Michael Copps is a former FCC commissioner who at one point served as acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission. A former deputy assistant and assistant secretary of commerce, he holds a PhD in United States history, is one of our most articulate public interest advocates and currently leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.
"They're trying to get rid of every rule and regulation they ever had that had to do with broadcast, they don't want anything to do with net neutrality and an open Internet."
We spoke the other day just as the House of Representatives passed the Save the Internet bill restoring net neutrality rules that keep the Internet open to all without paying higher fees for fast lane preferential treatment. As of now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the bill will never reach the Senate floor, doubtless because he fears putting GOP colleagues on the record in support of the telecom and media giants despite the vast majority of voters – including Republicans – strongly supporting net neutrality and an open Internet.
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The conversation also took place just a few days after the passing of former Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina with whom Copps worked and remained friends. He was 97. As noted in the Washington Post’s obituary, “[Hollings] served in the Senate from 1966 to 2005 and was instrumental in enacting laws to alleviate childhood hunger, increase vehicle efficiency after the Arab oil embargo and expand competition in telecommunications when the Internet was in its infancy.”
We began by talking about Hollings and segued into a discussion about media reform that has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the complete interview here:
Your colleague Senator Fritz Hollings from South Carolina has died. You were his chief of staff for a dozen years or so. What do you remember about him and which of his accomplishments do you think will be most remembered?
He was probably the most formidable human being I have ever met from the standpoint of just a bright sparkling wit, knowing how to get along with people, just a wonderfully entertaining human being to be with. He believed in public service and he believed in it deeply. He used to cite that wonderful Edmund Burke quotation: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Fritz believed part of the responsibility of his job was the education of his constituency. He didn’t come to Washington to bash Washington and then go home and get reelected so he could come back to Washington. He actually believed in public service.
I worked for him for over 15 years, and I remember on issue after issue, whether it was national security or feeding the hungry or the environment or the Panama Canal treaties – he was the first southern US senator to come out in favor of what Jimmy Carter was going to do with the Panama Canal – he would closet himself with experts for a week and get all sides of an issue and then he’d write this long newsletter to his constituents and mail it throughout South Carolina. And on some of these issues they disagreed with Fritz, but he got elected six or seven times because they knew they were getting the truth from the fellow, they knew they were getting what he actually thought and a considered judgment, so he kept getting elected, from 1966 through his last election in 1998.
He was described in his obituaries as a populist.
I think he was. I’m a populist historian and the term gets wrenched out of its context so that it’s almost meaningless. Nowadays it can be a xenophobe or something, but I think of populism as the reform era of the late 19th century and the farmers against Wall Street and the big banks that were choking the rural heartlands and all of that. So from the standpoint of trying to protect against the ravages of the oil and gas industry or the banks, Fritz was a champion of that.
He was a segregationist originally but wound up endorsing Jesse Jackson for president in 1988…
He did. He evolved. He actually voted against Thurgood Marshall [to be the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967] – he said it was the vote that bothered him most during his terms in the Senate. He came around and was a leader in civil rights. Tremendous contribution on things environmental. He was the father of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coastal Zone Management Acts, all of that stuff. He worked very closely with [late Wisconsin senator and founder of Earth Day] Gaylord Nelson back in the 1970’s on fashioning environmental legislation… He was a man of very strong conviction, you had a hard time changing his mind, but he always listened.
The kind of politician that we don’t have enough of these days?
He worked across the aisle. Back in those days there was still a considerable measure of civility in the Senate and every Wednesday night he and a group of senators would gather at one of their houses… Some were Republicans, some were Democrats, they would have a few drinks together, they’d eat dinner, talk and discuss.
They’d listen to each other on the floor of the Senate; now nobody listens to anybody else, they all run across the street, where big industries and the political parties have their townhouses, and dial for dollars. Fritz’s last big crusade was bemoaning and agitating against the corrupting power of big money in politics, and finally saying I can’t do this [fundraising] anymore, it just detracts so much from the job of representing the people and trying to craft legislation in the public interest.
So let’s make the turn now and ask, how would you characterize telecommunications policy in this age of Trump?
Our telecommunications ecosystem is seriously in danger insofar as the American people go. And the state of that industry, and I include media in that, carries a huge threat for the future of our democracy to be able to support a vital civil dialogue. I don’t believe that you can have a self-governing country unless you have an informed electorate…
The media has been so consolidated with so much loss of community and local radio and TV stations, such damage to journalism – we’ve lost over half of our newsroom employees since the beginning of the century.
