Starting today, the FCC will be down to four members with the departure of Gloria Tristani, finally tiring, as we pointed out last week, of swimming so strongly against a deregulatory current. (Her term wouldn't have expired until 2003.) We cannot claim to be shedding copious tears at her exit. Though fiercely independent, her fiercely independent pursuit of perceived media vice was no virtue. She had lately pushed for more anti-indecency enforcement and was never reluctant to advocate a more activist role for the FCC in content, be it sexual content, violence or children's TV. Her heart was in the right place, we suspect, but she seemed always heading toward an in loco parentis
role for the FCC.
As for her successor in the Democratic seat, several names have surfaced with both Washington and industry experience, or the administration may instead go outside the Beltway for a candidate not on anybody's radar screen. Whatever the choice, the administration should resist the temptation to put another content cop on the beat. We extend that caution to Copps already on the beat: new commissioner Michael Copps, who last week seemed to be walking in Tristani's footsteps in suggesting ways to make it easier to file, track and investigate content complaints. FCC résumés should always include a healthy respect for the First Amendment. Such respect for law is the best insurance against extremes of content regulation from either side of the political spectrum.
We were struck by a Fisher Communications statement about restructuring (Station Break, page 24). It discussed 10% operating cutbacks—which, the company says, will include reductions in staff. But it also spelled out the possible downsides of downsizing, including the potential degradation of its broadcasts, loss of key sales personnel, "unacceptably damaged employee morale," and unrealistic workloads. If any of those proved to be the unintended consequences of its actions, said Fisher, it might have to "scale back or stop entirely its cost-reduction effort."
We certainly hope all the companies we cover take such factors into consideration. Too often, we've written stories of midsize to massive layoffs—
an oft-misused term considering that workers are unlikely to be laid back on when things get better. But our memories are not so short that we don't remember employees as well as mid-level management complaining of low morale and unrealistic workloads even when profit levels were soaring. Most of the staff reductions we've seen pay lip service to the corporate pain required but are made by companies still well in the black. Perhaps we show a 1960s naïveté, but we like to believe that media companies recognize that they are more than moneymaking entities and their success is gauged by more than the bottom line.