Michael J. Copps

Broadcasting in America… in the Public Interest

VTR Date: April 7, 2012

Michael J. Copps discusses journalism and its interests' intersection with money.


GUEST: Michael J. Copps
AIR DATE: 04/07/2012
VTR: 11/04/2011

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

And this program – about broadcasting in America in the public interest – was occasioned by a visit my wife and I took last September to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, New York and to St. James Episcopal Church there where FDR was baptized and where he worshipped…and where the Roosevelt Institute awarded once again its distinguished Four Freedoms Medals, thus marking the 70th Anniversary of FDR’s memorable Four Freedoms Speech in 1941.

Well, today’s Open Mind guest, Michael J. Copps – for a decade now a dedicated and extraordinarily articulate member of the Federal Communications Commission – accepted the Roosevelt Institute’s highly valued “Freedom of Speech and Expression” Award that day with an absolutely inspiring speech.

“In our own generation, in our own country”, Commissioner Copps insisted, “…these Freedoms have been pushed back by special interests that have ravaged …journalism…and left in their path of destruction a diminished and too often dumbed-down civic dialogue.

“Freedom of Speech and Expression”, my guest continued, “suffers from the excesses of financial speculators who are more interested in the bottom line on the quarterly report than in quality news…

“[It] is further impaired by a federal government absent without leave for more than 30 years from its responsibility to protect the public interest.

“Instead”, Commissioner Copps boldly offered, “government – and I speak specifically of the Federal Communications Commission where I work – has abetted the decline of our small “d” democratic dialogue by…failing to insist that the people’s airwaves serve the people’s interest.”

In an even more recent speech, my guest – now leaving the FCC – said, “Let me be very candid. Two years ago, I thought we would be well on our way to a better media landscape by [now]. We had a new team in town, majorities where we needed them, and opportunities galore to correct media mistakes of previous years…[Still] Whatever the cause, the hopes we harbored and the dreams we dreamed of a better media seem little closer to realization now than they were then.”

So, Mr. Commissioner … tell us, what happened?

COPPS: Well, first of all let me thank you so much for having me on the show.

Let me explain the point that I usually am hatless at affairs like this, especially indoors, but I had a little surgery that did disfigurement to my head yesterday, so I thought it would be more pleasant for your viewers to view me this way.

What happened was … I’m a believer in cycles in American history … the old Arthur Schlesinger thesis and we waited for a long time, for a period of reform to come around … many, many years.

And finally I thought we had it in 2008. And I think in some ways we did, but insofar as the media issues, which are my passion at the, at the FCC … we haven’t come close to making the progress or even a down payment on the progress that I want to make.

Our news and information infrastructure has failed us at a time when this country cannot afford to have its news and information infrastructure fail them.

HEFFNER: Well, tell me … given the hopes and aspirations why didn’t it happen in the Obama Administration?

COPPS: Well, I think it’s a matter of priorities … I wish I could say that I was sufficiently eloquent to gather three votes of the Commission for everything that I wanted to do.

We have some jurisdiction, as you know, over the broadcast industry. I think a good down payment on mini-reform would be to have a licensing system that actually had some, some meaning attached to it and some teeth in it.

Used to be, years ago, you will recall this, when licenses were given to broadcast stations for a period of three years … at the end of three years they came into, to get re-licensed and we had a little series of 12 or 14 guidelines … I’m not saying it was a “golden age” and they were beautifully enforced … but we had some guidelines.

And we put the guidelines here and the application there and kind of went down the, the list … are they communicating with their listeners in their markets of, of service. Are they reflecting diversity in those areas, are they showing news, political broadcasts, all the rest? And you didn’t have to meet every one of those, but if a station was making a good faith effort to be a good citizen and to pay back its free use of the air waves … they got their license renewed.

Fast forward … now every eight years a broadcaster sends in the little postcard basically and … no questions asked … usually without even looking at the, at the public file … they get that license, they get that license back.

And what’s happened along the way really … and you alluded to it in the introductions, too, failure in the private sector … and gross failure in the public sector.