What we see is infotainment substituting for real journalism, opinion-mongering substituting for fact, the demise of in-depth investigative journalism, politics turned into a reality show, which is basically what the 2016 election was – who’s going to get voted off the island, who’s going to make a rhetorical gaffe rather than digging into the issues that bedevil this country of ours.
So I think we’re in danger and a lot of that goes back to the federal policy of encouraging all of these mergers, the big media giants, half a dozen of them, coming in and buying up community stations, closing the newsroom, shuttering it, throwing reporters out on the streets. So many of them are walking the street in search of a job rather than walking a beat in search of a story. I don’t think we can sustain that very much longer, I really don’t.
You get to a point where you really start making dumb decisions as a country. I think you can make a pretty good argument that we’ve made some dumb decisions in recent years. We don’t have any free pass to the future, America has no automatic free pass to the future. We’ve got some really serious challenges to confront and to overcome, and it’s going to take an informed electorate, which is what democracy is all about, to grapple with those problems and solve them, but you can’t grapple and solve unless you know about them, and that’s where I believe the media is falling down.
This is my passion, this is what I worked on at the Federal Communications Commission and what I’m working on at Common Cause right now. I don’t think there is any more serious issue facing us, and goodness knows, we have so many issues – health, environment, diversity, equal opportunity, global affairs, disability rights. All of that is important and none of it is going to get resolved unless the people have a knowledge of the issues and understand the importance of the issues, and then you build from the grassroots up.
There’s nothing very good that’s going to come out of Washington in the next three years, maybe the next five years, maybe longer than that. This country is in such dire need of reform, it’s going to have to come from the grassroots, but in the final analysis, isn’t that where substantive reform in American history has always come from? Starts at the grassroots, then you get the politicians on board, then you get legislation.
I remember that you’ve always been fond of saying that whatever your issues, all of them depend on media reform.
That’s right. When I go around and do town hall meetings, I always like to pick out five or six folks and ask, “What’s your biggest issue? What’s the most dangerous challenge facing the country?” You’ll get answers like jobs, health, environment, climate change. And I’ll say, “Well, that’s all well and good but those issues aren’t going to get resolved unless you get on board with this media and telecommunication policy and get us a journalism that will help you resolve those issues. So if it’s not your number one issue, you’d better put it way up there on your scale of rankings.”
Your colleague FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently told Congress, “Too often the FCC has acted at the behest of the corporate forces that surround it, shortchanging the American people and undermining our digital future.”
She’s right on target. Before I went to the FCC, I thought, this is going to be the coolest job on God’s green earth. I’m going to be dealing with all these edge-of-the-envelope issues with the Internet and technology. I’m going to meet all these innovators and entrepreneurs.
Then I got there [in 2001], and the first call I got was from the chairman, Michael Powell, and he was seeking my help – would you please approve this broadcast merger deal? As soon as I hung up, I realized I was going to be spending an inordinate amount of my time just meeting with the CEO’s of these big media companies and the telecom companies: “We have to get larger, we have to take over this other company. It’s economies of scale, we’re going to go bankrupt, blah blah blah.” They’d tell me that, then they’d go to New York and tell all the Wall Street people how great they were doing…
[I]t’s pernicious, and one of the things I really tried to do and Jessica is trying to do, is get the FCC to go on the road, talk to the people, find out what they’re really thinking about these issues. You sit there [in DC] and are just flooded with all these beautifully gift-wrapped ex parte submissions from big industry with all these big names on them and researched and beautifully presented [but] 88, 90 percent of the American people never hear about any of that and they don’t even know the FCC is considering media consolidation or net neutrality or privacy or any of these things that are so important to America right now.
My colleague [FCC Commissioner] Jonathan Adelstein and I probably held sixty or seventy or more town hall meetings around the county and we found that when you went into the communities there was a tremendous interest and an understanding that something has gone wrong with our local media.
I remember being in Sioux Falls late one night -- some of these hearings went on for eight or nine hours, Jonathan and I would always stay until the end -- and this Native American woman got up and she was in tears: “We never get covered, my tribe, my community. When we do get covered it’s suicide, unemployment, alcohol, but the things we’re contributing and the good things that we’re doing and trying to do never get covered.” That’s true, not just for them but for so many different groups...
I’m encouraged that people are starting to talk a little about this now, that, gee, something’s gone wrong here with the local news, what can we do about it? We have to take that discussion and really broaden it to include everybody. We have to get local news and local broadcast journalism back. And then we have to think about our national news and our global news.
You mentioned Michael Powell, who was the Republican FCC chair when you started in 2001, and is now an industry lobbyist…
He’s head of the big cable association in Washington, making a couple of million dollars a year, I guess…
The revolving door between government and big business.
The revolving door has really been active in two places: the FCC and the United States Trade Representative, both very, very important agencies in our government.
