FCC Commissioner Michael Copps appears earnest and well-meaning in his desire to clean up the airwaves. That's what worries us. Were he wearing the robes of a fiery Puritan, it would be easier to spot him in the crowd, but he is not. Still, that doesn't make him any less misguided in his desire to use the FCC's big stick to persuade the media—broadcast and cable—"voluntarily" to adopt a programming code similar to the code thrown out as unconstitutional in the early 1980s.
Copps addressed First Amendment think tank The Media Institute last week, asking for his audience's help to achieve his vision of what everyone ought to be watching on TV. It was rather like a coach giving the halftime speech in the opposing locker room, but, to their credit, nobody reached for a roll of athletic tape or snapped any towels. The code, he said, might cover not only violence and sex but also drugs and alcohol and perhaps excessive advertising. And he was talking cable as well as broadcasting. OK, we know, he's a Democrat and in the FCC minority. But the problem with content meddling is that it seems to cross political boundaries, making bedfellows of the Liebermans and Helmses of the world.
When Chairman Powell took over, we thought a Copps version of reality—we've heard it all before from previous commissions and commissioners—would be at best a minority view with little force. We hope it still is, but, given the recent indecency fines of Eminem (since reversed) and the inexplicable Sara Jones fine (still on the books), we are less sure.
Former Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth was in the audience, which reminded us of a speech he gave as a commissioner several years ago in which he pointed out that the FCC had no business regulating by intimidation, which is what Copps does when he "recommends" a code, saying it is only "voluntary" while controlling broadcasters' future in myriad ways.
With virtually every ownership rule on the table and mergers in the wings—a point Copps also hit upon in his speech—the broadcast and cable industries want much from this FCC. We like to think they could not be tempted to accept a programming code to grease the wheels, but we remember the V-Chip (though we may now be the only ones that do). The industry should reply to Copps with a respectful but unqualified no.
As financial scandals in the general business community multiply like germs in a Petri dish, we want to remind our readers that, while ownership deregulation—as with other freedoms—can provide opportunities for abuse, deregulation and abuse are not synonyms. By the same token, those who have abused the freedoms of deregulation will get no aid or comfort from this page.