The private sector failure was one that came to be seen in many other sectors other than just media and telecommunications more recently.

It was this ungodly excessive period of consolidation, a few mega media companies gobbling up more and more stations, closing newsrooms, firing journalists, dumbing down the news process blessed by successive Federal Communications Commissions. I don’t think we … we … ever met a merger, really, that we didn’t like …

HEFFNER: You didn’t like.

COPPS: … we really didn’t like. And, you know, the merger parade continues marching on.

But in addition to that failure and that misbehavior, I would call it, really, in the private sector … was a dereliction in the public sector, walking away from all of these public interest responsibilities.

President Reagan, newly installed in 1981, sent us an FCC Chairman who said, “You know, the television set is really nothing but a toaster with pictures”. Just another appliance. And that’s how they proceeded to conduct their public interest oversight of that appliance … nothing at all. Again, shortened the licensing period, but more than that did away with the, with the guidelines … there were no expectations. And without expectations, I think we invited the dumbing down of the news … we invited that destruction of our news infrastructure.

HEFFNER: You think that could be reversed?

COPPS: I think it can be reversed, I think it’s going to be uphill, but I think we have to make the effort, because the travails that did so much damage to old media … traditional media … newspapers, radio and television … I think those trends are coming to be seen in the new media, too. That kind of consolidation, that kind of control by a few. And if we allow the dynamism and the life of that Internet … broadband and the Internet which opens up such incredible opportunities for, for every American … if we allow that to go down that road of consolidation, I think it would be a historical tragedy of major proportions.

HEFFNER: But where and how … I understand in terms of broadcasting …

COPPS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … licensed broadcasters, I understand how you … the FCC ….

COPPS: Right.

HEFFNER: … ran out on its obligations …

COPPS: Right.

HEFFNER: … there. How does it assume such obligations with the newer media?

COPPS: Well, you can’t assume them, we have to have a public discussion about them. Most of the debate in the last few years has been about access to the Internet and that’s where the Federal Communications does have some authority, because it’s telephone companies and the cable companies have been told that access to the Internet and that if that access is going to be controlled by a few mega companies … in most areas you have, at most, two choices … and some areas only one choice of how you’re going to get to that Internet.

If you’re going to allow that to continue with the possibility of erecting toll booths along the way, you’re really closing off access to the Internet. So the first thing is to provide that access and to ensure that access.

Longer term we have to have a discussion in this country, and it won’t be a simple one, about how does the new media reflect the public interest? Nobody wants to regulate the Internet; nobody wants to sit there with the green eye shade overseeing everything everybody does … you couldn’t if you wanted to because it’s a global phenomenon all that … but at some point, if that’s where our programming is going, if that’s where our news and information is going … then that is invested with tremendous responsibility.

The public interest is there and we have to have an intelligent and a rational discussion about how we, how we insure that there is news, that there is information that there access, that there is diversity and, and all the rest. I’m not saying there’s a silver bullet or any easy answer to that, but an intelligent democracy needs to discuss it.

HEFFNER: But I gather you are saying that an intelligent democracy, willing to discuss it and its government or its bureaucracy, if you will, discussing it, can arrive … you, you see room there for even having these new devices serve the public interest.

COPPS: Oh, absolutely and they should serve … I mean our new Town Square should be paved with broadband bricks. And it should open up an opportunity for people … not just to speak, I mean they’re … I mean there, there are very few barriers to getting on the Internet.

A lot of barriers to being heard. How do you actually get heard? How does …

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

COPPS: Well …

HEFFNER: … that there are barriers …

COPPS: … anyone of us can sit down at a keyboard and write a message and send it into the blogasphere or, or wherever. But how do we have any guarantee anybody’s seeing that? How do we know this is a vehicle that even encourages that sort of … dissemination or reception to news and information.

One half of one percent, I am told, in the hits on, on the Internet … they have to do with news. And a goodly percentage, a vast majority of them, like 80% or 90% is news from traditional sources. So when people say, “Well, this fellow Copps, he’s just old time or he’s talking about radio and television, you know, he ought to get with the future.”