I think the goal of this administration and perhaps even the chairman of the FCC is to put [the FCC] out of business. They’re trying to get rid of every rule and regulation they ever had that had to do with broadcast, they don’t want anything to do with net neutrality and an open Internet. [They want to] give it all to the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission, which has very weak enforcement authority, it has no power even to write rules.
But yet they’re saying, get it out of here, put it over there and pretty soon they’ll be able to put a “Going Out of Business” sign over the front door of the Federal Communications Commission, which is an agency established in 1934 to serve the public interest. [Congress] gave the FCC a lot of powers, which the current Republican majority just denies… because they don’t believe in government.
Going back to that, the current Republican FCC chair Ajit Pai, has he lived up – or down! – to your expectations?
He’s lived up to Donald Trump’s expectations. From the standpoint of the president of the United States, I think Ajit Pai has been one of the most effective appointments that he made, because [Pai] is denuding the Federal Communications Commission, essentially getting rid of so many rules and regulations and that’s what the Trump administration is all about.
When you read last week that in agriculture the administration is saying, well, let the pork industry do its own inspection of pork that’s sold in the United States. Wow… It’s the same across all these agencies: environment, health, the whole ball of wax.
You’ve mentioned net neutrality a couple of times. One of the first things Trump’s chair Ajit Pai did was to tear down the net neutrality rules, the Open Internet order which the FCC put into effect in February 2014 and which public advocacy groups had fought so hard for. But luckily, that repeal is being fought against very hard.
Yeah, thank goodness we have a Save the Internet bill that has gone through on the House side… It would restore the net neutrality rules that the Democratic FCC under [then-Chair] Tom Wheeler put into effect back in 2015. And we need that. You’re giving all this power to a few telecommunications and content companies just to determine where you can go, what you can do, can you organize or can’t you organize on the Internet.
The Internet was supposed to be the open, dynamic technology of our time, and I started talking about the dangers of the Internet back in 2002 and 2003, if we didn’t have some public service obligations and regulations for it.
People said, “Copps, you’re way off base. This is an open, dynamic technology, power is at the edges. We’ve got the power, there’s no central power and you don’t have to worry about it.” But now, lots of Americans have come to realize that while the technology may be out there and dynamic, the business model isn’t -- the business model is the same as every industry we’ve ever seen.
It’s a trend toward consolidation and monopoly markets, so this wonderful Internet, which still holds such promise for the future, which could one day if it’s not too late still be the town square of our democracy, paved with broadband bricks, so to speak, is now coming under the control of a few who are going to be able to say, “No, you can’t start your website here, we don’t like the political views of NARAL or something like that, we’re going to block this, block that… If content producers play ball with us, we’ll speed up their stuff to consumers and slow down everybody else.”
That’s not what the Internet is supposed to be and we need to get hold of that. Net neutrality is the prerequisite of an open Internet. You can’t have an open Internet without net neutrality.
But, and it gets more complicated here, net neutrality by itself is not the realization of an open Internet. You’ve still got all the problems with these huge companies, consolidation, commercialization. And where is the model on the Internet for online journalism? Yes, there are a few sites, Pro Publica and others, but we haven’t begun to get on the Internet the depth of journalism that we used to have in traditional media. We’ve lost far more than we have gained.
You have companies like Facebook that are taking the news that journalists like you and others produce and they aren’t giving a dime for it. They run it along all these ads that bring them billions and billions of dollars without putting anything back into journalism. They’ll say, “Well, we gave a million dollar grant a year or so ago.” We’re talking something much more major than that if you’re going to have real journalism on the Internet.
How is artificial intelligence going to affect the Internet and affect us all, affect our jobs – all these are questions revolving around the Internet that we have to have a serious national conversation about and bring people’s attention to…
You have to get net neutrality done. Whether Mitch McConnell will ever give it any kind of green light [in the Senate] or that Trump will sign it I doubt, but at least we’re laying the base and if we get a different agency or different administration in the future maybe we can do that.
The interesting thing to me, when you go around the country, this is not a partisan issue. I can run around Capitol Hill until I’m blue in the face trying to find a Republican who will support net neutrality or get serious against the kind of consolidation I’m talking about. But look at the polls… 75, 80, 85 percent of the American people -- Republicans, independents, Democrats – all say it was a mistake for the FCC to repeal those [net neutrality] rules… It is not a partisan issue outside the fabled Beltway but we are so under the partisanship mantra in Washington, DC, right now that you can’t get anything of substance accomplished.
We have a White House that was opposed to the AT&T Time Warner merger, but [to punish CNN] not for altruistic media reform reasons.
