As fate would have it, Michael Powell's Jan. 21 announcement that he would resign his controversial chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission was followed days later by another piece of news: a final defeat that hung a fitting "closed for renovations" sign on the end of his term at the FCC.
Powell's campaign to undermine the FCC's media-ownership limits — designed to protect diversity, but irksome to expansion-minded media tycoons — could have been the defining success of his term as chairman. But Powell's initial victory turned out to be Pyrrhic.
The rule changes he pushed through were doggedly resisted by an unprecedented groundswell of public opposition, then by waves of congressional action, and finally by a Philadelphia appeals court decision that struck down Powell's rollback of the ownership caps. Powell called the decision "perverse," and media corporations began clamoring for a Supreme Court appeal.
But on Jan. 27, the Bush administration quietly announced that it would not appeal the Circuit Court decision. The dropped ball signaled a desire to let Powell's failures melt into history.
Powell's habitual, glib comments praising "market values" while denigrating the "public interest" were never intended for prime-time audiences. But such remarks provoked Powell's opponents into action, and helped consolidate a vast populist constituency favoring progressive media-policy reform.
While Powell will soon be out the door, this constituency remains. Millions will be watching closely as a post-Powell FCC once again takes up the hot potato of media-ownership regulation, alongside a bevy of other issues affecting cable, telephone, satellite and wireless Internet, as well as traditional broadcasting technologies.
How the FCC will approach these issues over the next year will depend on the makeup of the post-Powell commission. And changes are coming; by year's end, the FCC could have not one but two, or even three, new commissioners.
President Bush has the responsibility for appointing new FCC commissioners, as well as selecting the chair. He will probably replace Powell by promoting Republican Commissioner Kevin Martin into the position of chairman. A Bush FCC appointee with strong connections to the White House, Martin is considered less of an ideologue than Powell, but would likely be an extremely predictable advocate for narrow, broadcasting-industry concerns.
If he does choose to promote Martin, the president will also get to select a new Republican commissioner, who would have to be confirmed by the Senate. Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, a close Powell ally, is rumored to be eyeing the exits as well.
More contentiously, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps' five-year term expires in May, requiring the president either to reappoint him — the normal course of action for a sitting commissioner — or not.
While snubbing Copps would be popular with broadcasting-industry fat cats, it would be immensely unpopular in Congress and among the concerned public. An outspoken champion of public-interest values, Copps has been Powell's main opponent at the FCC. But he has also been the commissioner most outspoken in cracking down on broadcast indecency — a tremendously important issue for many conservatives, including congressional Republicans.
The White House will have no legitimate reason to avoid reappointing Copps, and senators on both sides of the aisle should apply pressure to make sure that happens. The Senate should also indicate that it will not welcome any FCC nominees who are openly contemptuous of public-interest standards, as Powell has been. The Senate should demand of any new FCC nominee that he or she make it a key priority to hold and attend hearings on media ownership throughout the country, before making any new policy changes.
Congress has a number of significant media-policy matters before it this year, including an expected rewrite of the massive Telecommunications Act, expansion of low-power FM radio (LPFM), and a current attempt to tighten indecency laws. Armies of lobbyists will climb the Capitol steps to proselytize on behalf of big-media owners; but legislators must give priority to public-interest considerations.
The FCC, however its leadership changes over the next few months, should remain humbled by the tremendous outpouring of public comment it has received over the past two years. The commission's decisions affecting media-ownership rules, spectrum allocation and other arcana will now be subject to greater public scrutiny than ever before.
Here are a few ways in which the new FCC should leave the Powell years behind:
The commission should devote more resources to considering broadcast-license renewals, holding radio and television stations accountable to public-interest standards in return for their free use of the airwaves.
As radio and TV stations convert to digital signals, the FCC should ensure that new commercial opportunities for station owners are tied to clear and well-enforced public-interest obligations. Privileges granted to incumbent broadcasters should not shut down opportunities for new stations to go on the air.
In community radio, the FCC should revise its frequency-allocation rules to improve the standing of local, noncommercial LPFM stations. New LPFM applicants should be given precedence over distantly operated translator networks.
More than anything else, the commission should return to the drawing board of media-ownership regulation, prepared to utterly reverse course after five years of rambling in the desert of "market values," led by a chairman who boasted that he had "no idea what the public interest is."
Upholding public-interest standards is a responsibility which we trust the FCC to carry out with wholehearted conviction.
Jonathan Lawson is a founding co-director of the Seattle-based media advocacy organization Reclaim the Media, www.reclaimthemedia.org, and editor of the "Seattle Statement on Radio."
© 2005 Seattle Times