Michael J. Copps

Broadcasting in America… in the Public Interest, Part II

VTR Date: April 14, 2012

Michael J. Copps discusses the Fairness Doctrine and telecommunications legislation.


GUEST: Michael J. Copps
AIR DATE: 04/14/2012
VTR: 11/04/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host of The Open Mind.

And this is our second program with Commissioner Michael J. Copps of the Federal Communications Commission.

My guest now leaves the FCC after two terms in office, clearly with much to regret about what the Commission has and has not done to make certain that broadcasting in America functions truly in the public interest.

So now let’s pick up where we left off last time. Commissioner Copps, I’m delighted you stayed. I had the feeling as I suggested at the end of the last program that I wanted to talk about such things as the Fairness Doctrine, equal time … that you really felt that that was old hat … let’s not engage in that. Or that you felt perhaps that it was futile to do so.

COPPS: Let’s have some, some separation here. The public interest is at the heart and soul of the Telecommunications Act. And the public interest is at the heart and soul of what we, as a Commission are supposed to be doing with our oversight of radio and television and, and the cable industry.

So what we need now are policies that reflect the public interest in the 21st century. Part of the public interest is making sure that the media is open to a diversity of inputs.

Part of the public interest is to make sure that the media is reflective of the different cultural contributions to communities of a license so that every body can be heard and that issues of interest to that community are, are being teed up on the programming. It’s very, very important we have that.

I think we should be focusing our discussion on how do we get that in the 21st century. I think probably if we just “tee” it up as “should we bring back the Fairness Doctrine”, which the FCC recently completed taking off the books … everybody thought it was already dead and buried, but I guess they decided to bury it again, just to make sure it was gone.

HEFFNER: How did it do that by the way? How did it bury it again?

COPPS: Ah, I think the Commission went through some of the rules that it thought it had eliminated years ago and this would have been eliminated, as you know, back in the 1980’s and found out that somebody had forgotten, actually, to take the pencil and the scissor or whatever they do to cut them out of the regulations … so they made sure that the, the scissors work (laugh) this time.

HEFFNER: So much for fairness?

COPPS: So much for the Fairness Doctrine … yes. I hope not, not for fairness. Because all of those things are important … so … I want to bring back guidelines that are not onerous, but that are reflective of the public interest. I think that a station owner or a broadcaster has a obligation to out in the community of license and talk to the people who live there about the kind of programming they want to see.

We used to require that back when stations were locally owned and the local station owner went to the barbershop, went to the bakery, went to the grocery store … knew his community … was part of it … we still said … you have to go out and talk to people, make sure you’re hitting everybody and, and reflecting their interests.

Now the station owner could be 2,000 miles away and we say “Don’t worry, you don’t have to do that any more”.

So I think we have to have that kind of community discovery, I think we have to have something in our licensing system that is news-centric …

HEFFNER: What do you mean …

COPPS: I think that’s our shortfall right now. Is a shortfall in news and information … the lack of investigative journalism, the newsrooms that have been cut back as a result of consolidation and as a result of this bottom line quarterly report mentality that now drives stations.

Now it didn’t used to … it didn’t use to be that way. There’s a famous story about Bill Paley back in the early days of CBS gathering all of his news folks around and said, “I want you to go out and do the news, don’t worry about the cost, don’t worry about the money, I’ve got Jack Benny to do the entertainment on, on the network and I’ll, I’ll take care of the rest”.

We don’t have too, too many of that … too many people with that kind of approach or telling their news people that now. We don’t (laugh) we don’t have that many news people to tell it to.

HEFFNER: But that was before Don Hewitt proved that you didn’t have to make news into a loss leader …

COPPS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that news could produce profit. And once that was known …


HEFFNER: … how you gonna keep them down on the farm after that?

COPPS: Well, now it’s the profit leader rather than the loss leader.


COPPS: And, but we’ve paid an enormous price for that and I think there are some, some signs that that kind of news is not … certainly is not fulfilling it’s public interest obligations and probably not meeting the expectations of a lot of people right now either.


