Copps wants his media smaller, newsier, and less cluttered with ads

by Mya Frazier, Advertising Age

Michael Copps, dressed in a sports coat and plaid shirt, grips the lectern and waits for a raucous round of applause to die down. "Half a trillion dollars," he begins, pausing for effect. "Half a trillion dollars. That's a conservative evaluation of the airwaves that our country lets TV and radio broadcasters use for free. It's just about the biggest chunk of change our government gives to any private industry."

It's Jan. 12, 2007, in Memphis, Tenn., and Mr. Copps, preaching to the proverbial choir of nearly 3,500 self-described "media-reform activists," proceeds to tell them what taxpayers get for that half trillion: "Too little news, too much baloney passed off as news. Too little quality entertainment, too many people eating bugs on reality TV. ... Too much brain-numbing national playlists. Too little of America, too much of Wall Street and Madison Avenue."

It's not the kind of fiery rhetoric you'd expect from a 38-year Washington insider with a job title that can basically be summed up in one word -- bureaucrat. Is this the same guy who dons a suit and tie each day and heads to a rather boring and morose building that wouldn't look out of place in the middle of an office complex in, say, suburban Iowa?

Worthy adversary

Yes, but it's also likely that few things keep Rupert Murdoch and Sam Zell up at night more than the prospect of Michael Copps becoming FCC chairman. Unlike Chairman Kevin Martin, Mr. Copps surely would not be a friend to Big Media.

So far, as one of only two Democratic commissioners -- outvoted at practically every turn by three Republicans -- he's had little ability to actually push his vision of "media democracy" and has instead been limited to writing scathing dissents and firing up activists outside the Beltway. But it's been an effective strategy nonetheless.

"He has been, by far, the most effective FCC commissioner in a minority role that I have seen in 37 years of working with the FCC," said Andrew Schwartzman, president-CEO of the Media Access Project, which has fought media consolidation via the courts. "I have never seen anyone play a bad hand as well as he has." He added: "I would hate to be in a poker game with him."

Come 2009, the new president will appoint his or her own FCC chairman. And a Copps appointment would give him power to set the agenda, block media mergers with some help from Congress and overhaul the license-renewal process for broadcasters, a process he has called "slipshod." (He proposed shortening the eight-year cycle to three in a New York Times editorial last year.) In other words, every three years the likes of Messrs. Murdoch and Zell would be asked if they were serving the public interest and should keep their broadcast licenses.

Despite the critiques of the commissioner -- and there are plenty -- no one on either side disputes this: His tenure has permanently altered the dynamics of the FCC, by opening its once-insular world to the influence of public opinion and media activists.


"He is a revolutionary figure," said Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press and a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There just hasn't been an FCC member that has ever been this aggressive in saying that what the FCC does is important for the public to know about and participate in."

A cult of personality surrounding an FCC commissioner is not without precedent. Mr. Copps is often compared to Nicholas Johnson, a commissioner from 1966-73, who is likely to be the only FCC commissioner to ever make the cover of Rolling Stone (April 1971).

"It's impressive the things he's been able to get done, working at a 3-2 disadvantage his entire time on the commission," Mr. Johnson said.

Historically, if you weren't a media lobbyist or mogul, there was little reason to care about the inner workings of this government agency known for its mind-numbing technical regulations and role in granting licenses to big TV broadcasters. Indeed, for most of its 74 years, the FCC rarely captured the public's attention -- save the occasional headline-grabbing indecency fine.

Influential or obsolete?

The FCC has been called the most futuristic arm of the government. It regulates the wireless networks, and its rulings will determine what the internet will look like in the future. Yet, depending on whom you ask, the FCC is either entering its most influential era yet or an era of obsolescence. Just consider that the biggest internet acquisition ever proposed -- the $44.6 billion merger of Microsoft and Yahoo -- does not fall under its purview.

"The marketplace has moved beyond the FCC's ability to regulate it," argues Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "What happens in old media is far less important than what happens in new media."

In the hall leading to Mr. Copps' office, there's a red T-shirt that reads: "FCC U.S. Media Democracy Tour 2003" and a list of cities. It's a souvenir of sorts from what you might call Media Consolidation, Round I. Back in 2003, the FCC voted to loosen regulations that would have allowed a single company to own eight radio stations, a daily newspaper, a cable system and as many as three TV stations. Congress and an appellate-court rulings stymied most of the changes after nearly 3 million public comments were filed to the FCC and Congress. That outcry is credited to Mr. Copps and a fellow commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who, in an unprecedented move, traveled around the country to galvanize public interest, drawing crowds of as many as 1,000 in some cities at hearings that lasted as long as seven hours.

At his office on the eighth floor of the FCC, the T-shirt hangs among a motley group of Democratic campaign posters. There's Walter Mondale and John F. Kennedy, and photos of Mr. Copps shaking hands with Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Inside his office, there is an entire wall of framed photos and campaign posters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that clearly reveal his political leanings.

Waking up the FCC

In an interview with Advertising Age, he talked about the use of his position as a bully pulpit; his efforts to make the FCC more responsive to the public interest; strengthening the license-renewal process; net neutrality; and restoring the commission's credibility. He criticized the commission for being "asleep at the switch" on localism and diversity issues.

"We are skating perilously close in this country to denying people the depth of information that we need in order to make decisions on the future of this country. That's the premise of the small 'd' in democracy, and I think we need to do something about it," he said. "We have to have a better balance. It's out of kilter right now."

