June 21, 2011

The Seattle Times said he could “fire up crowds like a revivalist preacher.” Progressives have called him a rock star. Even conservatives, with whom he generally butts heads, have called him “a voice in the wilderness.” For the last decade, he has often been the lone fighter in a struggle that goes to the very core of our democracy.

And yet, you’ve probably never heard of him.

He is Michael Copps, FCC commissioner and tenacious advocate for a public-interest approach to regulating the media. Before coming to Washington, he was a history professor, a historian of FDR and the New Deal. And so it is of little surprise that when he joined the FCC, he did so in the same fighting tradition as FDR’s FCC chairman, James Lawrence Fly, who warned that “to the extent that the ownership and control of . . . broadcast stations falls into fewer and fewer hands, the free dissemination of ideas and information, upon which our democracy depends, is threatened.”

Indeed, in his two terms on the FCC, Copps has become the 21st-century embodiment of that old-fashioned creature: a public servant of deep integrity and courage who uses his position to speak for those whose voices are rarely heard. He has done so at a time when press freedoms have been challenged as never before, not just by technology but by corporate interests that seek to dominate the flow of information — and the profits derived from it.

Copps has done so in the face of Republicans who favor deregulation and consolidation, and has confronted Democrats who have been hesitant to offend media companies and big-contributor CEOs. In his 10 years on the commission, those who have underestimated him have done so at their peril.

In 2003 and 2004, for example, when the commission’s Republicans moved to relax media-ownership rules, Copps stood athwart their path. When Michael Powell, then chairman of the FCC, refused to convene a formal hearing on the matter, Copps worked with media-reform groups to organize hearings of his own across the country. Large crowds turned out in city after city and registered their opposition. More than 3 million people wrote the commission and Congress. It was an extraordinary display of the public’s interest in seemingly arcane policy issues.

Copps has been equally eloquent and persistent as a champion of genuine net neutrality, which would keep the Internet free and open to everyone, regardless of economic status, race, gender or location. He has pushed hard for what he calls a “public values test” that local television stations would have to meet before having their licenses renewed. And he continues to champion the idea that the FCC should be more open, holding hearings across the country in order to let citizens (as opposed to lobbyists) define and demand public-interest protections.

Copps’s long fight for those protections has now taken the form of a blistering dissent to a newly released FCC report called “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in the Broadband Age.” The report concludes that despite an evolving media environment, the American press is thriving, and that the crisis of news and information that Copps warns of has, in reality, failed to materialize.

“But there is a crisis,” Copps says in his dissent to the report, “when, as this Report tells us, more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters offer little to no news whatsoever to their communities of license. America’s news and information resources keep shrinking and hundreds of stories that could inform our citizens go untold, and, indeed, undiscovered.”

The report dismisses the reforms Copps proposes as old-school fixes that have been tried without success. But Copps uses his historian’s perspective to expose that line’s fundamental fallacy. “I agree that our current licensing process has failed,” he says. “That’s primarily because, beginning 30 years ago, the Commission wiped from its books most of the public interest guidelines that consumers and advocates had won after long, tough struggles for media reform.” He notes that in his entire tenure on the FCC, and in the two decades prior, the commission never — not once — revoked a license because of public-interest non-performance.

All is not well in the state of journalism. Newsrooms have been decimated. Local coverage has been debilitated. The diminishing of public-interest journalism threatens the fundamentals of our democracy, leaving us with few the tools to hold politicians or corporations accountable.

“There is real urgency here,” Copps says, insisting that this is “no time to be timid.” Yet with an FCC seemingly content to marginalize itself, one wonders how we might forge ahead, how we might reclaim the airwaves in the name of the public interest.

Copps’s term on the commission ends this year. His departure will create a vacuum. When I asked him about it, however, he spoke of his hope that citizens will carry on the cause of media reform. “So much comes down to the grass-roots, to helping people understand what’s really going on,” he said.

He has pledged to continue to drum up media attention to the issues he has been devoted to during his time on the FCC and to encourage people and organizations to keep up the fight. “No matter what your first issue is,” he says, “media reform needs to be your second issue.”