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An Exit Interview With Michael Copps

Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps is exiting his post in the next few weeks after 10 years of fighting against media ownership deregulation and for more diversity and broadcast station accountability.

While Copps has used his agency bully pulpit to decry consolidation -- much to the chagrin of many media companies -- he tells B&C that he has realized change comes more from the grass roots up than the top down, and plans to continue to speak out on those issues from outside the commission.

Copps has been on the other side of broadcasters on many issues. When asked what he would have done with one extra vote on any decision that did not go his way, he brings up being on the short end—twice—of a 3-2 vote under a Republican chairman to loosen ownership regs' with the FCC's classification of broadband as an information service being a close second.

But Copps says he loves broadcasters, and argues that they continue to serve a vital function in the country. It is the combination of bad private and public sector decisions'including what he sees as the FCC's continued failure to check consolidation'that has made it tougher for broadcasters to do their jobs, he believes.

In this exit interview with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton, Copps talks about his biggest disappointment, how he would reform the FCC and why he thinks there needs to be a conversation about applying a public interest standard to broadband.

After 10 years on the commission, you are now in the majority with a Democratic chairman. Why leave?

Ten years is a pretty long run as FCC commissioners go, far above the average. I think we have accomplished a lot. Certainly not everything I would like to have accomplished. But as far as the issues I have focused on, I have accomplished about what I am going to accomplish at the commission.

I think after 40 years [combining Hill, Commerce Department and FCC service] I must be a little bit of a slow learner. You realize that on a lot of important issues, change doesn't come so much from the top down as from the grass roots up. We've seen some of that on media ownership. So I will probably devote myself to encouraging that change from the bottom up.

Jessica Rosenworcel, one of your former top advisers, is slated to be your replacement. What can you tell us about her?

I think if confirmed by the Senate, she will be an excellent commissioner, deeply knowledgeable, infused with the public interest and with a temperament capable of making decisions. I think that both nominees [Editor's note: Ajit Pai is the other] have the potential to be excellent commissioners.

In a speech at the start of the Obama administration, you talked about the possibility of a sweeping wind of change blowing through town and the commission, citing Hamlet to suggest it was time for action. How much has there been?

Quite a bit. For eight years, I railed and ranted at the absence of a national broadband strategy when we were operating under the premise from on high that this was something that the market would take care of, thank you, we don't really need a public policy. Operating on that premise, we went from second or third place [in the world in terms of broadband deployment] back when I came here to 15th or 20th or 24th. I don't know where we are now, and it doesn't do much good to debate or haggle over which of those is correct. For your country and mine, that's no place to be anywhere in that vicinity. We need to be back on top. Fast-forward and we have a national broadband strategy, and a commitment from the administration and here at the commission to move forward with deployment and adoption.

I spoke a lot about the open Internet as early as 2002 and wasn't able to do too much until we got to the current commission, and now we have some open Internet rules. Are they, again, everything that I would have done? No.

When I was acting chairman, I tried to make sure we were doing outreach to nontraditional stakeholders, the folks without the lawyers and lobbyists, to walk these halls and to read the Federal Register every day, to ! nd out how [our policies] affect native populations, the inner city, minorities and the disabilities communities. This commission has continued to work on that.

But you have been critical of this commission for the "more" you have said should have been done.

There is no question that I would prefer to have gone down the Title II route [classifying the Internet as a telecommunications service subject to access conditions] in the decisions that we made in regard to the open Internet, in regard to broadband, in regard to universal service. I think it is there in the law and somehow, about the time I got here, we were getting involved in ridiculous semantical debates about [whether or not] broadband is advanced telecommunications service. I mean, let's call telecommunications telecommunications. Instead we go down this Title I road, a bumpy, potholed road without much certainty, and right next door you have a smooth, paved road with a destination that I think we should have taken. But that did not start at this commission. That was 2002, 2003, 2005. And you remember me standing at the railroad track, signaling 'stop.'

What is your biggest disappointment?

The lack of action on the media reform program that I have been talking about for the entire 10 years that I have been here. Doing something about the sad state of our licensing regime here at the commission. Doing something about the quickly dwindling resources devoted to investigative journalism in our newsrooms, which I think have had enormous and baleful effects on our civic dialogue, and dumbed down that dialogue to some extent because too often we are just shouting opinions at one another.