Yeah, I’ve read that, too (laughs). The Justice Department did end up opposing the merger and they went to court and in one of the most ridiculous court decisions that I have ever read, the presiding judge okayed the merger and he said, well, we don’t really deal much in what we call vertical mergers – that’s where you would have both the content and the distribution. We only deal in horizontal mergers where companies of like services are joining forces.
But if you control the distribution of something and you control the content, if that isn’t in my mind the classic definition of monopoly back to John D. Rockefeller or the old robber barons, I mean, that’s how they got a hammerlock on this economy. It worries me, because if we get a brighter day legislatively and in the regulatory agencies, in the long term, a lot of this stuff ends up in court, and the direction of the court, with all the court-packing that Mitch McConnell and his friends are doing, putting in so many judges who don’t believe in regulation, who don’t believe in rules for the public interest, it could take us a long while to get us out of the hole that we have dug ourselves.
Speaking of the courts, we had mentioned the net neutrality fight in Congress but there’s also an ongoing fight in the courts.
There’s a decision that’s imminent in the next few months. Judging from the questions that were asked in the panels and all, I still have a little bit of optimism – and this would do so much to help restore my faith in the courts – that they would reject what Chairman Pai did in repealing the rules and say let’s go back to treating the Internet as a telecom service so that the public interest rules and regulations apply to it – you can’t block and throttle and slow down or speed up. I hope that happens, I wouldn’t bet the family farm on it, but I’m hopeful.
Is there any validity to industry arguments that net neutrality has a bad effect on business, on improving services and investment in broadband?
That’s what they tell the press and the politicians. But when they go to New York and talk to the investors and the analysts, it’s all, we’re doing great and we’re going to do so much better… The whole media atmosphere, telecommunications, too, has just fallen under the delusion that profits are king… I realize that lots of industries have consolidated and that seems to be a trend in the kind of capitalism that we have right now. But I’m taking about an industry that’s based on the public good, something that’s really important, that’s different, something that we’d better make sure works to serve the common purpose of the American people.
People going back to George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson understood this; that, for example, the newspapers of the time had to get out to all the citizens of the country. So what did they do? They subsidized the distribution of newspapers, they built postal roads and post offices.
When he was president, George Washington had a fellow who worked for him named Ebenezer Hazard and Ebenezer refused to spend the monies that they had to help build postal roads. Washington fired him. He said we have to have money for this. This kind of continental government was a new experiment, could that big a republic or democracy survive without an informed public? These statesmen decided, no, it could not.
So fast forward now to the era of Reagan and Bush – “Oh no, the free market can do it all. The free market can get broadband out to every American.” You really shouldn’t expect some of these companies to go into remote America without some kind of partnership with the government because there’s no profit, no business case for it. I’d like to see them do that as a public service but they’re not going to do it.
What we’ve really gotten away from is the private-public partnership between the states, the federal government and the private sector to build infrastructure. That’s how we built our bridges and roads and canals and interstate highways and all that stuff throughout the course of our history. But now it’s free markets and let’s get government off our backs.
For decades, there was a public service commitment that was considered part of the reason that you got to have your broadcast license, a commitment to news and public affairs and community service.
All gone now: “Are you getting out and talking to members of your community about what they want to see? Are you offering opportunities for opposing viewpoints? Are you covering the economy, are you covering diversity? Are you putting some limits on ads on children’s programming?” All that stuff is gone.
When I started out in broadcasting there was a procedure called “ascertainment.” Anyone could come in off the street and look at the station logs and determine whether you were fulfilling that mandate.
The broadcasters didn’t like that. They redbaited it out of existence – “That’s communism,” and like that. While some of these things were not written down as hard and fast rules, the stations knew they had to come in every three years and make a case to the FCC that they were serving the public interest. All those guidelines are gone. Now, every eight years they send in a postcard, it’s little more than sending a postcard and you get your license back [without having] to worry about how you’re serving the common good or advancing the public interest.
I wanted to ask you about diversity.
The diversity that we have in our media ecosystem right now is pretty sad. Women own 7.4 percent of full-power commercial television stations. Hispanics own six percent. African-Americans own 0.9 percent. How can you expect to have diversity in broadcasting if you don’t have it in ownership? I think it’s related. Like the old golden rule, he who has the gold makes the rules, he who has the stations determines the content of the programming for all.
It’s not just ownership, it’s management jobs and all the rest. The tech companies are no better and probably worse in these statistics. This is a country whose strength is premised on diversity, and if we’re going to turn it all over to white, male big business control, it’s not going to work.
Which, when it comes to diversity, makes an open Internet all the more important. What are some of your other priorities at Common Cause in terms of media reform and democracy?
