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.