Skip to main content

The FCC's Anti-Deregulation Cheerleader

In the final weeks before the FCC's vote to relax broadcast-ownership rules, Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein quit working as a behind-the-scenes negotiator and became chief cheerleader for the activists, lawmakers and media professionals campaigning to stop changes that they believed would inflict irreparable damage on the media landscape.

Not long after agency Chairman Michael Powell publicly praised the most junior commissioner's sticking with talks over pending revisions, Adelstein abruptly announced that he had given up hope of tempering deregulation and gave a withering critique of the GOP majority's gelling plan. "I'm afraid that the FCC isn't only about to further McDonaldize the media, it's about to 'supersize' it," he told a largely hostile audience at the Media Institute in May.

He doesn't consider himself naïve for hoping the Republicans would agree to subject more broadcast-merger approvals to specific conditions, such as increased news or public-interest programming. "I think it's always better to work out a compromise than just dissenting. But it was clear they would not support a case-by-case approach for reviewing individual mergers to make sure they would actually benefit the public."

Adelstein followed up his speech with a scathing 39-page dissent on the vote. He and fellow Democrat Michael Copps lost the vote but may win the battle for the hearts of the public and lawmakers: There is strong sentiment in Congress to overturn the FCC's changes.

Knowing how to take an issue to the public with fiery rhetoric and political theater is a skill Adelstein refined during 15 years as a congressional aide. He helped his bosses lead fights over health-care, finance and telecommunications issues. In the media arena, he helped former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle shepherd local broadcast carriage rules for satellite TV.

Adelstein got his first taste of Congress during a high school internship. When he finished studies in 1987, Capitol Hill was where he wanted to make his career. "I found it extremely rewarding, challenging work."

Public service is a family tradition, although Adelstein broke with convention by becoming a Democrat. His dad is a Republican state legislator in South Dakota; a brother is an aide to Rep. Bill Janklow. His grandfather won office as a Republican, serving as an elected engineer for Jackson County, S.D.

Adelstein became a Democrat in college when the Reagan White House cut back on the social programs he believed in. "It seemed the Democrats best addressed my concerns: the less privileged and other people sometimes forgotten by government."

That category also includes Americans who can't pay for the array of programming on cable and must rely on broadcast TV for news and public-affairs programming, he says.

How long he will be able to fight on their behalf is an open question. He was appointed to fill the remaining time of former Commissioner Gloria Tristani, and his official term expired June 30. Government rules allow him to stay on board without reconfirmation until a successor joins the panel or until the close of the current Congress. Although Bush could try to make things easier for Powell by nominating a more deregulation-friendly Democrat to Adelstein's seat, many in Washington say winning confirmation would be difficult in today's highly politicized environment for telecom policy.

The political stalemate is good luck for Adelstein, who has enjoyed his share in the past few years. Like all Daschle staffers, he escaped contamination from anthrax, despite the office's being a target of the still-mysterious poisoned letters. Brother Lt. Col. Dan Adelstein was out of his Pentagon office when it was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. That good fortune was followed by the birth of Jonathan's son, Adam, in 2002, and, today, another child on the way.