Washington

An Exit Interview With Michael Copps

The outgoing FCC Commissioner talks to B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton 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. 12/05/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

A Friendly Farewell

Both colleagues and occasional combatants weighed in last week on the departure of Michael Copps. While some of these folks have not always agreed with the outspoken Democrat, there was near-universal agreement that he's been a respected, thoughtful, passionate proponent of his views.

Republican FCC commissioner Robert McDowell: "Mike has been a wonderful colleague. While he and I have different philosophies about how government should approach things, we have always had the best relationship one could imagine. We have never exchanged a cross word, and we never debate issues we know the other is hopeless on from the other's perspective. And it ends up, statistically, that we agree the vast majority of the time. During my five-and-a-half years here, he has been the adult in the room many times. As acting chairman, he was always transparent and professional about how things should operate and what he was thinking, and I have a great deal of respect for him."

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith: "While we occasionally disagreed with his approach to regulation, we appreciated commissioner Copps' unwavering belief in the importance of free and local broadcasting. He will be remembered as a spirited advocate and one of the FCC's most effective members. We wish him many years of good health and great cheer."

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell: "The American public owes a debt of gratitude to Michael Copps for his unwavering commitment to public service. The FCC is a better institution because of Michael's insight, passionate representation and love for the agency and its people. Michael will truly be missed, and I'm proud to call him my friend."

Craig Aaron, president, Free Press: "When Michael Copps first came to the FCC, he had some crazy ideas. He believed the public airwaves belonged to the public and should serve their interest. Then he started barnstorming the country and, in every town, people turned out by the hundreds to talk about the media and to find-often to their surprise-that there was at least one public servant sitting on the stage not just listening but challenging them to be louder and do more. Michael Copps is an exceptional public servant, but he shouldn't be the exception. If we had five Michael Copps' on the FCC-or dare I say, even three-we would have a much different media system and set of priorities. That means he's leaving big shoes to fill. But more importantly, he's leaving behind a movement, much of which he inspired, that has seen millions speak out against runaway media consolidation, for net neutrality, and much more. So I'm not really sad that Michael Copps is leaving. Because while appointments may expire at the FCC, the calling of public service doesn't come with term limits. And I suspect he's nowhere close to done with this fight."

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn: "I often refer to commissioner Michael Copps as my "favorite professor," because to me, he has the most effective way of expressing his sentiments and beliefs that I have ever seen in the public utilities space. Whenever he approaches a microphone, a hush falls over the room. And when he begins to speak, you're instantly drawn into his message. Even if you disagree with what he says, you come away enlightened by masterful oratory, impressed by a well prepared government official and moved by the passion of one of the most committed and gifted public servants of our time. I will miss serving with him greatly, but I gain some solace in the fact that I had a unique opportunity to serve with such a distinguished and dedicated human being." -- JE

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 the
FCC 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 jeggerton@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

A Friendly Farewell

Both colleagues and occasional combatants weighed in last week on the departure of Michael Copps. While some of these folks have not always agreed with the outspoken Democrat, there was near-universal agreement that he's been a respected, thoughtful, passionate proponent of his views.

Republican FCC commissioner Robert McDowell: "Mike has been a wonderful colleague. While he and I have different philosophies about how government should approach things, we have always had the best relationship one could imagine. We have never exchanged a cross word, and we never debate issues we know the other is hopeless on from the other's perspective. And it ends up, statistically, that we agree the vast majority of the time. During my five-and-a-half years here, he has been the adult in the room many times. As acting chairman, he was always transparent and professional about how things should operate and what he was thinking, and I have a great deal of respect for him."

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith: "While we occasionally disagreed with his approach to regulation, we appreciated commissioner Copps' unwavering belief in the importance of free and local broadcasting. He will be remembered as a spirited advocate and one of the FCC's most effective members. We wish him many years of good health and great cheer."

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell: "The American public owes a debt of gratitude to Michael Copps for his unwavering commitment to public service. The FCC is a better institution because of Michael's insight, passionate representation and love for the agency and its people. Michael will truly be missed, and I'm proud to call him my friend."

Craig Aaron, president, Free Press: "When Michael Copps first came to the FCC, he had some crazy ideas. He believed the public airwaves belonged to the public and should serve their interest. Then he started barnstorming the country and, in every town, people turned out by the hundreds to talk about the media and to find-often to their surprise-that there was at least one public servant sitting on the stage not just listening but challenging them to be louder and do more. Michael Copps is an exceptional public servant, but he shouldn't be the exception. If we had five Michael Copps' on the FCC-or dare I say, even three-we would have a much different media system and set of priorities. That means he's leaving big shoes to fill. But more importantly, he's leaving behind a movement, much of which he inspired, that has seen millions speak out against runaway media consolidation, for net neutrality, and much more. So I'm not really sad that Michael Copps is leaving. Because while appointments may expire at the FCC, the calling of public service doesn't come with term limits. And I suspect he's nowhere close to done with this fight."

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn: "I often refer to commissioner Michael Copps as my "favorite professor," because to me, he has the most effective way of expressing his sentiments and beliefs that I have ever seen in the public utilities space. Whenever he approaches a microphone, a hush falls over the room. And when he begins to speak, you're instantly drawn into his message. Even if you disagree with what he says, you come away enlightened by masterful oratory, impressed by a well prepared government official and moved by the passion of one of the most committed and gifted public servants of our time. I will miss serving with him greatly, but I gain some solace in the fact that I had a unique opportunity to serve with such a distinguished and dedicated human being." -- JE

September
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