COPPS: Citizens.

HEFFNER: … but when the news does appear … do you feel that there’s no room for fairness and a Fairness Doctrine?

COPPS: Of course there’s room for fairness. There has to be fairness …

HEFFNER: But not a “Doctrine” …

COPPS: … there has to be diversity. I think if we bring back something that was passed … or initiated, I should say, back in the fifties or whenever it was … sixties … a long time ago … in, in exactly that guise, we’re never going to get any public interest kind of responsibility back.

So, as I say, I don’t want it to be onerous … I would, I would be the first to say that the Fairness Doctrine as it existed at the time, was not as onerous as it remains in people’s memories and some broadcasters memories right now.

I mean, the Fairness Doctrine never required that every viewpoint be reflected in programming or that everybody would have access to it. And it left a good bit of discretion to the … to the broadcaster. Yet there are some of the old time independent broadcasters whose opinion I respect, who would tell me it had a chilling effect on what they did.

Now I wasn’t there, I don’t know if that’s true or false, but I don’t want something that has a, a chilling effect on, in their innovation and, and doing … but I do think we have to have guidelines that make sure that we tee up a diversity of programming for the people and that we reflect local communities, local cultures and I think … I think we’ve got a problem going beyond localities.

As you know, the FCC does not regulate networks per se, but I think we have … if you talk about lack of news and investigative journalism, that’s as much a network problem as a local news problem … not more so.

I mean what’s … it’s interesting … people will say “Now, well look at all the news we have right now compared with what we had 30 or 40 years ago. All these outlets”.

And I usually say, “You know, I remember the first news I saw on TV which was probably back in 1947 or ’48 on our little 7 inch Motorola television set in black and white. It was John Cameron Swayze doing the evening news.

John Cameron Swayze had a bureau in London and a bureau in Paris, a bureau in Rome, a bureau in Tokyo, bureau in Bonn and bureaus all around the world with people staffing those bureaus. Where are those network bureaus right now?

Most of them don’t exist. If they do, a stringer comes in in a lot of them … ahh … to cover the programs. You don’t know if you have a trustworthy news source or not. So quaint as those days may have seemed, in some ways they were producing better news back, back then.

And I, I can’t tell you how much I feel that having these kind of guidelines on the book would make a difference because I’ve talked to a lot of folks like Walter Cronkite and Marvin Kalb and Ted Koppel and Dan Rather … people there … who said it made a difference back then when they knew that there was somebody watching … that there was an FCC that was watching and then at least had the potential to take action … whether they took it or not … at least we talked about it, at least we talked about as a public value. And now that’s … now that’s gone.

We’ve got to get back to that sort of … that sort of arrangement when … where people who are given free use of the airways and an opportunity to make a wonderful living … and who in many cases do a wonderful job … I’m not the anti-broadcast guy at all. I love broadcasting and I think there are lots of small, independent broadcasters still out there in whose breasts the fire of the public interest continues to burn brightly.

But in this marketplace in which we live with its unforgiving expectations, it’s more and more difficult for those people to do their job. It’s almost impossible for them to do their job … until we … until we learn to say “No” to some of these mega-mergers and until we get back to a way to express some public interest and have a licensing regime that makes a difference … ahhh … until we do that we’re going to continue on this slide to less and less news and this slide that “dumbs down” too many, too many issues at a cost, as I’ve said before, that this democracy cannot afford to pay.

HEFFNER: But I want to find out from you what you mean by “guidelines”, the phrase you’ve used. You don’t want … limit free speech … what do you mean …

COPPS: No, I don’t want to limit free speech, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate for the FCC to say, “Well, what proportion of your money are you … are you investing some proportion of money into the news? Is it going up or going down? Have you closed a news bureau since you … have you closed your news operation since you were in … were licensed last time?

HEFFNER: Mr. Commissioner …

COPPS: … have you expanded it?

HEFFNER: … Mr. Commissioner … I closed my news bureau. So what? What do you have to do with that?

