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August 24, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps

BILL MOYERS: Low-power radio is one piece of the media landscape — a small piece…an alternative, as you've just heard, to the handful of corporate giants that have gobbled up practically every media outlet in sight. Those media titans control most of what we hear, see and read and they still want more.

The very important but little covered Federal Communications Commission is once again considering whether to revise media ownership rules … and there's pressure to let media conglomerates get even bigger.The next two months are the period of public comment during which you can let the commissioners know what you think about these rules.

One of those five FCC commissioners is my next guest. Michael Copps has been out at public hearings around the country listening to what citizens think and say about media ownership.

MICHAEL J COPPS: Now we're back at square one. It's all up for grabs. And if we are going to do better this time around, it's going to be because of input from folks like you.

MIKE MILLLS: We must ask the question, is American radio better today than it was 10 years ago. That was the answer.

BERNIE ALAN: How do you expect these corporations to give us a diversity of opinion if they can't even give the marketplace a diversity of programs.

SUMMER REESE: You have the keys to communications in your hands. You are responsible for whether we hear what's going in this country right now!

BILL MOYERS: Commissioner Copps is one of the few voices to speak out over the years about the dangers of too few people having too much media power.

Welcome to THE JOURNAL.

MICHAEL COPPS: Thanks for having me back.

BILL MOYERS: You said in a recent speech that-- that America's playing Russian roulette with all of our media. Broadband, internet, television, radio, newspapers. How so?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, we're going at it without a policy. We're going at it without a vision. We're going at it without realizing what these things mean to the future of our country. Whether it's broadcast or broadband.The public airwaves are to be used for serving the public interest. Expanding our cultural horizon, covering community news, enabling the democratic dialogue. Increasingly, we have moved away from that vision and they're being used for corporate profitability.

BILL MOYERS: And some people will say, that's the market, Michael Copps. That's the way business and capitalism work.

MICHAEL COPPS: But the market is a little bit different than the public airwaves. This is our most precious resource I think in the United States of America and probably the most influential businesses we have is media, is communications.

So it's different than just the usual business transaction. Because we tell these companies particularly to go back to broadcasters, you have the right to use these airwaves. But you've got to be stewards of these airwaves.

Yes, you can make a good living. Nobody's trying to get in your way of that, and most of them continue to make a pretty good living, as you know from watching what a lot of the commercial broadcasters are doing these days.

But in return for that privilege, you need to be stewards of the public airwaves and serve the public interest. A lot of people say, oh, that's so amorphous. What does that mean?

BILL MOYERS: And who's gonna determine that.

MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah. It appears 112 times in the Telecommunications Act. The term public interest convenience and necessity. So I know darn well Congress was serious about it.

BILL MOYERS: You're talking about the 1934 Act.


BILL MOYERS: That established the commission and our telecommunications policy for a long time to come.

MICHAEL COPPS: Right. Right.

BILL MOYERS: And it talked about the public interest. But always, there's been a problem defining the public interest.

MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah. But it's not as difficult as some of the big corporate lawyers would have you believe. It's always been defined as encouraging localism and diversity of viewpoint. Diversity of ownership too I think. And competition. Localism, diversity, competition. We're going in exactly the opposite direction with all this consolidation we've had for the last-- last twenty years.

BILL MOYERS: But can you take an Act of 1934 that was designed-- radio was the only-- the only medium we had then. And apply it to the internet which has no connection to the public airwaves.

MICHAEL COPPS: But we're not having this debate. Here, we have a whole changed landscape. We have the-- the new world of media, the new world of digital television, the new world of private equity financing which I think is-- is terribly important for us to analyze. We're not doing it.

And we're not-- we're not asking ourselves what more do we have to do or what, if anything, do we have to do to make sure that-- that all of these things are ushered in in such a way as to serve the public interest and to benefit the American people. We sit here with this mindless rhetoric about, oh, that's regulation or that's deregulation or some darn thing like that. And future be damned.

BILL MOYERS: What concerns you about private equity buying news outlets and-- and-- and other media?

MICHAEL COPPS: What concerns me is we have not asked the question of the FCC, is, does this transformation in-- in our capitalistic system inhibit somehow our ability to protect the public interest? Now, I'm not ready to say private equity is bad all the time or is good all the time. I think there are a lot of private equity deals that are probably good if you can get away from that quarterly bottom line.

On the other hand I don't know who owns who under private equity. And they don't have to tell me. But I'm supposed to be protecting what these companies do in so far as their obligation to serve the public interest.

