Friday, November 9, 2007

Q&A with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps

Michael Copps, who is in his second term on the Federal Communications Commission,
is in Seattle, with the other four commissioners, for the final FCC media ownership hearing at 4 p.m. Friday at Town Hall. Copps has been a voice against media concentration since being named to the commission in 2001. He answers questions from the Seattle Times' readers.

Q: Commissioner Copps, thanks for your very important stance against media concentration exclusively in the hands of a few. -- Just a question and a couple of comments. Do you think it is in the public interest for the FCC to silently
consent to the Hearst Corp. gobbling up ownership interest of numerous radio and TV
stations in the same media market? If not, what can the average citizen do?
Is it better to write FCC Chair Kevin Martin or should we be really writing our Senators & Congresspersons? Do we have to cite specific examples of anti-competitive practices used by these mega-owners?

In case you're keeping tally, I'll share with you the feelings of people on my block in Wallingford and nearby Fremont. We need independent radio, independent newspapers and independent local stations to keep America vibrant! Many of us who are age 30 & above REMEMBER the days before TV and newspaper consolidation. The FCC, all the way through the Clinton era under the wonderful leadership of FCC Chair Reed Hundt, protected a media marketplace where there was and could be a variety of views and opinions. The FCC guarded the "public interest" from monopolization and collusion with rules that limited media ownership. Then, the radical right took over the White House and used their FCC appointments to dismantle ownership rules. As a result, we are blasted Rupert's views and political agenda through the New York Post, on FOX TV and Fox Cable. News Corp just bought the internet portal MySpace and have recently gobbled up the Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch's News Corp & others like Hearst leverage market power to offer advertising deals that underbid market competitors. There are MANY examples of those outlets
underselling competitors because they can afford to absorb reduced rates and their mom and pop competitors cannot.

Seattle is already a one-paper town, and that's a paper owned by the Hearst mega-corporation. The corporations have little regard for localism and for a diversity of views.

A: I've been reading the Seattle Times coverage of tonight's hearing, and it years-long coverage of how media conslidation has diminished localism and diversity, so this area is more fortunate than most in having that information available to it. Just yesterday, Frank Blethen of the Times testified before the United States Senate on this issue, and I suspect you would agree with much that he said, judging from your message today. You ask what a citizen can do. Just what you're doing--make your feelings known, from your house to the White House. Tell the FCC how you feel. If you cannot attend tonight (I hope you can!), then go to and let us know. Don't foregt your elected respresentatives, although I must say Washington has some really outstanding leaders in Congress. You might want to thank those folks.

Q: When is the FCC going to approve the Sirius and XM merger? I think it is in the consumers best interest if the merger is approved. Satelite radio will always compete with terestrial radio and so the merger is not going to reduce the consumers choices. With the merger, the consumer will get more channels and the difficult business of providing satelite radio may someday be profitable.

A: That's pretty much up to the Chairman, who controls the agenda. But just recently the Commission requested additional information and data from the companies, so final action may be slowed a bit. One of the questions we need to answer is whether satellite radio is a separate market with separate characteristics and just two players, or is it part of a larger media competition with free over-the-air programming. We must also deal with a current rule that prescribes that there be at least two players in satellite radio. Merger approval would require us to change that rule in the process. So the Commissioners are working our way through these issues.

Q: I think the reason our country rushed to war in Iraq was due in large part to the misinformation about WMD echoed by our corporate media. Doesn’t it suggest that further consolidation of corporate media would only exacerbate the problem of combating misinformation about such important and weighty matters?

A: I think the danger is when just a few companies are controlling the gateways and the content that we see every day on teleivison, contrary thoughts and other perspectives get lost. That's been costly for us! Further consolidation can only make a bad problem worse.

Q: What is the threat Bell forbearance efforts pose to Seattle?

A: I am willing to look at these items pending before us and am not able to say much about such active petitions. But, as I said earlier, forbearance is not the vehicle we should so often turn to and, when we do, there has to be a granular analysis accurately depicting conditions in specific telecom markets, such as Seattle. The lack of such records is one major reason why I have not been enthusiastic about some other companies' petitions in the past. For example, they sometimes focus on broadband as a national market and ignore the local competitive implications.

Q: Why should we let Comcast have a monopoly on Cable use?
The cable system should be allowed to have competition for better rates for the consumers.

A: I believe in encouraging more competition in all of our communications and media platforms. Unfortunaely, we have been going in exactly the wrong direction for quite a few years now. The big get bigger, competition is diminished, and the people end up paying the price. There isn't much competition in cable in the vast majority of markets. That's bad.

Q: What are the benefits that the members of the commission who favor further consolidation recieve for accomodating consolidation. They must be getting something for thier corrupt behavior.

A: I think that my colleagues are generally sincere in what they believe. It's not that they are bad people; it's just that their mind-sets lead to some very bad results. I believe they are wrong on the merits of the argument, but I try not to impugn anyone's motives.

Q: First, let me thank you for standing against the insanity of further media consolidation. If in fact, "we the people" still own the public airwaves and the FCC is the agency empowered to protect the public interest, how can the FCC justify this trend? We used to endure advertising to fund programing. Now, so much of the programing exists only as a backgound for adverising with no public benefit at all. There is no argument that justifies media concentration to a handful of companies as representing the public interest. How can "we the people" hold the FCC accountable to its original mandate?

A: I haven't heard anything remotely resembling such a justification. The people do own the airwaves, but if we don't reassert our ownership rights, the claim to ownership doesn't accomplish much. The FCC is supposed to be the public's protector and the agency which ensures that broadcasters live up to their obligation to serve the public interest.

Q: Qwest has filed a "forbearance" petition with the FCC asking to be free from wholesaling obligations in Seattle as early as April 2008. What effect would a grant of that petition have on my ability to obtain phone and Internet service from one of Qwest's competitors?

A: I believe their petition goes primarily to business services rather than residential. I am concerned, however, that forbearance as a process is being used to eviscerate competition and by-pass our rules. I don't believe Congress wanted the FCC to conduct its business so often via this truncated process which usually lacks adequate economic analysis and provides an insufficient record when the parties take our decisions to court--which often happens.

Q: Isn't it true that cross-ownership (newspaper/television) could have saved media diversity in many cities that used to have two newspapers, but now have only one?

A: I'm always willing to look market-by-market and if a convincing case can be made that some consolidation is all that can keep a station from shutting down and depriving a community of servce, we ought to look at that and even approve. But big media wants more than that--they want an always-on green light that assures everyone in advance that the media bazaar is open to all sorts of combinations, no questions asked. If the FCC wants localism, it ought to be willing to look at local markets and local conditions. Right now, we don't.

Q: I understand the historic duty of the FCC is to allocate frequencies within the broadcast bandwidth, so to ensure licensee's signals are not interfered with. In allocating the frequencies, I presume there's an objective & mechanism in place that attempts to ensure the use of those frequencies in any market area are adequately responsive to the public in that market.

My question is whether the definition of 'public responsiveness' encompasses the carriage of voices fairly representative of the market OR whether 'public responsiveness' simply means endowing broadcast licensees with expanded 'network power' (i.e. a larger permissible footprint in any and all markets in which they hold a license)?

I believe that's the practical challenge presently before the Commission. Can fair representation exist when today's principal allocation method simply rewards frequencies to the highest bidder?

A: The sad reality is the FCC doesn't appear to care how well the public interest is served. In 1981, a new Chairman took over at the FCC and he said a television set was just "a toaster with pictures." And that's how they proceeded to treat it--just another applicance. All the public interest guidelines we had, and which we used when a broadcaster came in to renew his or her (mostly his, because women have been excluded from owning their fair share of stations) were "deregulated" away. Broadcasters formerly had to justify their performance every three years in order to keep their licenses. Now they send in a post-card once every EIGHT years, and we never deny a license on public interest grounds. So don't blame just big media for the current excesses--blame the FCC, too.

Q: Is there any conceivable way you could persuade one of the FCC's Republican commissioners that any further broadening of ownership rules to benefit corporations as opposed to individuals or public groups goes against the American heritage? The people own the airwaves; yet a few corporations dominate them and disseminate their points of view only. But the American heritage is one of democracy and local inventiveness.

Perhaps you could remind your Republican colleagues that domination by one corporate point of view is far more similar to Soviet totalitarianism.

A: I'm trying, I'm trying! Maybe tonight's hearing can succeed more effectively than me. But, to be frank, my fear is that the fix is in insorfar as loosening the limits on newspaper-broadcast cross ownership. The result of that will be more newspaper-broadcast combinations in lots of markets and that translates into fewer voices, less news, and a diminished civic dialogue. I think that's too costly a price to pay, don't you?

Q: A few years ago we saw the music group called the Dixie Chicks be boycotted by over 200 radio stations, all under one ownership. Wasn't that a prime example of censorship and the affects of multiple media outlets with one ownership?

A: Yes, and it's not the only one, either. That's what happens when too much power in cocentrated in too few hands. In previous years we had enough diversity and local control that if someone committed some sort of act like you mention, it didn't affect the whole nation. Now it does.

Q: I have been in radio since I was a kid. I'm now 55. Radio is at an all time low with bad product and poor community service. Plus the lost of jobs has been shocking. Why hasn't the FCC talked to any of us who are in the talent end of broadcasting? Granted, a lot of folks would not want to come forward for fear of loss of their job. Why not put us under oath and make us tell you and the others on the commission about the damage done by media concentration? I might lose my job just for asking this question. But it's worth the gamble because I care about radio and my country.

A: You know, I have talked to many people in the creative community who feel like you do but who are still trying to eke out a living and many are afraid to testify and go public. So in 2003, I asked then-Chairman Michael Powell to set up some kind of process where we could receive such testimony anonymously. He replied with all sorts of excessively legalistic arguments why this couldn't be done. The result--we don't have nearly enough of that kind of testimony on the public record.

