Result: Powell's FCC slaps Fox with a $1.2 million fine.
Even some of Powell's harshest critics credit him with being too intelligent to dream up an obscenity like this campaign against obscenity. At heart he may even have wanted to lie back and let the uproar blow over. Another case involving the dread and soul-destroying F-word indicated that Powell and the FCC might deal sensibly with such issues. The singer Bono blurted it out when presented with a prize on a music awards show. The commission's first impulse was to overlook this transgression as having been spontaneous and unintentional -- and besides, the word was used in its adjectival state, a participle and not a verb.
His father is stepping down as secretary of state, but Michael Powell could remain in power until 2007.
(David Scull -- Bloomberg News)
But the pressure groups wouldn't accept that. They are tireless (don't they have day jobs?) and they inundated Congress with still more protests -- and Powell quickly switched positions. It didn't matter in what context the word was used, the FCC decided, because there was no context in which it could possibly be acceptable. What if President Bush scampishly includes it in his second inaugural address? Who knows? If Vice President Cheney's F-word outburst on Capitol Hill had only been aired on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, FCC commissioners would have a really nice, and richly deserved, mess on their hands.
Unable to deal with serious problems of the day, Congress opted instead for transparent demagoguery. Powell, who came under attack from lawmakers last year for his tireless efforts on behalf of giant conglomerates and concentration of media ownership, saw a chance to get back in its good graces. He now pontificates with vigor, building himself a political base. The fines in most cases are symbolic; CBS can pony up $550,000 any day of the week but will fight on principle.
The fines don't really compromise Powell's credentials as a pro-industry man, a dilettante who invariably sides with the moneyed minions of Big Broadcasting on the major issues, the ones likely to have the most lasting effects. These are the actions that could qualify as "sins," not just peculiarities of style.
I asked experienced industry insiders and activists to cite some "sins," and their answers were familiar. They all requested anonymity on the grounds that they must continue to deal with Powell's FCC no matter what.
"Arrogant" is the adjective used most often in any discussion of Powell and the way he pushes his personal agenda, an extension of the fanatical deregulation that gathered steam under Ronald Reagan's FCC chairman, a reckless loudmouth named Mark Fowler. Basically the theology is this: Commercial interests come first, second and third among priorities, and "the public interest, convenience and necessity," which the FCC is mandated to uphold, straggles in a distant fourth. Powell is much better tailored and milder mannered than Fowler but equally stubborn and self-adoring.
He seems never to have met a media merger he didn't like, which will result in the virtual death of local television and radio in America as station after station is sucked up into one enormous unfeeling conglomerate or another. Powell scorns the pleas of public-minded groups that try to meet with him, critics say, but will rush off eagerly to any luncheon, dinner or cocktail party sponsored by big corporate powers.
When criticized heavily for this during the uproar over Powell's attempts to jettison the rules against media concentration (rules designed to promote diversity in American broadcasting and keep one company from acquiring too much media power, as Fox has now), Powell grudgingly and belatedly scheduled a series of public forums on the matter. "But he skipped half the public hearings he authorized," laments one of his many detractors. Another characterizes him thus: "He's an elitist, he's arrogant, he's inaccessible, and he's incredibly vain about his own ideas." Critics consider him so egotistical that he will not listen or give any credence to the arguments of others. He has a master plan in his head for what American broadcasting should be. It really can be summed up in those four infamously immortal words, "The public be damned."
Says one industry veteran who has seen many FCC chairmen come and go: "Where we are now is the land of the bizarre."
Some people scoff. After all, it's widely assumed that the FCC's new passion for fining stations and networks will be swept aside by the courts, once it gets to them, for the audaciously unconstitutional assault on the First Amendment that it is. But, one skeptic points out, the Bush administration will be naming new judges to old courts. Bush has been known to sneak in judicial appointments in the middle of the night, literally.
We stand at the top of a dangerously slippery slope. When you start leveling fines for uttering certain words, the list of the verboten is bound to grow. We could be facing four years of even more paranoia than usual about Big Brother, much of it justified.
Over the decades, although the job wasn't usually considered a plum appointment, men of distinction, intelligence and integrity have served as chairman of the FCC -- such men as Charles Ferris (1977-81), Richard Wiley (1974-77), Dean Burch (1969-1974) and the most famous chairman, at least until now, Newton Minow, an intellectual and scholar who coined the phrase "vast wasteland" to describe prime-time TV and used the power of his office to try to make television better, not censor it.
Powell belongs at the bottom of the barrel with the lowliest of the bunch. He is an agenda masquerading as a man, the proverbial pompous ass and, worse, a genuine threat to freedom of speech. But on CNBC, he was playing Santa Claus. "I am still having fun," he said merrily, as if that were part of the job. "There are still things that are really significantly important to me to complete. Right now, I just have no plans of going anywhere."
That's the problem. If he were looking for places to go, I could suggest one in a snap. But it's a four-letter word and, who knows, I might end up in jail.