So, can I still do my job as well? Do I know who to attribute ownership to? Do I know who to go to if there's a problem or a violation in the telecommunications act?

BILL MOYERS: Well, even as we speak, you and your other commissioners are reviewing media ownership rules as required by the court. Have you developed what you consider a fair and serious process for reviewing these ownership issues?

MICHAEL COPPS: I am always for doing much more in the way of a public process. You know, at the commission, we hear from so many of the same players day after day after day. And I-- I don't mind hearing from the-- the big media companies. They have a right to be heard. And we look at their submissions.

But I want to hear what the average America has to say. They're the real stakeholders in how the public airwaves are used. And they're the ones that know how the public airwaves are being used because they're listening to the radio and watching that television every day. So that's why I've said, let's go out. Let's have hearings all over the country and-- and really talk to people. And I--

BILL MOYERS: And you've been out there.


BILL MOYERS: What have you learned?

MICHAEL COPPS: I have learned that there's a tremendous amount of concern. I've learned first of all that people understand this issue.

I went to a meeting one time, an ownership hearing. I think it was in-- it was in Arizona. And it was a town with a lot of consolidated media. Very-- I think nothing probably had been-- had been published that we were coming. 500 people showed up for the meeting.

BILL MOYERS: What concerns--

MICHAEL COPPS: So I went down. I went down and asked some of the people. I said, how did you find out about this meeting? You know what they said? One of them said, I heard about it on the BBC.

MICHAEL COPPS: You know, there's a lot of important issues in the United States of America right now. Everybody says well, Copps, why do you get so wound up on this media ownership? That's all you talk about, media ownership.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, Copps. Why do you get so wound up in this media ownership?

MICHAEL COPPS: All right. We've got issues of peace and war. We've got issues of how do we insure our kids and insure our families? How do we find jobs? How do we educate our kids? Those are all important. And one of those may be your number one issue.

All I'm saying is, if that's your number one issue, you better make this media consolidation issue your second most important issue. Because all those big issues get filtered and funneled through big media. That's how the people hear about it. That's what sets the parameters of the debate. And that's what maybe limits intelligent decision making for the future of our democracy.

BILL MOYERS: When you talk to or listen to or hear from or watch these big titans, like Viacom and Time Warner, do they have any sympathy for the argument you make about democracy and journalism and serving the public interest?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, with regard to the big - I don't see bad people. But I see people who are in a position where a lot of the policy choices they make lead-- lead to bad policy. And-- and let me-- let me make clear here that I'm not the anti-broadcaster commissioner. I think there are a lot of broadcasters in this country in whose breast the flame of the public interest still burns.

All I'm saying is that in this environment we live in, they are less and less captains of their own fate and more and more captive to the unforgiving expectations of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

And they're losing their ability to run their stations like they did with maybe a little bit lower profit margins. And the market has to have, you know, if you do 20 percent, they want 25 percent next year. You do 25 percent, they want 30 percent.

How do you protect the public interest and safeguard it and really invest in investigative journalism? And cover community events and cover that local government, if you don't spend some money?

BILL MOYERS: But isn't it the nature of the capitalist ethos for the whale to swallow the minnow?

MICHAEL COPPS: Yes. I think it is. And I think we made the-- we made the decision a long time ago that our broadcast media would be operated within the parameters of that capitalist system. But there is that special difference that makes it a special industry.

And that's that the resource that these people are using belongs to you and me and has to be used in our interests. We're the stakeholders. The stakeholders are just as important as the stockholders. They're more important than the stockholders.

We have this corporate thing, a fiduciary responsibility. Stockholder, stockholder, stockholder. But we have to start thinking citizen, stakeholder, stakeholder, stakeholder.

BILL MOYERS: I understand that when you're talking about the radio frequency and the television signal. The use of public air space for commercial reasons. But this doesn't apply, does it? to the internet which is-- has nothing to do with any public space?

MICHAEL COPPS: But why aren't we looking at this change in the telecommunications environment and say, how much has it changed? And how do we guarantee some of these protections that we used to have and don't have anymore for this new technology that we're all depending upon as our-- as our basic tools in the-- in the 21st Century?

BILL MOYERS: What do you want--

MICHAEL COPPS: We have to tee up to these new questions, instead of just debating all these old ones all the time.

BILL MOYERS: What are the new questions?