Do you think you have been too tough on broadcasters?

I love broadcasters, and I hope a lot of them like me. I hope they understand that I think broadcasting fulfills a vital function in this democracy. Some of my favorite people are broadcasters. A lot of them are independent, smaller broadcasters. Some have been in that industry through generations of their families. The flame of the public interest burns brightly in their hearts and they can do so much good.

We have made it through some bad decisions in the private sector and god-awful decisions in the public sector, [making it] far more difficult for those people to do their jobs. There has been this continual orgy of consolidation, which I think has had woeful effects on a lot of broadcasters. I think a lot of them know this. Some of them are no longer around because they have been gobbled up.

When you have a marketplace that is so infused with the bottom-line mentality and the quarterly report, and equally or more important, when you go through a period with all these transactions that have to be financed, we all know what happens. Newsrooms get cut and reporters get fired. Hundreds of stories per day go untold. There are lots of people at work held completely unaccountable for what they are doing in positions of both private and public trust. I am told that there are at last report 27 states that don't have a single reporter accredited to Capitol Hill. That ought to really disturb people.

At the same time, the bad public sector decision was to bless all this consolidation as it occurs. There are few deals that this commission over the years has not smiled on in terms of consolidation. And the beat goes on.

What do you mean?

We had Comcast/NBCU this year, we had Sinclair buying more stations. And I think when the economy goes up you will see even more consolidation. We here at the FCC blessed all these decisions. And we have walked away from public interest guidelines starting in the 1980s. I don't understand why you allow this evisceration of our information infrastructure when you have a statute that mentions public interest 112 times. I know of no greater need in this country, with all the problems that we have, for people to understand the issues and really have the facts.

But if everything is going broadband, where this commission and its policies suggest the future lies, there is no public interest standard.

I think the public interest is throughout the Telecommunications Act. But you are correct that, at some point, we have to have a serious, rational, non-shouting discussion about what is the public interest in the broadband age.

I don't want to make too sharp a demarcation between old media and new media. Let's just assume for the sake of our conversation that radio and television are going to migrate over the years to broadband. If broadband is our new town square of democracy, then you have to make sure that it is serving our public interest.

Then isn't media ownership regulation'ownership caps, for example'yesterday's regulation? Three former FCC chairs, Democratic and Republican, have agreed the newspaper-broadcast crossownership ban should have been lifted, and that it was politics that stopped them.

Those three commissioners are wrong.

It is an important question. But 90-95% of the news we get on the Internet still comes from the newspaper and broadcast newsrooms. It is just that there is so much less of it because of the consolidation, and we have neglected the public interest standard. Here is the place right now that the FCC can make a difference. Can we solve the problem? No. But we can make a difference for some of those people who are still producing 90-95% of the news with public interest guidelines that are kind of news-centric.

The concern from broadcasters is that gets the FCC into picking and choosing content?

I think there are ways to do that without getting into content. As a condition of license, perhaps, you could look at resources a station is putting into local news. Is the staff increasing? There is something wrong when a third of the TV stations do little or no news.

Does this new disclosure rulemaking proposal the FCC recently approved get at the issues?

It is not an answer in and of itself. Say the information is online and some group or citizen goes there and finds this horrendous shortfall in the station's performance; does the commission have any tools to do anything about it? That's a big question without public interest guidelines, without really having some specifics in there. So you have to redress if there is disclosure of underperformance. Whoopee for disclosure. But to think it's going to lead us into the sunlit valley of the kind of public interest station performance I would like to see is putting a little bit too much on its back.

It looks like retrans reform won't happen while you are here. What do you think theFCC should do?

There is a problem there. I think for years we operated under the assumption that our only role was to encourage good-faith negotiations between parties. But I think we need to take a look, and are in the process of doing that, to see if that is the only avenue we have, and do we take full advantage of it.

We live in such a different world now. When retrans first came along, it was to protect small broadcasters, small cable and consumers, and now it has just kind of morphed into a big money vs. big money game and "who's got the revenue stream." It is a somewhat different world and we ought to be cognizant of that whenever the commission gets around to making a decision.