COPPS: Well …

HEFFNER: What do you do when, when somebody says that to you?

COPPS: I’ve been at the FCC for 10 years and we have not taken away a license on public interest grounds in that entire time. Nor for the 20 years preceding my arrival there.

HEFFNER: Is that good or bad?

COPPS: That’s awful.

HEFFNER: You mean you should have swatted …

COPPS: That’s terrible.

HEFFNER: … someone.

COPPS: If people cannot use the, the license that they are given to benefit the public interest … I say “use it or lose it”. Take it away, give it to somebody who will use it. Of course.

HEFFNER: Well, Commissioner I’ve been using it and my rating for my reality programs are stupendous, look at that and think of the money I’m making. Now how can you say …

COPPS: Oh, I …

HEFFNER: … I’m not serving some public’s interest.

COPPS: Well, I don’t know. I can serve you a bowl of spinach and a, and a Big Mac here and you’re probably going to take the Big Mac …

HEFFNER: Absolutely. And what business is of the FCC …

COPPS: Well, it’s not very good for your health.

HEFFNER: But what good is … what, what business is it of the FCC?

COPPS: I think it’s the business of the FCC because the FCC is responsible for overseeing the stewardship of the airwaves. The airwaves belong to the American people, it’s a public resource. There’s not an airwave in the United States of America that belongs to any company, any special interest or any individual.

HEFFNER: Okay, and when I don’t do what you think or what the Commission thinks sitting “embank” and it’s a unanimous vote what do you do … you take away my license?

COPPS: That’s what I’ve … that’s what I said, yes.

HEFFNER: But the Commission itself had never done that. Or had …

COPPS: Very seldom.

HEFFNER: … very seldom.

COPPS: You, you, you’ll remember the case in the civil rights …

HEFFNER: The Red Lion …

COPPS: No. There was a broadcasting … case … WBLT … or whatever …


COPPS: … it was … and … but we took that away only when then, not Supreme Court Justice, but Circuit Judge Warren Burger … ordered us to take that license away … we kept refusing … “Oh, we’re not going to take it away … it might be segregationist, it might be cutting off Martin Luther King news … and all that stuff …”. And finally he said, “Take the license away”. After about three times, we finally did that.

HEFFNER: And then Red Lion.

COPPS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And nothing. What makes you think the Commission would do it, could do it within the framework of our Constitutional system?

COPPS: I mean … you need three votes of the Commission to enforce the statute that Congress constitutionally passed and the President constitutionally signed and is part of the law of the land.


COPPS: … the term public interest can mean it’s a necessity. I had my staff look this up years ago. And I forget the exact number … it appears like 112 or 115 times in the statute. When Congress tells me something … I used to work on the hill … if Congress tells me something 115 times … I think they’re probably serious about it.

HEFFNER: And now? Congress isn’t telling you that.

COPPS: I think they’re … well, it’s the law. They don’t have to tell me that … it’s the law of the land.

HEFFNER: But you tell me that the law is ignored. You’re, you’re telling … you’re describing this god-awful situation …

COPPS: I’m saying that is the law and that the law should be enforced … and you need three votes of the Commission to enforce the law, and I think the, the only way we’re going to get to that is with some public pressure … people saying “Enforce the law and do something about the kind of broadcasting that may offend back in my community of license.”

HEFFNER: What do you think that the High Court would do with that now? I’m not talking about the Burger court.

COPPS: I’m not going to make any, any predictions. But I don’t think that that has to be the, the thing that scares us away from serving the public interest. I think if I do my job and implement the law … and I take an oath to implement the law, the statute … not my own personal opinions, but the statue … I think if we, if we do that …than I’ll take my chances and I might get turned back, but in the meantime I’m going to, I’m going to do what I think is right. I’m going to do what I think the law compels me to do and hope, in the final analysis, that it will turn out all right in the courts.

