Next administration will see immediate leadership change at FCC

by Kim McAvoy, TV Newsday

If Barack Obama is elected president this fall, come January, he will likely name one of the two sitting Democratic FCC commissioners to replace temporarily the outgoing Republican Kevin Martin as chairman of the agency
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But which one? Michael Copps or the like-minded Jonathan Adelstein.

According to insiders, each is waging a low-key campaign to capture the post, which brings with it the power to control the staff and set the agenda of the agency.

"Both are political animals and they both would like to be chairman," says an FCC insider.

The interim or acting chairmanship may last only a few months — just long enough for Obama to nominate a permanent chairman and for the Senate to confirm him or her.

But it could last considerably longer.

In 1993, when Bill Clinton first took office, FCC Commissioner James Quello stepped up to succeed the outgoing chairman Alfred Sikes and served nearly an entire year before relinquishing the job to Reed Hundt.

Agency appointments are never a high priority for new administrations.

"It makes sense to throw someone in as an interim chairman for a while and focus on getting an attorney general and other cabinet members confirmed," says one long-time FCC observer.

A few months or 12, the job could be an opportunity for Copps or Adelstein to make a real mark on communications regulation.

That's because the temp will likely be working with a 2-1 Democratic majority.

Republican commissioner Deborah Tate is not expected to gain Senate approval for a second term and will probably leave in January along with Martin.

That would leave Robert McDowell as the agency's only Republican come late next January.

The prospect of regulators like Copps or Adelstein taking charge even temporarily isn't considered good news for TV broadcasters.

Both are regulators who believe that TV and radio stations have been getting off lightly since the Reagan years and that media consolidation has gone way too far.

"Look at what is happening to newspapers, look at what's happening to broadcasting, all they [Copps and Adelstein] care about is how Free Press [an anti-media grassroots group] responds to them," says Tribune Broadcasting's chief Washington lobbyist Shaun Sheehan.

Copps is particularly worrisome to broadcasters. "He's an unguided missile. He plays politics all the time," says another broadcast lobbyist.

Most are betting Copps will get the nod for the temporary duty.

He's senior to Adelstein and he has built a reputation as a strong and effective advocate for broadcast localism rules and against further media consolidation.

Copps is also credited with winning over Martin on issues once anathema to conservative Republicans.

Without Martin's backing, the FCC would not have adopted new rules requiring broadcasters to issue detailed reports of the types of programming they offer. It would also not have launched a rulemaking aimed at imposing local programming quotas on stations.

Earlier this summer, Copps strengthened his relationships on Capitol Hill in the company of his old boss, retired South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings.

Hollings was in Washington primarily to promote his new book, Making Government Work.

Copps spent much of the day making the rounds with Hollings. The two were together when Hollings dropped off a wedding present for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, a widower who remarried in May.

Hollings isn't officially endorsing his former staffer for the FCC job — temporary or permanent — but believes he would make an "excellent'' chairman.

`There isn't any question about it," he says. "Whatever he does, it's outstanding."

Copps's candidacy would also likely be endorsed by consumer and anti-media groups because of his on-going opposition to media consolidation.

He was a thorn in the side of former FCC Chairman Michael Powell when he tried to jettison or relax many of the ownership limits in 2003.

Adelstein's chances of succeeding Martin are complicated by the fact that his FCC term has expired and the Senate has not yet confirmed him for another.

However, he can stay at the agency until Congress adjourns at the end of 2009, which means he could run the FCC for most of the year.

"It is fundamentally a tricky thing for a White House to have a interim chair who is engaged in the politics of getting himself renominated at the same time he is trying to run the FCC," says one agency insider.

But communications lawyers and FCC lobbyists say not to underestimate Adelstein.

Like Copps, he has solid liberal credentials and the necessary Capitol Hill connections.

Before his appointment to the FCC in 2002, Adelstein spent 15 years as a senior Senate staffer working for various members.

The South Dakota native remains close to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), whom he advised on telecommunications policy for seven years.

Today, Daschle is a national co-chair of Obama's presidential campaign, which obviously could help the commissioner in his quest.

For the most part, Adelstein's record at the FCC is similar to Copps'. In fact, they have usually worked in tandem.

Last year, they both voted against Martin's proposal that relaxed the FCC's newspaper-broadcast crossownership rules.

Adelstein is also a favorite among public interest groups.

He's carved out a reputation fighting against payola violations and is an ardent critic of broadcaster use of unidentified video news releases.

This summer, he has given a couple of speeches that many read as campaign speeches.

"Let us reclaim the media by saying no to payola, video news releases, product placements and interactive advertising targeting our kids," Adelstein told an audience this June in a speech at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis.

A few days later, in remarks to the Media Institute, he called for stepping up efforts to protect America's children.

"Too many parents feel like they are losing control, and they're frustrated by a seemingly relentless march of coarse material that is too violent, too sexual, too commercial or too unhealthy for their children," Adelstein said.

He added that it is time for government to "look for ways to protect children — online and over broadcast, cable and satellite."

Of course, there is always the possibility that either Copps or Adelstein could wind up a permanent chairman.

But most FCC watchers believe that is unlikely to happen.

An Obama White House is more likely to want a chairman who reflects the "outside the beltway, kind of change strategy," says one observer.

"That's a plum you hand out to one of your own people," says another.

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