It’s a seamless thing. Over 90% of the news that you and I see and hear, look at every day … over 90% of it comes from that newspaper newsroom or the television broadcast newsroom.

The problem is, is there is so much less of it because of all the consolidation, because of that “oh, we’ve got to pay off this huge transaction fee now to … for, for the conglomeration that we just went through”. And the first thing that gets “got” is what … it’s the newsroom … it’s the reporter.

So we’ve got, in this country, thousands and thousands, probably tens of thousands of reporters who are walking the street in search of a job when they should be working the beat in search of a story.

You just shutter to think about the stories that are not being told every day that this democracy needs to know. That people who are not being held accountable, that need to be held accountable. You’ve got 27 states, I am told, that don’t have an accredited reporter on Capitol Hill any more.

How do you hold people accountable, how do you hold the, the Congress accountable? And they’re, they’re the first ones … Senator Dodd gave a news conference, I think, shortly before he left and said, “You know, it used to be 11 reporters covering me pretty much, pretty much every day. No longer.”

I can see it at the FCC, you know. You want to hold your institutions accountable, too. When I first got there ten years ago and we had a press conference, there’s be … you know … we’d fill up my, my office with reporters. Now there’s very few working on this regular beat, and the ones that do are usually the corporate media who are, are reporting stories back to the company interests or the special interests or the lawyers in town.

HEFFNER: And how much … just between you and me …

COPPS: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … how much of a protest have you heard from the public over that phenomenon?

COPPS: Depends what the issue is. I think there is deep and legitimate concern across this country about it … and I, I can back that up to some extent.

When I got to the Commission, then Chairman, Michael Powell was trying to loosen the media ownership rules that we had so that a few companies could gobble up more and more stations.

And I think the majority at that time found “Well, this is really an arcane issue, nobody outside the Beltway is very interested in this. So, you know, we, we don’t …

HEFFNER: We’ll let it go?

COPPS: … my colleague Jonathan Adelstein and I said, “We want to have some hearings”. And we went out and held a couple on own limited resources … Chairman Powell did one or two … but he didn’t want to do a lot of them around the country.

But we latched on where there were members of Congress who wanted to have Town Meetings or consumer advocacy causes that wanted to have hearings.

So, Jonathan and I probably went, over the years, those two or three years right in there probably 40 or 50 or 60 of these, these meetings. Before that summer was over three million people … three million people wrote to the FCC and Congress and said “We don’t want any part of these rules …” that by then Chairman Powell had managed to get through on a three to two vote.

But citizen action still counts. Congress heard that, the Senate voted to overturn those rules. The House was debating whether to vote, when the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia sent those rules back to the Commission and said, “You did a pretty sloppy job on this. Do it over”.

So, even in this day when so few people hold such outrageous amounts of power, I am convinced that citizen action can still make a difference. And not only am I convinced of that … but finally … I think I’m a slow learner … but after 40 years in Washington, I’ve finally come around to understand that that’s the way change really happens in a democracy. It’s from the bottom up, it’s from the grass roots up. I don’t think we would have had an Emancipation Proclamation back in Abraham Lincoln’s time without the abolistionist movement. You wouldn’t have had Social Security and social welfare movements of the New Deal and the Second New Deal without the, the Labor Unions and, and a lot of other groups.

You wouldn’t have had JFK’s eventual and somewhat belated support of civil rights without Martin Luther King and, and the demonstrations in the streets.

That’s what we’ve got to have again. And this is that important an issue. To me if we don’t get this media issue sorted out right to ensure that people have the depth and breath of information and news they need to make intelligent decisions for the country, we are courting grave danger.

And the country is in … it’s in serious straits right now … I mean you mentioned being up in Hyde Park … I’m not saying we’re in the 1930’s again, but we’ve got some unprecedented challenges facing the viability of this country. The future of our economy, the creation of equal opportunity, making this broadband available to everybody … these are serious challenges and if we don’t get it right, we’re asking for trouble.

