Copps Urges Media Reform, Bemoans Years of "Mindless Deregulation"

Progressive reformer and acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps was basking in his element Thursday as he preached the gospel of media reform. He suggested that traditional media may be going the way of the VCR and analog TV sets, but also raised the issue of regulating media's presumptive new king: the Internet.

Billed as Free Press' "Bono and Brangelina," Copps took the dais at a packed media reform forum. He has addressed the gathering before--last year in Minnesota--but always as a minority commissioner rather than the more bully pulpit of acting FCC chairman.

While saying he was still teeing up big decisions for the incoming chairman, Julius Genachowski, Copps urged haste in capitalizing on a new wind of reform he said was blowing through the Capital and across the nation.

Winding the stem on a speech that resonated again and again with the overflow crowd at the Newseum in Washington, Copps said that so long as his audience did not come to Washington simply to harvest the fruits of its labors, there could be an era of reform to match the New Deal.

"I don't think we'll be circling the wagons any time soon-but if we're not quick about it and smart about it and thorough about it, the winds of change could blow themselves out before our job is done. We must seize the opportunity when we have it. Us. Now....When it comes to public policy, eight years of shallows and misery was enough for me," he said. "I don't even want to think about any more such years!"

Copps bemoaned what he called "two decades of mindless deregulation" with a brief interruption before a "veritable tsunami of consolidation." The result? "Infotainment, sensationalism, cable news mud-wrestling, and homogenized playlists."

"We're not only losing journalists," he said, "we may be losing journalism." He said the problem started before the Internet, with consolidation and "mindless deregulation." "When TV and radio stations are no longer required to serve their local communities, when stations or newspapers are loaded down with crushing debt or owned by huge corporations preoccupied with cutting costs through economies of scale, it should come as no surprise that some things precious get lost."

He also explained part of his urgency for change. "There are those who argue that's all over now. Consolidation and conglomeration are yesterday's news. I don't buy it. As soon as the economy begins to turn the corner, I predict we'll see another urge to merge-to buy, leverage, and find those elusive economies of scale. More news rooms closed. More journalists fired. More private equity, less public dialogue."

Saying he did not want to paint with too broad a brush, the acting chairman did give a shout out to broadcasters who were trying to serve the public interest, but said Wall Street expectations were forcing them in directions they did now want to go. "Whatever we do should help those stations that are trying to do the right thing and nurture the democratic dialogue."

Old media are not dead, he said, but suggested it might only be a matter of time. "I'm not saying that old media won't fade away but we're not there yet-and sometimes change takes longer to arrive than we think. We've been out helping consumers with the DTV transition-you'd be amazed at how many people are still happily watching TV on 30-year old sets and 20-year old VCRs."

So, he said, since old media may still be around a while, it needs to be held to a more meaningful public interest standard. "I'm not ready to throw in the towel," he said. But he was ready to don a carpenter's apron. "The public interest standard is like a grand old theater that has been badly neglected over the years. The structure is sound, and with a little imagination and a lot of hard work we can make it a showplace once again."

Looking farther down the road, Copps raised the possibility of Internet regulation. Historically, government regulation has been based on some sort of licensing relationship or statutory directive. But how does that apply to the online world, where websites not only are not licensed, but they may not even be in the United States? And what if the new media fail to provide the things we care about-the things we need?"

He didn't have the answer, but Copps said it was time to have a "serious national discussion."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.