All the right moves
FCC watchers say Chairman Michael Powell is nimble enough to remake the TV business and go on to bigger things
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/22/2001 8:00:00 PM
On June 12, Michael Powell was moments away from suffering a headliner's worst indignity. Preparing to deliver the policy keynote before the National Cable Television Association's annual convention, the chairman of the FCC was in serious danger of being upstaged by the warm-up act: a group of Chicago teenagers wowing the crowd with handsprings, flips and vaults. Backstage, Powell was dared, jokingly, to follow suit with his own tumbling routine.
Striding up the stage steps in wingtips and pinstripes, he aimed for the podium, crouched, planted his hands, tucked his chin and rolled head over heels.
As the former high school and college gymnast rose shakily from the stunt, the 5,000-plus cable conventioneers packed into the McCormick Center's Grand Ballroom broke into raucous laughter and applause.
With the crowd now his, Powell could deliver warnings that otherwise might have been received as schoolmarmish admonitions: Don't delay digital TV by playing hardball with broadcasters; don't force unwanted programming on consumers; and don't jack up rates. Otherwise, he said, consumer anger will force the government to impose new regulations.
The FCC chairman's tumbling exhibition exemplifies Michael Powell's approach to his job. Sure, overseeing telcom is serious business, but that's no reason not to have a ball. And it's no reason not to bask when the spotlight shines. That somersault may also serve as a metaphor for the challenges of his new post.
Legal and political gymnastics will be necessary to maintain some measure of independence from the Bush White House and congressional Republicans and to move his deregulatory agenda in the face of Democratic opposition on Capitol Hill and at the commission.
Powell's biggest battles in the coming months will be over whether to maintain today's media ownership restrictions, including the caps on broadcast-TV household reach and cable audience share and the ban on newspaper/TV crossownership. Other fights include the FCC's effort to protect kids from indecent broadcasts and jump-starting the flagging transition to digital TV.
How well he fares will likely determine the next stage of his public career, which could include a more senior post in the Bush administration or, as many predict, elected office.
Despite a receding hairline that is far from the "righteous Afro" of his youth, the barrel-chested Powell is still fresh-faced enough to look younger than his 38 years. He walks with a slight forward lean due to fused vertebrae at the base of spine, a result of a near-fatal accident.
His Army upbringing apparently has instilled in him a keen appreciation for the impact a sharp-dressed leader has on the troops. He's nearly always decked in a uniform more akin to CEOs than to public servants: suit tailored, shirt starched and cuffs linked.
When he works a crowd, however, Powell seems more like a politician. He yaks it up with industry lobbyists, slaps the backs of reporters, and pushes agency staff with praise and encouragement rather than criticism. "When I came down to Washington, the only government post that appealed to me would be working for Commissioner Powell," says Susan Eid, a former MediaOne lobbyist who became his mass-media and cable adviser last summer.
His ability to switch from an executive bearing to best-buddy allows Powell to charm almost any gathering, further engendering predictions of his political career.
The FCC has rarely been a launching pad for political careers, but the commission isn't likely to be the high-water mark of Powell's time in public service. He and his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell, have turned their close-knit military clan into America's most politically prominent African-American family.
It's difficult to say how much of Michael's quick rise in the government ranks is due to the doors opened by his father's fame. Even if he wanted, though, he couldn't escape Dad's shadow. As proof, three weeks ago, ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? asked contestants which Bush administration member has a son at the helm of the FCC.
Powell deflects questions about his political designs. But, two months ago, he accepted a second five-year term that doesn't even begin until 2002, signaling a commitment to stay on board long enough to at least put in place an agency reorganization he is developing.
He might be keeping quiet on his future, but, when it comes to commenting on public policy, few FCC commissioners express strident opinions with as much ease. Powell also has a penchant for less-than-politic, off-the-cuff analogies.
At a conference of investment bankers recently, he characterized the stream of lobbyists pleading their cases before the commission as "self-interested, money-chasing actors" as his top aides winced. In his first major press conference, he generated six weeks of bad press when he questioned the popular notion of a "digital divide" causing high-speed Internet services to bypass poor and rural communities and suggested that there is simply an unsurprising "Mercedes divide" that brings the newest and most advanced products to wealthy customers first.
Despite the controversy, the loquacious Powell says he won't guard his tongue. "I try to be candid, and it gets me in trouble at times. I think it's worth the risk of misspeaking and having it blow up in my face."
The real frustration, he says, is the reaction of critics who don't take the time to learn the full context. "People who use those things to their advantage don't really have an interest in hearing both sides of the story, and you've made the mistake of giving them a rallying cry."
