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Copps: FCC's Power Broker

At a Federal Communications Bar Association dinner honoring/roasting FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last week, former NAB President Eddie Fritts was the warm-up act. Saying he was there to “introduce a real Washington power broker. A person who can move stock markets with a single utterance. Someone who has ambitions and connections that are unparalleled inside the Beltway. ... So, Michael Copps, would you please take a bow.”

A joke, yes, but not far from the truth. FCC Commissioner Copps took that bow, and with reason. With the Democrats having taken the Hill and Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell proving to be an independent-minded commissioner rather than a lock for a third vote for Martin, the power of the Democratic minority on the commission has grown, as evidenced by the conditions applied to the AT&T/Bell South merger.

B&C's John Eggerton talked with Copps on the eve of his appearance at the NAB Convention in Las Vegas.

What will you be telling the assembled broadcasters about the state of the industry?

I guess I would say that they are the stewards of a precious public jewel and I went there to applaud those who work hard to service the public interest by putting real resources into news and public affairs and local coverage.

I understand there are challenges that exist in the media environment we all find ourselves in, but I'm also there to say that I am worried that it is becoming more and more difficult for these folks to meet those objectives we talked about in this age of media consolidation and the often unforgiving expectations of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

Their job of gathering and communicating news and public affairs is more important now than ever before, especially in this environment. That isn't just something nice for them to do, but that was the original bargain, to use the airwaves to serve the public interest. We need to make sure those principles are front and center and take broadcasters to new and even higher altitudes.

Anything specific you would like them to do more or less of?

Yes, I would like them to do, from an entertainment standpoint, much less of this homogenized, nationalized fare that has displaced so much of regional and local and community coverage and creativity and talent. I would like to see more of the latter and see them put significantly more emphasis on the coverage of news and public affairs and political issues and community events. We don't have nearly enough of that coverage in our democracy right now to sustain it over the long haul.

You have been a pretty vocal critic of content, both indecency and violence. What would you say to the creative community?

My message would be that we have a serious national problem that goes to the welfare of some of our must vulnerable citizens, our children, that has intruded pervasively into the home and has affected their welfare. I detect across this land and in Congress significant interest in doing something about gratuitous violence in programming. I think anyone who has trod the halls of the Capitol in the last several months would know exactly what I am talking about.

Given the current situation with Don Imus and complaints on his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, should the FCC have a role in regulating racist speech, which is arguably more offensive than a cuss word or two?

I think it is offensive, and I think we're trying to make some inroads on the indecency and violence matters. It will be up to Congress on violence. It will be up to Congress if we go down that road. I think part of this really is a result of the consolidation I have talked about. One program begins to broadcast it all over the country at the expense of what we ought to be doing regionally and locally.

There are roles here for all of us. Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to indecency, violence or the hate speech you are talking about.

Industry is the second line of defense to provide the tools and controls, but those haven't worked so well. So they need to provide also some sense of practical self-discipline as they did with the old voluntary codes of broadcaster conduct. It wasn't necessarily a golden age, but it was a practical attempt to practice some self-discipline.

And there is a role for Congress and the courts if they don't like what Congress does. We have a system of checks and balances, but, for checks and balances to work, everybody has to be participating. It doesn't do for the industry to say this is all for parents or for someone in government to say this is all for the FCC or all for Congress to do. We all have to step up to the plate on this with some common sense.

As an academic I taught the beauties of the First Amendment for many years, so nobody is looking to supplant or run roughshod over it. But we have a pressing national problem that I think lots of people are determined to get a resolution of. We'll see if I am right.

So, you think there is a constitutional way to regulate TV violence?

I think there would be a constitutional way for Congress to step up to the plate if they think they need to tackle this problem of gratuitous violence. The courts have provided guidelines when they talk about the pervasiveness and the sanctity of the home and protecting the welfare of children. So I don't see a common-sense approach here as a terror attack on the Constitution.

With more and more TV content going to the Internet, and advertisers following it, is concentrating on who owns how many stations aiming behind the target?

I am focused on the public airwaves. Whether we would like to see that extended to the Internet is a question for another time and another day. What the jurisdictions are is something for Congress to work out. But you could make the argument that some of the arguments I have cited about children and pervasiveness and all that applies to the Web, too. But we're not going there right now. The people's airwaves are where we can have some input. The Internet may someday be the place where you can see all this programming, but that is tomorrow's reality, not today's. I'm trying to deal with today's problems.

Do you favor putting stations' public files online, as the chairman is proposing?

I think putting the public file on the Web is a good thing. Heck, if we get it on the Web, maybe even the FCC will start looking at the public files. We don't right now. So, if it helps us look at them as well as the American people, I'm all for it.

At the Federal Communications Bar Association dinner, they flashed pictures of you as Elvis and The Pope. Which better captures you?

As somebody who believes in media diversity, I welcomed a multifaceted portrayal.