It is very complex and complicated, but there should be some solution that works to the benefit of consumers, who are too often just the unwitting witnesses of these end-of-year standoffs between mega-corporations that are purely about money.

Regarding the quadrennial Notice of Proposed Rulemaking [FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has circulated a proposal to scrap the radio-TV crossownership rules, loosen newspaper-broadcast crossownership, but keep other regs in place], are you going to vote on it before you go?

I expect that the commission will vote the quadrennial.

I know you can't talk about specifics since it is on circulation, but what kind of quadrennial would you like to see?

I would like to see one that is really responsive to the critiques of the Third Circuit and really marches into the territory of what we are doing on minority and female ownership and diversity and really take that seriously. We haven't done nearly enough.

I would like to see us take up some of the recommendations the diversity committee has been making for years. We have to do something to enhance the really awful state of minority and female ownership in a country that is rapidly becoming majority minority.

People of color owning 6% of full-power commercial television stations-something is wrong.

Would you "march into" scrapping the radio-TV crossownership rules?

I'm not much into marching into loosening our rules at a time when the commission seems reluctant to do anything really proactive to encourage the kind of localism, diversity, competition and less consolidated world that I have been championing for 10 years.

There is a lot of talk these days about FCC reform. How would you reform it?

The first thing I would do is modify the closed-meeting rules so that more than two commissioners can get together and talk about substantive items. I think it is a real limitation that has harmed our policy decision-making process and has probably created problems for all of us. I can often think of when we have gotten into some really tight situations around here on mergers and things, if the then-chairman and other commissioners could sit around-it couldn't be three of just one party-and talk, I don't think we would have gotten into some of these standoffs.

I am not going to get into details of legislation. But that being said, I have often thought that it would be a good thing for agencies generally to have an annual report that tells what you have done in the last year [that is one of the proposals of bills being pushed by

Republicans in the House], how many cases you have resolved, what is still pending and what the strategic priorities and goals of the next year are.

If you could reverse one vote that didn't go your way, what would it be?

Well, I would like to obviously get the Title II [decisions]…

You can only have one, so is that it?

Well, it would have to be something on media ownership, to reverse the 3-2 votes on both chairman [Michael] Powell's and [Kevin] Martin's media ownership rules. But it is too close to call. Because Title II has had awful consequences. No other country on the face of the earth has gotten into this damaging, destabilizing debate of linguistic exegesis that has really held us back. We have a lot still riding on the definition of the Internet.

What would the high points of your tenure be?

I would think that national broadband strategy and to get serious that we need public sector/private sector partnerships. Related to that would be the need to keep the broadband Internet open and accessible to all, unencumbered by tollbooths and gatekeepers. I think that and coming in as acting chairman at the last minute on the DTV transition-basically four months to field a much more active program. To turn this place really into a grass-roots organization with a couple hundred people out in the towns around the country contacting all the different civic groups and churches. That was an exciting and highly nerve-racking time because it could have created a lot of problems.

Then I would cite putting the brakes on the effort of the two prior commissions to loosen the media ownership rules and to demonstrate that that was not an inside-the-Beltway issue but a grass-roots issue of interest to millions of Americans.

We didn't do anything to reverse the trend toward consolidation in the private sector. We haven't done anything to reinsert the public interest guidelines into the licensing process, but at least we put the brakes on.

You also got credit from many inside the agency for a more collegial atmosphere when you took over as acting chairman.

I was trying to revive the vitality and enthusiasm of this place. I have worked a lot of places in the government over 40 years. This is a really talented team at the FCC and they need to be free to do their job and grow their expertise. I think chairman Genachowksi has done a good job in encouraging that.

Any parting thoughts?

This has been an experience of a lifetime. You get to meet everybody in the world on these issues. You deal with all these edge-of-the-envelope issues that really are important to the future of the country, none more important than getting our information infrastructure right.

And then you have some independence here to do your job as you would like to do it. Working in a cabinet agency'I was at the Department of Commerce'you are always very careful. "Can I say this? What is the undersecretary going to say? Can I say this? What is the secretary going to say?" Here you still are very careful, and you can still get yourself in all kinds of trouble. But you get mad at yourself and you really don't stay as mad at yourself as long as other people stay mad at you at other agencies.

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton