Will the real chairman please stand up?

We'd like to get through a week without having to write an editorial about Michael Copps and indecency, but this won't be it.

The commissioner wrote an op-ed piece in USA Today
last week giving broadcasters an ultimatum: Start working on a programming code by Easter, or else. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has demanded a report from the FCC on "declining standards" and "objectionable programming." We think Copps's threat is hollow. There is no indication he speaks for anyone else on the commission. He is trying to bully broadcasters from his regulatory pulpit. How we feel about the Byrd report depends on the answer he gets from the FCC.

Our immediate concern is that Byrd's fulminations, combined with Copps's public censorship of the demon rum (NBC's liquor ads) and the demon lingerie (ABC's Victoria's Secret sweeps stunt) may embolden censors-without-portfolio to step up their attacks on the industry or, worse, cow the industry into a code.

We'd like to hear from Chairman Michael Powell on the indecency issue. His first speeches as a commissioner rang with the sort of "full First Amendment for broadcasters" endorsements that could have been plucked from this page. But he has remained silent during the Eminem and Sarah Jones controversies while Copps has presumed to speak for the "government" on the issue. We encourage Powell to use the Byrd report to rediscover that voice. In a letter to Powell, offended groups cited Copps as a promising ally, saying they "sensed a new direction" from the FCC. So do we: the wrong one.

All news is local

There may be no stronger public-interest argument for small-market duopolies than the death of local news at several stations (see story, page 29). And there are more to come, says veteran newsman and consultant Hank Price. The economics aren't there to support multiple local newscasts in some markets, he says. News may have once been a cash cow, but it doesn't take an economics major to figure out that the more cows you've got supplying milk, the lower the price it will command in the marketplace.

News, of course, isn't a cow, any more than TV is a toaster. It's one of the things that helps distinguish broadcasting. As Project for Excellence in Journalism's Carl Gottlieb puts it: "People develop relationships with local newspeople. Eliminate all that, and what am I relating to? Jerry Seinfeld? Homer Simpson?"

Currently, the FCC doesn't allow duopolies in markets with fewer than eight "voices." Loosening that restriction might allow some of the stations now punting news to make the numbers work. At least the preservation of news should be added explicitly to the list of waiver conditions for such small-market combos.