Michael Copps: Consolidation 1, Public Interest 0
Democratic FCC Commissioner Voices His Objections to Cross-Ownership Rules
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/18/2007 6:57:00 PM
"I think our action today is an invitation to the courts and the Congress. We haven't learned the lessons of 2003."
That was Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps, who weighed in with B&C on the repercussions of the FCC's vote by a Republican majority to loosen newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules -- a decision he said was a terrible one that would essentially put the majority's stamp, as in rubber stamp, on further consolidation.
"Today the score is consolidation one, public interest nothing from the standpoint of orders going out of this commission," he said in an interview with B&C.
B&C: You called this decision terrible. What do you actually think is going to happen?
Copps: I think we are going to have more consolidation and to the extent that we have more consolidation, that makes for less diversity of voices and less localism for the American people, and I think that is bad.
B&C: You have said there are some cases where consolidation might be warranted.
Copps: I have said that, but I don't want these rules that are just flashing a green light and you come in and get an automatic pass or maybe we will look at this factor or maybe we won't. Or maybe we will look at that factor, but, wait a minute, we are going to change that factor and substitute this factor and all these kinds of games we were doing up until 11:15 this morning [the meeting was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. but did not start until one hour later]. That's not what I mean by looking at it on a case-by-case basis.
I have said that I am not a commissioner who is against all consolidation all of the time. I have seen instances where broadcasters can make the case that without some kind of ability to merge or converge, stations can go dark and whole communitities can be deprived of service. I think when that happens -- although I don't think that happens a lot -- the commission ought to have capacity to stop, look and listen and do something about it. But that's not what this episode is about today.
B&C: What about the chairman's argument that he can't put every iteration of a rule out for public comment?
Copps: Well. I was walking out of here at 11:15 in the morning when staff said, 'Here is the latest thing from the e-mail chain from the chairman's office,' or the bureau or wherever, proposing a change to some of the four factors [by which the FCC will determine whether a newspaper-broadcast combination is in the public interest]. That is pretty important stuff and if I don't have time to parse that and I am about to cast a vote, interested parties don't have any opportunity.
Now, you can listen to the chairman defend himself that he is operating within the parameters of proper administrative procedures and all that, and maybe through some legalistic legerdemaine, he might be able to craft an argument. But I'm not giving him that because I think there are solid grounds on which to question our adherence to proper admininstrative procedures. But even so, there is a larger question involved: In an age when everyone is moving toward more openness, transparency and more information, why wouldn't we expect a regulatory agency to be moving in that direction, too, so that it is not just the letter of the act but the spirit of the act and the spirit of the times? This place has to join the 21st century.
B&C: In the meeting, chairman Kevin Martin said you asked him to publicize his ownership proposal, then criticized him for doing so.
Copps: I criticized the fact that it was not put out in the proper form. It was first announced as an editorial [in TheNew York Times], and that editorial was pasted into a public notice sheet. We expect something more than that.
B&C: Responding to your criticisms of a lack of time for public comment on items, the chairman cited the BellSouth/AT&T merger last year and said, 'Commissioners Copps and Adelstein negotiated significant new concessions with the companies Dec. 28. The commission approved the merger based on those new concessions only one day later, Dec. 29, with absolutely no opportunity to know let alone comment on what was adopted. Ironically, commissioner Copps said at the time, "Indeed, I believe that this proceeding has allowed for more comment and sharing of knowledge by interested parties than any merger consideration that I have participated in during the five years I have served on the commission.'"'
Copps: Somebody must have been up very late at night trying to think of some criticism.
That referenced a very different kind of proceeding, which was a merger between a couple of companies, any one of which could have walked away from it at any particular time. When he read out my little quote, he left out the that I said this was one of the most open 'merger' processes. He left that [merger] out, although I think they put that back in the written statement [it was in the written statement].
A merger transaction is significantly different from the kind of public policy thing we are talking about today.
B&C: What happens with the cross-ownership rule now?
Copps: One likelihood is that in the next couple of weeks, somebody will file an appeal of what we have done[Media Access Project threatened to do just that], and that would go to the [Federal] court [in Philadelphia].
B&C: Some would argue that the cross-ownership decision is a significantly pared-back compromise from the 2003 proposals, which also included loosening TV and radio multiple-ownership caps, and that elsewhere, the FCC is proposing a return to quantifying broadcasters' public-interest obligations. Why not declare some sort of victory since both of those things are improvements?
Copps: I think when [the majority] looked at how far they were going to push to get something done, you have to look at the practicalities of the moment and the political situation of the moment and the oversight realities of the moment, and it could be that in a different environment, they would have been pressing for more. But they're not, you're right, we didn't go that far.
So, to that extent, the comparison you are making probably would have some validity. But I'm not about to declare victory on an action wherein the only order that we moved today is for more consolidation, and the things I really care about and so many Americans care about, whether it is localism or minority and female ownership, don't get an order, they just get a notice of proposed rulemaking and somebody might say, 'Hey, we have a good idea, we'll put it out for comment.' We'll put it out for comment and the comments will come back, but it is an open question to me, and I am a skeptic, about how assiduously we will proceed to move these items now that we have done the one thing that the majority really wanted to do, which was to loosen newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.
Today, the score is consolidation one, public interest nothing from the standpoint of orders going out of this commission.
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