps is one of the longest-reigning FCC commissioners. He retired after more than 10 years of service.

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