Michael Powell joined the FCC as a commissioner in 1997 waving the flag for full First Amendment rights for broadcasters, arguing that they deserved to be on an equal footing with the print press and that the government should get its nose out of broadcast content. We praised him effusively on this page.
What a difference a breast makes. By the time now-Chairman Powell announced late last week that he will leave in March, he had contributed to a history of the most onerous regulatory crackdown on broadcast content ever.
During his tenure, Powell also propounded the marketplace philosophy that, in the Internet era, spectrum scarcity is a red herring. He tried to give broadcasters freedom to buy more stations, as well as different combinations of broadcast, cable and print properties. That business remains unfinished.
Arguably, his third priority was advancing the technological revolution by pushing the transition to digital TV and expanding the availability of broadband services, including getting broadband to schools and underserved areas. His opponents would argue that he was actually working against himself when the commission ruled that cable companies didn't have to open their broadband lines to competing Internet service providers.
It is an irony that the very information revolution that Powell celebrated and tried to expand actually proved to be his undoing in two areas near and dear to him: ownership deregulation and reduced government oversight of media content.
It was, after all, Internet-driven groups like MoveOn.org that helped generate widespread opposition to Powell's attempt to massively deregulate broadcasting. Then the avalanche of e-mailed complaints about the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident helped fuel FCC and congressional fervor for tighter controls on broadcast content.
Powell was listing the indecency crackdown as an accomplishment last week, saying his commission had “strengthened decency on the public airwaves” and “enforced decency laws in response to coarsening of content in broadcasting.” Of course, the commission strengthened “decency” by frightening broadcasters into submission through vague standards and large penalties. Last Veteran's Day, 66 ABC affiliates would not broadcast Saving Private Ryan for fear that the language in that riveting film could result in an FCC fine. That is not something Chairman Powell should be proud of. Those same stations played the movie without fear once before, when the FCC was, itself, much surer about its own regulations or at least less ready to regulate at the drop of an epithet.
Powell has professed to be a regulator just doing his job. There is an indecency statute on the books, after all, and his boss, Congress, put the screws to him this year. But he didn't do a lot of protesting, either.
In the list of accomplishments Powell's office released, his failed attempt at a deregulatory overhaul of ownership regulations gets a single line: “Conducted most comprehensive review of media marketplace in FCC history.”
Powell's legacy is mixed, and the last chapter has yet to be written since he is sticking around for key decisions on multicast and dual must-carry, and his plan to speed the return of analog TV spectrum. But whatever successes he has had on the technology side will likely be overshadowed by the legal smackdown on ownership and the indecency hysteria he did nothing to quiet.
We hope his replacement has an equally strong commitment to the First Amendment and then doesn't waver.