Since 1970 -- when he left Loyola University, where he taught history after earning his Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- Mr. Copps has worked inside the Beltway. He spent 12 years as chief of staff for Sen. Ernest Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina and chairman of the Commerce Committee, an experience that clearly shaped his views on the FCC and the media.

It is Mr. Hollings, after all, who has accused TV executives of airing too many commercials and reducing news departments; he has also called the FCC an "instrument of corporate greed." It is Mr. Hollings who is credited with "the screaming on the Hill that tempered what Mark Fowler was able to get away with," according to Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America. (Known for an unwavering mediaderegulation agenda, Mr. Fowler, chairman from 1981-87, famously called TV "a toaster with pictures.")

Folksy language

Mr. Copps' appeal is credited by many with the seemingly illogical combination of bureaucrat and activist. He uses plain language and folksy lines ("that's like fighting a bear with a flyswatter") in his many dissents, yet can dig into the minutia of technical jargon that is the bulk of a commissioner's work.

Improbably, he is a Bush appointee (the president is required to appoint two commissioners outside his own party). That's why even if Mr. Copps, 67, gets passed over for the chairmanship under a Democratic administration -- insiders agree he's on anybody's shortlist -- he will pass the torch to a very changed agency when his tenure ends in 2010.

"Every once in a while, a crusader takes a hold of an agency and reminds the public what the purpose of that agency is," said James Brock, an economist and business historian at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

His critics and enemies are many, and they rail against his antibusiness bent -- "deeply disturbing," noted retired telecommunications lawyer William Fishman in a recent law-journal article.

"A classic demagogue," said another media-industry lobbyist. "He makes it sound like everyone in media is only going to do Britney Spears coverage 20 hours a day. That's bullshit. Who should decide what gets on the air? Should it be Michael Copps?"


When asked what he thinks of Commissioner Copps, Shaun Sheehan, the VP of the Tribune Co., said in a huff, "Where to begin?"

Mr. Sheehan is the quintessential denizen of what the New Yorker in 2002 called the "FCC World." He has spent the last 23 years as the head lobbyist for Tribune and offers biting critiques (others offered only slight iterations of "We respect Michael Copps and look forward to working with him in the future.")

"God love Michael Copps, but everything he points to is a 1950s model. His solution is regulate, regulate, regulate," Mr. Sheehan said.

Yet it is Mr. Copps' regulation bent that is often a point of praise. "He is an idealist who still believes government is a force for good," said Jordan B. Goldstein, a former senior legal adviser to Mr. Copps at the FCC.

When Mr. Copps gave his speech in Memphis, it was almost a year before what you might call Media Consolidation, Round II. That was when the FCC voted to allow ownership of both newspapers and broadcast properties in the same market by a single media company -- a decision he blasted with ironic disdain in a 4,400-word dissent as one that "would make George Orwell proud."

Growing crowd

He was firing up the choir, yes. But that choir is getting bigger. Just consider that Free Press was launched in 2003 (tagline: "Reform media, transform democracy"). The group now has a staff of 33 and an operating budget in the millions. Its first conference drew just 1,700. Organizers expect as many as 5,000 in June.

And it is not the only group out there. There's the Seattle-based Reclaim the Media, founded in 2002, organizing for "media that favors the public interest rather than a powerful elite." Then there's the Prometheus Radio Project, which organizes "barn raisings" for community radio stations in its effort to build a network of lowpower FM stations. In all, there are 25 groups organized under the banner of the Media & Democracy Coalition, which together have made railing against Big Media a rather sexy and counterculture kind of thing to do.

As the unofficial leader of this movement, Mr. Copps knows how to fire up the choir. It was in Memphis that he proposed his "New American Media Contract."

It's a doozy that would make even the most fearless media baron shudder and includes the populist "a right to media that looks and sounds like America" and "a right to local stations that are actually local ... a right to news that isn't canned and radio playlists that aren't for sale." Then there's the clincher, one a CMO frustrated by the dreary choices for TV buys might even consider laudable: "a right to programming that isn't so damn bad so damn often."

His voice crescendos: "I am sick of this bargain, and I am sick of playing defense."

The audience eats it up, giving back whoops and hollers. Undoubtedly, the last thing media moguls wants is Mr. Copps playing offense.


The 'choir': Media-reform movement's major players

Free Press
Based in D.C., its rallying cry is: "Reform media, transform democracy." It holds a conference every 18 months. With a staff of 33 and nearly 350,000 members, it is the biggest of the media-reform groups and has been appealing to a younger demographic at sites such as Save the Internet and Stop Big Media, where viewers can hit a Rupert Murdoch head popping up all over a cartoonish map of the U.S. with a sledgehammer, carnival-style.

Reclaim the Media
Based in Seattle, the volunteer organization was founded in 2002 and is organizing Northwest communities. It wants to change media policy "so that the structure of our media favors the public interest rather than a powerful elite."

Media & Democracy Coalition
Based in D.C., the group was founded in 2003 and promotes the "Bill of Media Rights" and works as an umbrella organization for 25 media-reform groups.

The Center for Digital Democracy
Based in D.C. and founded in 2001, its mission is to ensure "the public interest is a fundamental part of the new digital communications landscape." Wants open broadband networks, free or low-cost universal internet access, diverse ownership of new media outlets, privacy and other consumer safeguards.

The Center for Media Justice
Formerly the Youth Media Council, this Bay Area group was founded in 2001 to end media bias against youth and racial injustice in the media.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey