Copps's lone voice

Pushing public interest, he swims against deregulatory tide

Michael Copps makes no apologies for pressing broadcasters to serve what he sees as the public's interest. To the newly appointed Democrat, that means the government should prod, if not push, broadcasters to eschew programming that panders to the lowest common denominator and to enlighten even if that hits the bottom line.

He also insists that the government should be a strong check against consolidation to ensure a wide diversity of media ownership.

Outnumbered by three deregulation-minded Republicans (a second Democratic seat is vacant), Copps last week acknowledged that he's swimming against the tide. In a speech to the federal communications bar in Washington, he said to the audience of mostly industry lawyers, "Some people may even be saying, 'Oh, God, spare us another Democratic commissioner's public-interest musings.'"

The 61-year-old Copps then charged head on into the FCC's prevailing winds by attacking agency Chairman Michael Powell's assertions that the public-interest obligation imposed on broadcasters by Congress is so vague that meaningful standards are nearly impossible to craft and that meeting ownership caps imposed to protect the public ought to be sufficient.

But Copps is no gadfly. Rather than spouting dissents as GOP colleagues roll their eyes, the former Senate aide has a powerful ally, his old boss and current Commerce Committee chairman, Ernest Hollings.

Although Copps's staff plays down the influence of his former mentor, the South Carolina lawmaker was the primary force behind his appointment. Judging by Copps's public statements, they are of like mind on many issues, particularly deregulation.

Hollings has the power to make life miserable for Powell by marching him up to Capitol Hill for hearings, Congress's version of the woodshed. Republicans will have to barter with key Senate players to get their agenda through. Hollings now has more power to thwart media deregulation legislatively than any Democrat since 1994, when the party last controlled the Hill.

Copps, who had little reason to deal with communications issues before arriving at the commission in May, has proved a quick study. He also has a lot of experience crafting policy, first as a Senate aide and then as industry lobbyist and Clinton administration trade official.

"He has a sophisticated understanding about how policy is made and is applying that to his role as lone Democratic commissioner," says Cheryl Leanza, of Media Access Project.

Although Copps likely will regularly be voicing a minority view, he's not likely to be labeled "Dr. Dissent," as was commission contrarian Republican Harold-Furchtgott-Roth, who generally refused to engage in the wheeling and dealing of policy compromises.

One example of Copps' flexibility is his grudging acquiescence in the FCC's decision allowing Tribune to purchase WTXX(TV) Waterbury, Conn., even though the deal violated restrictions on TV duopolies and the ban on same-market crossownership of broadcasters and newspapers. Copps agreed despite being "troubled" by the waiver, because WTXX is financially ailing and Tribune was saddled with a tight six-month divestiture deadline. "He's a fair guy," says Tribune lobbyist Shaum Sheehan.