Q: Hello and thank you for coming to listen to folks in our city.

Do you think that all cable providers should be required to provide, on basic cable, public access stations and governmental proceedings (city, county, state and CSPAN)?

When I was a child, this kind of thing was provided often by the networks. My mother made us watch current events on television and always set the standard for us of being an active informed citizen. She spent the summer watching the Watergate hearings on network TV. Later, she was an avid CSPAN watcher, and she and her sister and friends would comment on what they say Congress doing on CSPAN coverage in thier weekly letters to each other.

With that upbringing I find myself watching these channels more than broadcast or other cable. It's the only way I have of seeing my local government at work as I can tape the City Council meetings while I am at my job during the day.

A: I think you and I have some similar viewing habits! I am a huge supporter of PEG channels and public access. I am disappointed that, just very recently, the Commission voted to remove much of the negotiating power that Local Franschising Authorities had to demand these and other services from cable as a condition of their being able to build out and provide service to customers. These local authroties understand what is needed in a community better than we in Washington do, so to preempt them is another mistaken FCC decision against localism, diversity and competition.

Q: What is the FCC progress or assessment of the 800MHz rebanding with SPRINT NEXTEL frequency spectrum? They have been very slow to implement rebanding in key cities across the USA delaying civic efforts to protect their citizens. It is imperative for first responders to be able to communicate in these frequencies.

A: We really need to approach this with urgency, and I believe that my colleagues are now doing that. You are correct that there have been too many delays, and I have been pushing the Commission to keep the parties working hard to make this transition work well and quickly. I have also talked with the private parties concerned to make sure they understand the FCC is not going to tolerate unending delay.

Q: What is the FCC doing to assure fairness and accessibility to high speed internet for individuals and small companies. I have a concern that large "internet / communication companies" will begin limiting access and/or start charging premiums for the internet that should be readily available with a high quality of service for all.

Electric Power companies do not charge (for all practical purposes) for "higher quality" power - the standard power to everyone is of high quality; this is the same for Natural Gas companies, water companies, and other basic utilities.

A: I share your concern and have labored hard to have the Commission adopt serious and enforceable network neutrality rules. I succeeded only insofar as getting a statement of Internet principles adopted: freedom to access content of your choice, to attach devices of your choice, to run applications of your choice, and to enjoy the benefits of competition. But these principles need to be backed up by enforceable rules and the present Commission is not inclined to do that. We did get some enforceability attached to the AT&T/Bell South merger, but this is something we need industry-wide. Congress may have to legislate on this issue. The Internet has so much potential, so we need to ensure it openess and guarantree that it doesn't become a gated community controlled by a few telecom behemoths.

Q: How is it that the issue of cross-ownership is up for consideration again after there was such a huge outcry from the public against further consolidation on this same issue within the last two years? America’s airwaves and broadcast entities are supposed to be held in the public trust. Meaning, very simply, that the American people own the airwaves. And the programming sent over those airwaves is entrusted to be in the public’s best interest. If that is the case, why is this being brought up again for consideration? The lobbying efforts and influence of big business on the FCC seem all too apparent. Futhermore, media consolidation is an encroachment on our rights: Freedom of the Press.

A: Another good question I hope the FCC is asked tonight. I'm with you in believing the people's airwaves should be used to add diverse voices and to encourage local content, rather than bringing in more homogenized, nationalized and sterile corporate "entertainment" and letting Big Media shut down the civic dialogue upon which the future of our democracy rests.

Q: Given that this country's political roots are in dissent, why is the FCC even considering increasing the power of media/communications companies to dominate a political point of view and way of looking at the world?

A: Good question. Come out to the hearing tonight and ask some of my colleagues why they would want to foist additional consolidation on our media environment and what public inrterest good they see in diminishing the number of viewpoints available in our media markets.

Q: I want a choice in providers of content and service – please do your job to ensure that happens.

I have two questions for the FCC,

First how can you possibility justify endorsing the AT&T - SBC take over.
This is possibly the single worst decision in term of competition in the past decade in my opinion.

Second why are you allowing companies to own more media outlets?

Do you not think that this leads to a mind share issue where the relatively few can impact public opinion with a narrow point of view?

A: I don't like consolidation any more in telecom companies than I do with media companies. The result on the AT&T merger you mention was pretty much preordained, but I worked hard to attach some conditions to it--such as enforceable netweork neutrality provisions. On your second question, I have been an outspoken opponent of the excess media consolidation we have had to endure in recent years. I want to avoid encouraging more consolidation through ill-advised new rules and then revisit the current rules that got us into our present mess.

Q: In your opinion, what can we, as citizens and consumers, do to assure that the we develop more diversity in the media?

A: Any satisfactory outcome to this issue will be in large part grassroots-driven. So people need to make their opinions felt. Hearings like tonight's Seattle venue are one vehicle. But we should all be speaking out; talking to friends, family and community; writing letters to the editor; talk radio; write the FCC Commissioners; contact your elected representatives. Elected officials need to know that your opinions on this issue count as you judge their campaigns for office.