To his critics, the "Mercedes divide" quip seemed to confirm what they've suspected all along: that beneath the veneer of legal and academic rationalization beats the heart of just another pro-industry bureaucrat eager to do the bidding of big media.
"He has a well polished ego, but I question whether there's any real intellectual substance inside," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
So frustrated has Chester become that he has all but given up trying to persuade the FCC chairman to consider his calls for open-access rules for cable Internet service and antidiscrimination rules for interactive-TV carriers. Instead, Chester says, he will look to Congress and the other commissioners.
Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman is more charitable about Powell's intellect and open-mindedness but predicts that public-advocacy groups fighting to preserve media-ownership restrictions will lose most of the time during his tenure.
Powell's lack of concern about the digital divide didn't win him points with minority-advocacy groups. Like many black Republicans, Powell is likely to engender more suspicion from civil-rights groups than enthusiasm.
But the Powell family's rise to prominence followed a path that mirrors the experience of many successful African-Americans. On his mother's side, Powell's grandfather and great-uncle rose to prominence in segregation-era Birmingham, Ala., as educators of black children, one of the few avenues to middle-class life open to African-Americans. Father Colin, the son of West Indian immigrants who settled in Harlem, took one of the few other paths: the Army.
In his autobiography, Secretary Powell tells of racial slights he and his wife endured early in his career when they ventured off military bases in the South. And, when Colin was first shipped to Vietnam in 1963, baby Michael and his mom lived in Birmingham with her family as racial strife and bombings tore the city apart. Alma's dad, R.C., sat up many nights guarding the family home with a shotgun.
Michael Powell, however, almost never mentions publicly the impact of race on his life.
Still, there are signs of his appreciation for the struggles that helped pave the way for black political leaders. For instance, the lobby of his office is decorated with three paintings of Buffalo Soldiers, the accomplished black cavalry troopers who played a critical but often overlooked role in opening the American West.
If public advocates and civil-rights groups view Powell as a guy with his mind made up, few colleagues inside the FCC question his intellectual curiosity or thirst for debate.
During his days as a commissioner, the former antitrust lawyer brought himself up to speed on the full range of telecommunications issues by voracious reading and bull sessions with anybody willing to spar over the issues.
"He would wander into my office and want to talk about digital television or whatever was on his mind," says Thomas Power, mass media and cable adviser to former FCC Chairman William Kennard. "I can't recall any other commissioner just walking in and rapping like we were high school kids at a drugstore Coca-Cola stand."
Now that Powell is in the chairman's office, the rap sessions are a lot more formal and a lot less discretionary for top FCC staff. Soon after landing in the top spot, he circulated a "recommended" reading list that ranged from futuristic ruminations like George Gilder's Telecosm to lessons in political strategy and social struggle, such as Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
Powell credits the Army background, the least of which was his brief career as an armored platoon leader, for his approach to work and life. "I was in the Army when I was 6," he says reflecting on a nomadic upbringing on a series of military bases.
At each new post, military brats obey a social protocol just like their parents and dutifully muster another company of friends. "We had to make friends quickly and adapt to change. This fosters a lot of self-confidence and security, and you have a sense of purpose greater than your own comfort and self-interest."
Some of the lessons in self-sacrifice weren't so benign: Officers in wartime suffer a high mortality rate. "My father went to Vietnam twice," he says. "Each day could have been the telegram. Kids know this. There's a reason I get somewhat corny and nostalgic about fulfilling obligations to your country."
Powell followed his Dad into the Army after graduating from Virginia's College of William & Mary in 1985, intending to make a career of it. He was assigned to the Third Army's Second Armored Cavalry Regiment on the West German/Czech border at a time when the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe still seemed very real. His outfit was expected to be little more than a minor obstacle to the numerically superior Communist forces, and combat survival time was predicted to be mere minutes.
"That war was real," Powell says. "I saw many incidents on the border and saw more defections than I ever would have wanted. I saw Czech soldiers running down the hill, getting shot at as they tried to jump the border."
Powell's military career was effectively ended after just 26 months by a July 1987 Jeep accident that crushed his pelvis and required a year of painful rehab. He has spoken often about the near-death experience and how it taught him to live every moment to the fullest.
The success of the grueling therapy also fueled some of the self-assurance that critics interpret as inflated ego. "Most people don't have to go deep inside and pull themselves out of a hole," he says, recalling that he passed out from the pain the first time he tried to stand after his hip was rebuilt with pins and screws.
Powell's hospital stay also reunited him with a college girlfriend, Jane Knott. After the initial barrage of visitors and get-well wishes, the greetings began to dry up. But along with his immediate family, Jane kept up her visits. They married in 1988, eight months after he was discharged from the Army. Today, she is a stay-at-home mom, raising their two sons in an upper-middle-class suburb in Fairfax, Va.