HEFFNER: You know … you know I’m the last person in the world to rain on that parade, yet I guess I’m so discouraged by what I see … I … and I read your speeches and I know that you’re absolutely right … that there has been an abandonment of this cause … for 30 years. And I have to ask myself why does he think it’s going to be reversed?

COPPS: Well, I think … I think it can be. I think the licensing guidelines that I’ve talked about … we could … we could put those together and promulgate them tomorrow with a vote at the Commission. It doesn’t depend upon the President signing anything. It doesn’t depend upon Congress passing any new legislation.

HEFFNER: It doesn’t?

COPPS: We have the authority to do that.

HEFFNER: It does depend upon the President nominating Commissioners who will do that? Doesn’t it?

COPPS: Yes, it does.

HEFFNER: And the Senate approving them.

COPPS: Right. Well, we’ve got a couple new Commissions I’ll be working to proselytizing among … among them.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen? Seriously.

COPPS: With regard to this whole issue of the future of licensing? I think inevitably we’re going to have the discussion that I’m talking about having as a country.

Media’s changing so rapidly .. .the technology of it’s changing and the Internet is going to play an ever more important role in, in how media is produced and how media is disseminated amongst the people.

So I don’t think you can, I don’t think you can avoid it. And I think there is a feeling abroad and many people in the land … I’m not saying it’s 85% of the American people, but I think there are millions and millions of people in the Untied States who understand that the news and information infrastructure that we have right now is not serving them well.

That we are not getting the information and news in depth that we need. And this is not a partisan issue wherever I go and I’ve been … over the ten years I guess … probably to a hundred town meetings around the, around the country.

One o’clock in the morning, some of them go eight, nine hours to one o’clock in the morning and you’ll have a hall filled with 300, 400 people with an open mike … saying “Something is wrong and we need to change …”

That why we got this 3 million letters that I referenced earlier with regard to when Chairman Powell tried to loosen the ownership rules. And I think that, I think that concern is out there.

Things can change pretty quick in, in a country. The political landscape can change pretty quickly. You’ve seen a little bit of that right now with some of the demonstrations going on and I’m … you know …

HEFFNER: What do you think … do you think there’s a … there’s going to be a connection drawn between the 99 … not 9-9-9 …

COPPS: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … but the ninety-nine and one … and the issue that you’re talking about? Is it all part of the same thing?

COPPS: I think that the country is in sufficiently dire straights that we are going to have an era of reform. More significant reform, you know, on some of these issues in the years ahead than we have, than we have had in the past.

I think events will probably compel it unless we have solutions to some of these problems that are confronting the country right now. And I think people will understand that to get on top of those problems … whether they’re job creation or environment control or energy dependence or health insurance or creating equal opportunity for people … that we have to have some kind of better understanding of those currents out there than we have right now.

But it is interesting to note that a movement like this pops up, like we’ve had in the last several weeks and talking about the polls, we’ve got to take the polls and a lot of people think there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s maybe … maybe they’re on to something.

So you have to be very careful in predicting the, the future of the American people. You have to be very careful about saying “Well, we’re never going to, we’re never going to change.”

HEFFNER: You have a kind of “populist” streak to you, don’t you?

COPPS: Yeah, I think Mary Baker Eddy … “raise less corn and more hell” … I think that’s kind of the essence of populism.

I think the, the American people have a populist heritage to draw on … progressive heritage to draw upon. And I think it’s time that that comes forward.

HEFFNER: And your feeling obviously is that consolidation hasn’t done the kind of damage to our understanding and our needs and our feelings that would preclude that understanding from being effective.

COPPS: Well, that’s not a lot of damage, but I think there is … there’s still an understanding out there in spite of the awful damage that consolidation has inflicted, in spite of the dereliction of public interest responsibility that the Federal Communications Commission has displayed over the last thirty or forty years. Yeah, there’s still something inside of people that responds to the need of reform, the need for fairness, the need for equity …

HEFFNER: Fairness?


HEFFNER: But you don’t want to deal with the Fairness Doctrine.