We’re looking at the media ownership rules and trying to reverse what the commission has done in court and with legislation. We’re working on how to get broadband out to every American; there’s a program called Lifeline that offers subsidized telecommunications and broadband. It’s a very small subsidy, $9.25, but millions of people have taken advantage of it. The Pai commission is trying to scale it way back and get rid of it; we’re trying o help preserve that program.
We’re trying to advance something called the E-Rate, which brings high-speed broadband to our schools and libraries, libraries still being very important as places where people gather. You mentioned [Democratic FCC Commissioner] Jessica Rosenworcel; she talks about the education gap in different parts of America. If you’re out in rural America or in the inner city where you don’t have that access to broadband, what do the kids do to get broadband so that they can do their homework at the same level as the more advantaged and affluent people can? That’s where getting broadband out to everybody and certainly making sure that the schools and libraries have it as we build toward the ubiquity of broadband is so highly important.
I was surprised at how many Americans don’t have access to broadband. It’s 162 million.
To me, access to broadband is a civil right, because I don’t think you can be a fully functioning member of our society, in terms of being able to find a job or educate yourself, the list just goes on and on, without having access to that basic communications [tool]that so influences all of our lives, the lives of those who have it.
Something that has been coming up a lot, and I was curious to get your reaction, is the FCC and robocalls. I know that’s something Jessica Rosenworcel has been pushing on and I know it’s something I’m afflicted with.
Aren’t we all?
It has gone from two billion calls a month to five billion a month just in the course of this administration, something like 2000 calls a second. What can be done?
It’s a tough problem. Every day the technology advances for people who are doing this so they can hide their identities and call you more and more. There are a couple of things to be done: I know people have talked about some legislation to beef it up.
The agencies have to get serious. They talk about doing something about robocalls; they have to get really serious about enforcement and they have to get away from saying, ah, we finally found somebody who’s doing it, we’re going to fine them $5000 or something like that. Who cares? That’s not even doing the cost of doing business for most of them. You’ve got to put some meaningful fines on them and make an example of some of those folks.
And then at the agencies, instead of firing people and making [agencies] smaller, you have to have the expertise of people who understand this stuff, the engineering expertise, so that they can deal with it and know what these spoofers and robocallers are doing. It’s not an easy problem but I think that it’s one that we could be doing more about and I think the impatience of the American people is rising. Maybe that will happen legislatively. I hope so.
AT&T and Verizon and a couple of others have said that they’re going to offer free programs that will help block these calls.
“Watch what we do, not what we say.”
There are so many problems. I think we’ve hit on the big ones. Hopefully we can get net neutrality, but then we do really have to have this national conversation about the future of the Internet and the other dangers that are out there for it. We all need to be a part of that. Journalists need to be a part of that. And I would like to see much more involvement on their part. People like Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post and several others have written eloquently and she writes often about it.
I realize the challenges involved. A lot of journalists who are lucky enough to still have a job work for companies that don’t give them the luxury of going out and getting involved in issues like that. But if an issue affects your craft, your very livelihood and your future and you feel strongly about it, you need to get involved.
What can people do?
Bring it up in conversations with your families, co-workers and colleagues. Organize in communities. Every time a member of Congress comes home and goes to a town hall meeting, somebody should be out there saying, what about media consolidation? Why aren’t you for net neutrality? Why don’t we have privacy legislation?
It works. I remember back when I was doing battle at the FCC with one of the chairmen [Michael Powell] over the media ownership rules, a congressman called me and said, “I never knew this was an issue. But I went home a few weeks ago and a couple of people in the audience raised their hands and said what are you doing about media consolidation?” That fellow came back and voted on the right side against media consolidation. That’s where they need to hear from you -- back in the community so they know it’s a local issue and that it affects the intentions of the people going to the polls in the next election.
Finally, as an academically-trained historian yourself, when all is said and done, what do you think future historians will make of the Trump years?
That this was a time of real troubles for the country. Democracy is a fragile thing and what can undermine it as much as anything is fear. We have so much of the politics of scare and fear and let’s tear down trust in institutions.
So who do we trust nowadays to remedy these problems? We have to get back to some leader or some thing that will restore trust in institutions, and look to something or someone who can solve this. It [needs to be] all of us together demanding that… Maybe the sentiment’s already there but we need to make politicians understand that. We need a far-reaching change in our regulatory agencies and legislatures in this country.
It’s uphill, given the power of entrenched interests. I suppose you can make a case that it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle but as a small “d” democrat I think we should never fall victim to that kind of apathy and depression. We’ve been through tough times before. We can do this, so let’s start working and get it done.