The quick end to his Army duties provided a practical benefit. It freed him to parlay military management experience into a successful career out of uniform years ahead of his Army contemporaries.
After completing rehab, Powell worked as a Defense Department adviser on U.S./Japanese relations before enrolling at Georgetown Law School in 1990. While a student there, he worked in the Washington office of the Los Angeles-based law firm O'Melveny & Myers and was taken under the wing of William Coleman, former Transportation Secretary and the only African-American with a senior cabinet post in the Ford Administration.
Coleman invited him and Jane to a dinner for the firm's summer associates, where the young couple was introduced to Harry Edwards, chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and also an African-American. Edwards and Powell hit it off immediately, and the acerbic judge hired Powell as a law clerk when he graduated in 1993. Edwards, who specialized in labor law before joining the court, is considered one of the panel's more liberal members, although his most influential opinions focus on protecting civil liberties and free speech.
After a year with Edwards, Powell returned to O'Melveny & Myers as an associate and concentrated on antitrust issues. Although the firm lists several media clients, including Disney, Sony, Columbia Pictures and the Game Show Network, Powell says he never worked on behalf of any of them. His disclosure form to Congress listed only Conoco Oil as a company for which he lobbied the federal government.
"He was a bright, sophisticated guy and wrote very well," Coleman explains. "Judge Edwards says Michael Powell taught him how to use the computer. Our firm misses him very much, but we'll probably never get him back."
Edwards calls Powell "a close friend" but declines to say more because the appeals court is set to review several major FCC rules.
Powell made the jump to regulator in December 1996 with the help of Joel Klein, one of his Georgetown law professors. Picked by President Clinton to head the Justice Department's antitrust division, Klein asked his former student to be the division's chief of staff, overseeing 800 employees.
"Maybe it's because he was a military man, but he has a leader's sense of how to interact with people. That was clear to me from the beginning," says Klein, now chairman and CEO of the U.S. branch of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG.
Although his mentors are full of praise today, Powell says they never rationed the criticism when he worked for them. "I've been yelled at more by Harry Edwards than by anyone else," he says. "When you pick a mentor, you should find one that will push your envelope more than you want it pushed."
The faith of these experienced lawyers startled Powell no more so than in 1997, when Edwards urged Sen. John McCain to pick him for the FCC seat then held by Commissioner Rachelle Chong. "I was very nervous about it, even intimidated. I didn't feel I was old enough or had enough experience."
Ultimately, it was Powell's mother, Alma, who persuaded him to say yes. "She told me, 'Throughout your career, you will meet people who see more in you than you see in yourself. You need to learn who they are and trust them.'"
Powell's parents were the biggest influences in his decision to pursue a career in government, although he insists that there was never pressure to follow Dad into the Army. In fact, Powell struggled with the improbable choice of the Army or theater design.
In the end, the familiar won out, and he accepted an ROTC scholarship to William & Mary. But even today, visits to the theater leave him mostly "staring at the ceiling," checking out the lighting rather than the actors.
"If I had any guts, I would have chosen the theater," he says, noting that both his sisters work in theater. Linda is an actress who last week was working in the Voice of America's radio play A Lesson Before Dying . Annemarie, who was a production assistant for CNN, Larry King Live and Nightline, is now with a production company. (See page 4 for more on his sisters.)
From his father, Powell inherited a senior officer's view of the press. Although he's comfortable handling questions on the issues of the day, he's rarely willing to give the scoop on the FCC's internal deliberations. Powell's staff has been told to avoid giving reporters the inside spin as well.
"I've grown up with the press because of my father and family," he says, insisting that he likes most reporters. But his job, he says, "isn't always to make theirs easy."
Under Powell's watch, the entire FCC staff is under orders not to leak information to the press. Last year, he led the FCC task force that resulted in an agency directive requiring lobbyists with business before the commission to return any leaked internal documents. One FCC employee was fired last year after the commission traced release of confidential documents regarding the America Online-Time Warner merger to him.
Several FCC sources say Powell's determination to plug the FCC sieve is due to personal distaste with what he viewed as an effort by Kennard's staff to burnish the former chairman's image in the press by moving the agency into social projects and holding press conferences to show them off.
Powell supported many of those initiatives, including the creation of a low-power radio service and the crafting of new minority- and gender-recruiting rules for broadcast stations. But he also saw energy diverted to Kennard's social agenda while less image-enhancing obligations, such as clarifying the FCC's indecency enforcement obligations and settling remaining media-ownership questions, were neglected.