COPPS: I do … I want to deal with the public interest in equity and fairness. I don’t want to bring back something that’s written fifty or sixty years ago and fight about that because that just derails us from having the discussion that we need to have about what is the proper media policy for the 21st century on a media environment that’s substantially different than it was then. Not only the radio and the television, but broadband and Internet, too.

HEFFNER: Is Section 315a still in effect?

COPPS: It is …

HEFFNER: Equal time.

COPPS: …it is still Section 3a15 is the expression of the public interest … equal time, yes.

HEFFNER: What’s happened in terms of the debates that we see? I mean I know that all the candidates aren’t there and the requirement that I remember … that every legally qualified candidate be given … if others are given … or be sold, if others are sold … equal time. What’s happened to that? Where’s the FCC there?

COPPS: Well, I don’t think we’ve anything before us particularly on that issue right now. That’s a difficult question when you start talking about debates like that … if you have 50 candidates, I guess, or 60 candidates step up to be heard on the debate.

HEFFNER: But the law, I gather, is still on the books.

COPPS: Section 315 is, is on the books, yes.

HEFFNER: And the equal time?

COPPS: With the kind … with the kind of granularity that, that you’re talking about … no, I think it’s a more general approach.

HEFFNER: So that you’re not concerned about … well, I shouldn’t put it that way … I should ask you … what your concern …

COPPS: I think broadcasters …

HEFFNER: … is …

COPPS: … have a responsibility. I think media has a responsibility to be inclusive and to offer opportunities for the expression of diverse points of, of view.

HEFFNER: What about candidates?

COPPS: Whether that means … pardon?

HEFFNER: What about candidates? What about the debates are you happy with what’s happened to these seemingly formal debates? Does it conform to what you think should be the FCC policy?

COPPS: Well, what’s happened to the debates and what the FCC policy is are probably two different questions. I think the debates have just kind of degenerated into … this is a purely personal opinion … a lot of political theater and, and “gotcha” kind of, kind of politics … I hope they’re informing the American people. It’s good that people watch debates … I guess any debates. We could all wish for a higher quality debates, but again we don’t dictate content or influence the content of those, those debates.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you one thing because I know we don’t have much time left. The recent indecency question … and this whole business of fining CBS for … I don’t even know how to call it … I didn’t see it … but a brief glimpse, I gather of less than a second, of female nudity, seems to have gotten FCC in an uproar.

COPPS: I think the whole indecency regime is … kind of in question right now … the Supreme Court is hearing a couple of cases having to do with indecency. Nobody knows how they’re going to decide. They could decide on very narrow grounds or they could cast their net more widely to include some of the broader indecency decisions … specific, or even to, to something as broadly important as the, as the Red Lion case which supports a lot of the public interest things that, that we do.

But indecency, again, is part of the telecommunications act … it’s part of the, part of the statute … .you take an oath to enforce the statute, so it is still there. The court has said that the Commission … in so far as this so-called “fleeting indecency” went had not given adequate notice to broadcasters that “fleeting indecency” might be as actionable as something that was less than “fleeting” and longer lasting.

So that’s kind of the question that’s up there. But in … practically speaking in putting the brakes on the “fleeting” indecency right now and while this is all in abeyance, it’s pretty much slowed down indecency decision-making at the commission until we find out which way the Supreme Court is going to handle …

HEFFNER: Any indications at all in terms of past …


HEFFNER: … judgments by this court?


HEFFNER: What would you like to have happen?

COPPS: I think there is room to, to have an approach toward indecency that during those hours when children are watching, discourages the kind of indecency that a lot of people find offensive. I also happen to think that some of the violence, although this has never been included under the, the indecency, some of the gratuitous and kind of sickening violence is probably not something that’s advisably shown to kids during those hours … there’s plenty of other opportunities for that … so, I’m not saying out with the regime, it’s still part of the law.

HEFFNER: Whatever is part of the law … there it is. Thank you so much for joining me again, Commissioner Copps.

COPPS: Thank you. Privilege to be on.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.