Copps: statement at Seattle FCC hearing

Thank you everyone for giving up your valuable time, which I’m sure could have been spent in a more entertaining fashion this evening to come out and participate in this grass roots dialogue. Thanks to Congressman Jay Inslee for being here tonight and for his really outstanding leadership on the issues that we are going to be discussing. So many good members of congress from this state. Certainly thanks are due to Senator Maria Cantwell for the leadership she brings to these issues on the Senate side, particularly through her membership on the commerce committee there. Thanks to Reclaim the Media for what they did tonight bringing us all together, the Seattle Times, KBCS community radio, minority executive directors, coalition and the University of Washington Department of Communications and thanks to the library for giving us its beautiful venue. Finally, a special thanks to my good friend Frank Blethen, who has been such an eloquent and stirring voice on media issues for so very long at a time when so many publishers and so many media companies are pushing for new rules to allow even more consolidation. Frank understands how precious journalism is, and he has given eloquent voice to the idea that serving the public interest should be in the north star for anyone running a newspaper.

One of the very first meetings I attended on ownership was right here in Seattle. It was one of the best meetings, one of the liveliest, and one of the most articulate groups of people. Tonight, that dialogue and the media continues, and we are back here again to see what happened in the last two or three years for better or for worse; and it could not be at a timelier moment, because right now the FCC is in the midst of a hugely important proceeding that will decide for years and years how our media is going to look. Our radio, our television, newspapers, cable, even the internet. Will our media help us to expand democracy or will it primarily serve the commercial interest of a few huge players?

Just a very brief history here. Three years ago, as most of you know then FCC chairman Michael Powell, opposed the objections of Jonathan Adelstein and myself, severely cut back -- some would say eviscerate the rules we had to check big medias seemingly endless appetite for more consolidation. The Powell commission passed new rules allowing a single media company to own, in some single markets, up to three television stations, eight radio stations, the newspaper (already a monopoly and in most places) the cable networks, cable distributor, even the internet portals. You have to ask yourself how does that serve democracy? How does that serve diversity in our system? And just as bad as what they did was how the Commission went about it: behind closed doors. Can you imagine that?! Authorizing a sea change. A real sea change! And how the people’s airwaves are used without even bothering to ask the people how they feel about it. But that’s what they did and that was a near disaster for America.

Except they miscalculated, they didn’t think anyone was interested in this. But, 3 million people contacted the FCC. I went down in 2001 and I didn’t think 3 million people knew there was a place called the Federal Communications Commission. But, people knew and Congress rose up too, under the Leadership of Jay Inslee and others in the house side and folks in the senate side and then the courts also got involved. This was a citizen victory because the courts sent those rules back to the commission saying they are badly thought. Do it over, do it again. That was a victory -- that was good. But now, it’s reality-check time, because we are right back to square one. The same mediate interest still wanting to loosen the rules. Still wanting to have more consolidation. Beating the drums for the same thing and they have the money and they have power.

So, if we’re going to succeed on this, and then go from there to a broader dialogue, and the future of media and our democracy it will be again just like last lime because of citizen’s action from folks like you in this audience and your family and friends and your neighbors in communities all across this land of ours. And this time we have to ensure that the proceeding is open and transparent instead of commissioners hiding in their offices in Washington. This time let all the FCC commissioners come to Seattle. So we’re here tonight and let them all get around America and discover what’s happening outside of their fatal Washington belt way. You know. It’s curious - have you ever noticed how many public figures there are in Washington D.C. ? They’re complaining and moaning and groaning about life inside the beltway. Yet, try to get them outside the beltway to come meet the American people. That’s awfully darn hard to do. One of life’s little ironies, I guess.

We begin this discussion tonight -- right where we should, the fact that it is the people who own the airwaves. No broadcaster, no business, no special interest owns an airwave in the United States of America. Airwaves belong to you, they belong to us, and my friends now is the time to assert our ownership rights. I have seen all around this country that too many stations are absentee-owned and operated from afar, under business plans that do scant justice to the public interest; seen local news rooms being cut down and seeing local entertainers being shut out of the airwaves, local musicians.

There is something else that troubles me greatly, and that is what is happening to minorities in this age to consolidated media? Minority issues are all but ignored. Minorities are depicted on television more often then not in caricature. Latinos aren’t covered for the good things going on in their communities. The camera focuses instead on illegal immigrants climbing fences and crossing the borders to get into America. African Americans aren’t covered for what they contribute, you know they are far more often seen in the crime segment of local news and actually there aren’t too many other segments BUT the crime segment in local news. And a lot of this is caused by the fact that minorities have been virtually shut out of media ownership. People of color compromise almost a third of the population of the United States of America. You know how many of the full power TV stations they own? Just a little bit over 3%. And ownership matters. In fact I go further than that, I think that ownership rules; and unless, and until, we find a way to increase minority ownership of our media, the sad situation is not going to improve.

The stakes in this proceeding are enormous, there is no way around it. Fundamental values like the folks have talked about here tonight: local news and competition, diversity preserving our democracy. These aren’t luxuries, these are essential things that we are entitled to have and that we must have. This issue of media consolidation, has been my highest priority since I went to the FCC five years ago. Now I know our country has a problem. We have a lot of really tough issues to work through. Confronting us now are issues of peace and war, finding and keeping jobs, developing racial justice and equal opportunity. I have taken health care for our families, entertaining our kids, the list goes on. And one of those issues may trump every other issue in the minds of you folks in this audience as individuals tonight.

But here is what I think; even if the future of our media is not your number one issue, it ought to be your second most important; and that is because Americans get their input and develop their views about all these other critical issues that you care about through the funnel and the filter of big media. Now if you are okay with that and you think you can bring your issue home that way, fine, God bless you. But if you think that issue that you are really interested in would fare better in an open, and a diverse, and a competitive, and a more locally-oriented environment, then you should think seriously about putting this media consolidation issue way up front.

We have a steep climb to win the victory in this fight, especially if we see a victory as not just stopping bad new rules, but going back and fixing the old rules that got us into this mess in the first place; and then going from there to reassert and re-invigorate the public interest standards that we used to have for broadcasting. I am, well you might say, well he is talking all about the money and the power of the special interests and yet he says he’s optimistic. Why is he optimistic? I am optimistic because I think that we have the people on our side on this issue -- 99.9% of those 3 million people that contacted the FCC were against what Chairman Powell was trying to do. It’s not that you would mark blue state or red state liberal or conservatives. Everywhere I go across this country, Jonathan and I have been in every corner of this Country in the last 3 years. You see a coalition, you see everybody on a grass roots, all-American fundamental issue. So I am more than happy to take my chances with a good sense of the American people and we can win.

Now think about what a victory can mean. Because if you and I do what we should be doing, at the end of this debate, we can have airways of, by, and for the American people and we can have a media that reflects, and a media that nourishes our democracy. Maybe a democracy, don’t you think that’s worth fighting for? I do. So let’s talk tonight. Let’s discuss tonight. Let’s fight tomorrow and let’s win. Thank you.

article originally published at .

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