And we won’t get it right until we have news and information that befits a democracy. And we’ve always … this has always been a challenge to our democracy from the day one. I think why … you can go back and you can look at their letters and then you can look at the legislation they passed … George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison … they had this fledging, young democracy … you know this better than I do … was a noble experiment, but an experiment nevertheless … could they make it survive on, on this growing basis … this large, physical country.

And they realized that people had to have access to news. They realized they had to be informed. So what did they do? And these are the authors of the First Amendment, mind you. These are the authors of the First Amendment … one of the first pieces of legislation they passed was for building of the post roads, and subsidization of the newspapers, so that … of the Left and the Right and they were very partisan … but get them all out … let the people be informed. And that’s exactly what happened. And that’s the theory behind, even, I think, becoming a broadcasting … in the, in the last century. It was “Use this to inform the people”.

That was the bargain with the broadcasters. You serve the public interest … give me necessity … we give you free use of the airways.

HEFFNER: Do you think there’s going to be some other source of support for a, a media instrument that will do what you want.

COPPS: We have to find it. And I don’t know what it is, there are lots of experimentation and innovation going on on the Internet right now. But there’s not a business model there for investigative journalism on the scale that we need to see it in this country.

HEFFNER: But why think …

COPPS: Philanthropies can help, foundations can help … so let all of those blossoms bloom forward, but at some point … and I think it’s now …we ought to be having a discussion about … can the new media markets support them, does there need to be an increasing level of public support for media?

HEFFNER: Well, that’s why I wonder why you talk about a business model. You mean a public service model, don’t you?

COPPS: I mean … well, I think we have to consider that … yeah … I’m not saying do away with the business model … cause to the … you know I think the broadcast stations right now, most of them are, are into renewed prosperity … to say the least. I think, I think some of these newspaper … many of the newspapers will survive.

But in this country we spend, per capita … per annum $1.35 in support of public media. One dollar and thirty-five cents … wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee or a cup of water, even.

A lot of countries spend $75, $100, $150 … that was in dollars per annum per capita … I was in Sweden not so many months ago … again, it’s very different, I’m not saying let’s emulate what they do there … but it’s like every household there pays like $400 a year in support of media. I’m not advocating that, but I … but you have to, you have to have a reasoned discussion which is very difficult to have in the current political environment. Is that really adequate? Can we get the news and information we want on a buck thirty five … backing up what the commercial stations are doing or failing to do.

Now, we’re just not getting the news the people need by watching the nightly news.

HEFFNER: And I’m sure …

COPPS: It’s not there …

HEFFNER: I’m sure you have been watching in vain for this subject to surface in the coming political campaign … Presidential campaign.

COPPS: Well, I’m going to keep pushing that … I’m going to be retiring after two terms of the Federal Communications Commission, though I’m not leaving these issues behind because I think they are vitally important and, again, I want to see some support from the grass roots. I think the potential is there. I think it has to be mobilized. There are reformers for lots of causes out there right now … lots of important issues they need really see and some of them do, but more of them need to … how important this one issue is.

You know you could probably ask all of the viewers watching this show tonight … what to you is the most important issue facing the United States of America. Some might say …

HEFFNER: It’s not going to be this.

COPPS: … some might say “jobs”, some might say 50 million uninsured Americans, the degradation of our environment, dependence upon energy. And that’s fine with me, but what I say to those people is if that’s your first issue … this future of the media needs to be your second issue. Unless you’re happy without that first issue is being treated by your current media system.

If you think there’s enough diversity and enough depth and all of that being presented … you don’t … don’t listen to me … you know, go happily on your way.

But if you think that issue that’s you number one concern would be served better by a little more in-depth reporting, a little more diversity, a little less homogenization and uniformity … a little more investigative reporting … you got to put this media issue right up there.

HEFFNER: Fifty years ago, the guest whom I’m going to tape next week … Newton Minow …

COPPS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … made his famous “vast wasteland” speech.

COPPS: He did, indeed.