Powell concedes that his agenda might not make him a hero among public advocates and media watchdogs, but he says his goal is only to be "respected" when his term is up. "These are hard questions that have been waiting to be dealt with for decades. We're going to do the hard stuff, and we're going to do it first."
Kennard and Powell were close during their time together at the commission, but Kennard was once blindsided by a scathing attack by his friend for endorsing President Clinton's plan to help Native Americans receive affordable phone service. After Kennard made a few appearances with the president to promote the idea, Powell fired off a press release accusing him of "orchestrating" the business of the ostensibly independent agency to suit the White House publicity machine.
It would be disingenuous to say Powell is above the political fray, however. In fact, his success dealing with the GOP's Capitol Hill leadership makes Kennard, frequently in hot water with lawmakers, look amateurish by comparison. Powell regularly consults with Hill leaders and has endeared himself to lawmakers by letting them take the credit for his suggestions, as he did with legislation to revive a tax credit for owners that sell media properties to minorities, women and small businesses.
Powell has also proved adept at political infighting—a survival skill he no doubt learned watching his father climb the ranks of the Pentagon, where bureaucrats wield more career-ending daggers than the Roman Senate.
With political cunning that would make Dad proud, Powell dispatched his only rival for the FCC's top post. In the weeks after Bush was elected, Powell refused to comment publicly on his chances for winning the FCC chair. In the meantime, his rival, Bush crony and Texas utility regulator Pat Wood, immolated his own prospects by telling reporters he would accept only the chairman's job.
Behind the scenes, Powell and his allies were anything but quiet. McCain, House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin and many of Washington's top telcom lawyers were forcefully pressing his case.
Powell, too, engaged in some subtle politicking. Accompanying his father to the GOP convention, he made a good impression with the party faithful, who were initially skeptical that he is anything more than the son of a powerful man. He won more converts shortly before the election when he gave a briefing on telecommunications issues at a Republican policy conference in Palm Springs.
Prior to joining the FCC, he also was active in GOP activities as a fundraiser for Virginia Sen. John Warner's 1996 campaign and as a staffer for the 1992 GOP platform committee.
Obviously, the political outreach paid off. Today, Powell is in position to preside over additional deregulation—a sure way to capture GOP hearts and further any political ambitions he may have.
The contacts Powell makes will pay off if he runs for office. Whether he will have the opportunity anytime soon is the catch. In Powell's home state of Virginia, Republicans hold both Senate seats with strong party support: four-termer John Warner and the newly elected former governor, George Allen. His congressman, Thomas Davis, also in his fourth term, doesn't appear to be leaving anytime soon.
The governor's office is a possibility. Republican James Gilmore's term expires in January, and he can't try for consecutive terms. Powell obviously won't shoot to succeed him this year but could make a run in 2005.
Not that the new FCC chairman will have much free time to ponder his future. With all four fellow commissioners now on board, he will have to bear down to handle a staff decision that counters his public stand on free-speech issues by effectively banning from the radio Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady," one of last year's biggest pop recordings. He also must deal with two old-school Democrats on the commission who, backed by their party's return to power in the Senate, could complicate media deregulation.
Even when it comes to FCC administration, Powell might find things a little tougher than he planned. With the Senate's Democratic takeover, new Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) has balked at Powell's plan to increase fines ten-fold against telcom companies that commit consumer abuses, such as switching carriers without customer permission.
Powell is likely to clash with Hollings on media ownership restrictions. Powell has repeatedly voiced skepticism about the public benefit of the restrictions but nevertheless describes himself as a moderate Republican who "bristles" at the suggestion that all regulation is bad regulation. Instead, the rules that survive should have a proven public benefit, he says.
He insists there's no reason to be afraid of the fights ahead. By all signs, it appears that he relishes his position, and he makes a practice of showing he's having fun. Two weeks ago, before beginning a speech to the federal communications bar, he admitted that he had considered opening with another somersault but decided against it because he "didn't want to become like Lynyrd Skynyrd," the country-rock band whose song "Freebird" has been mockingly requested at nearly every punk and grunge bar band for 20 years.
Even with the duties of running an agency, Powell makes time to watch "too much" TV with his two sons. His favorites are the ones he watches with them: Dexter's Laboratory, Discovery Kids, WAM! and The Disney Channel. He also likes West Wing and ER. His "sappy side" likes ABC's Once and Again, and he laments that he has never seen The Sopranos because his satellite subscription doesn't include HBO.
But what he does seem to see clearly is what is important to him.
"As hard as I work and no matter what judgments I make, this isn't what life is about," he says. "Long after you and I go, the Republic will still be here, and people will still go to work, and they will still watch television."
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