HEFFNER: Think anybody could make that now and get the kind of reception he did?

COPPS: Well, I’ve been trying, I haven’t made that eloquent a speech, I guess, or got as many people’s attention … some people say you can make it now and call it the “Wasted vastland” because we have all of these different outlets and everything, but still so much homogeneity of content and, and all that. But … yes, I think so. I think you can, actually. But you’ve got …

HEFFNER: I wondered when I watched you up at Hyde Park … where do you get this spirit? You trained as a historian. I trained as a historian. You’re so much more optimistic about what is likely to be done in our times.

COPPS: I think I’m optimistic about what it is possible to get done. I’m …

HEFFNER: Okay, I …

COPPS: … I’m not putting all the chips on the table and say “this is going to happen” and sit back and relax, because it’s not going to happen without a concerned citizenry expressing itself forthrightly on the importance of these issues.

I don’t … you know, I don’t think people in power … a lot of them necessarily oppose what I … some of them do, but a lot of them don’t … but they’re not going to put the chips on the table and do this unless the know that there’s somebody out there … is really going to say “thank you” or somebody is pushing for this … there’s got to be some political support that comes out of this and I think there can be if you present the … present the issue right. But it hasn’t been the priority that I hoped it would be. And that gets back to your first question, you know, what, what happened and why haven’t we had this, this kind of reform since?

HEFFNER: The question that goes along with it is, for me … are their voices one can hear now besides your own?

COPPS: Oh, I think there’s lots. I think there’s … but you know, I think a lot of people are interested right now in this future of journalism … what has happened to journalism?

It’s easier to get attention on this issue on the future of journalism and talk about it from that perspective than it was when I was talking about the media ownership rules back in 2003, because the big media people didn’t want to go anywhere near that issue because it was their ox that was being gored when you talked about tightening the ownership rules, rather than loosening them.

I think there is an interest in this. But what we have to have is, is the kind of coverage like when, when there are big media mergers or when all these different reports and books come … there have been some wonderful books written on, on the future of journalism, but sometimes you look in vain in the big magazines and newspapers for the, the kind of reviews that they really, really deserve to have. This needs to be teed up as an issue and it’s, I think, I think the publishers are wrong if they think there’s no, no interest in this issue.

HEFFNER: Well, I wasn’t talking about public interest that can be generated …

COPPS: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … I was really talking about the leadership that you were calling for.

COPPS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Is there that leadership?

COPPS: There are people I think in Congress that are very interested in this issue … I don’t think, again, and I’m not trying to speak for the Administration … I’m not a member of the Administration … I’m a member of an independent agency who actually went there … ten years ago, but I think there are … I think there was support for my stance on consolidation … I think Senator Obama made clear that, you know, he had concern about some of the media consolidation …

HEFFNER: That was Senator Obama … and President Obama?

COPPS: … and bringing the public interest back. So, so my point is I don’t think there’s opposition to that, but again … it’s … how do you get it on that list of priorities? How do you get that attention for it? And how do you provide the motivation for them to proceed and get this done?

HEFFNER: Are you … ahh … asking for suggestions or do you think you know that in the years ahead what path you’re going to follow.

COPPS: No. I’m looking for suggestions.

HEFFNER: Because I, I wanted to ask you and if you’ll stay where you are and let us do another program, I want to go back to some of the older FCC questions … like the Fairness Doctrine …

COPPS: Okay.

HEFFNER: … and equal time and things like that because I’m sure you must feel that those issues played an important role in what has happened to broadcasting.

COPPS: I think they did, I think they were important issues … I think we need to frame our policies going forward in the lexicon of the 21st century rather than debating whether we should bring back something that may have been … may still be appropriate, but was perhaps more appropriate back 30 or 40 years ago.

HEFFNER: Well, our time is up now and you may tell me my time is up as an old-timer … I think that may be the reference that you’re making. But stay where you are, we’ll do another program. Commissioner thanks for joining me today.

COPPS: Okay. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time and many times. Meanwhile, as another 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.