MICHAEL COPPS: How do you keep the internet free? How do you keep it open? How do you keep it neutral? How do you reinvigorate in our traditional media some sense of the public interest responsibilities that they have?

And I'm a big believer that we-- the best thing we can do right now for openers would be for the FCC to go back to a real, honest to God license renewal system. It used to be years ago that every three years, a broadcaster had to come in and demonstrate to the commission that they were meeting a list of-- we had twelve or fourteen guidelines.

You didn't have to meet every one. It wasn't the Twelve Commandments or anything like that. But we would look at their performance when they came in for renewal every three years and say, yeah, we think you're doing-- they're making a good effort. Give them-- give them their license.

Fast forward. Now, every eight years, you say, send in a post card and we'll send your license back by return mail. Don't usually even look at the public file that we demand them to keep. And unless there's a-- a personal charge against the station owner, maybe a spouse abuse or child abuse or something like that, no chance we're gonna take it away on public interest grounds.

So, is there any wonder that there's, that, you know, there's-- there's no discipline to really do all these public interest things, do the local news. Nobody's watching. There's no repercussions for them if they fail to do this.

BILL MOYERS: But the free marketers will tell you-- will say that there are so many options today. That you don't have to worry about a television station in Houston, Texas not serving the public interest.

MICHAEL COPPS: I know. Someone said, lots of-- lots of puppets, but one ventriloquist. You can go on the internet, you know. And this is supposed to be the source of all this diversity. In many respects, it is. Go to the top twenty news sites on the internet.

Do you think they're run by bloggers or independent or Mike Copps out of his home in Alexandria, Virginia? They're owned by the same folks that own all the other properties in cable and broadcast.

That's what I'm saying. These ills that were visited by excessive consolidation in media are now being visited upon the internet.

This is the most potentially liberating and dynamic technology in history. Maybe more so than the printing press. It's our future and how we're going to communicate. And to let it just develop like it is without a national strategy, without a vision, without a goal and-- and aligning that goal with our culture and our democracy is just-- it's dereliction of duty. And the threat is not from government.

But I think a lot of the internet folks thought for a long time, just keep government out of here. Four years ago, when we did the media ownership debate, they weren't as interested because they still thought they were open, free and guaranteed livelihood of internet freedom in the future.

But about two years ago, I started going around to these ownership meetings again. And people stand up. And you know, folks especially uncoached and said, hey. All these ills that you're talking about that have been visited by consolidation on traditional media. I'm worried about that on my internet. I can see that here now. So, we have all these new allies I think that are alive to this debate. Now, that's why-- that's one of the reasons why I'm optimistic.

BILL MOYERS: Have you seen the studies that show more people still get their news and information from television than any other single source?

MICHAEL COPPS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: So does that-- doesn't that reduce the impact of the internet?

MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah. Well, you have to understand what it can do and what it can't do. I mean, you-- you can't expect a blogger sitting in house somewhere and he can contribute a lot to the democratic process and keep the dialogue alive and vital. But he can't go out usually and set up a bureau in Washington, a bureau in New York, a bureau in Hong Kong. He can't hire the investigative journalists that are gonna get down on that beat like you used to do and really ferret out the story.

That's hard work. And that's expensive work. And that's what corporate media has gotten away from. So they cover all-- they cover the polls. You cover the presidential race. And all you do is you look at the financial reports. Who raised how much money, that's your headline. What happened to the issues? What happens to the stances of the candidates?

BILL MOYERS: It is so interesting, as you indicated, that so much of what we read on the internet comes from traditional news sources. The Associated Press. The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times. Newspapers. Local newspapers around the country. And those, as you say, are owned by the same big media companies.

MICHAEL COPPS: Right. So anybody that's watching this show and thinks that you can really differentiate between the future of the internet and the broadband and-- and the new media and the traditional media ought to look again. Because the future is interconnected. And the traditional media is very, very important.

BILL MOYERS: And what's at stake?

MICHAEL COPPS: What's at stake is-- is the nourishment of our culture. Diversity and creativity within our culture, so we can get away from all this homogenization and standardization of programming.

And what's at stake, even more importantly than that, is the vitality of our democratic dialogue. All these important issues that I talked about before that we have to decide. The American people will make good decisions on those issues if they have the depth and breadth of information they need.

It doesn't mean 24/7 news or anything like that. But it means teeing up the issues, having some clash of opinion. And let the people decide. But we are skating perilously close to where we are denying our citizens that essential breadth and depth of information that they need for our democracy to survive.

BILL MOYERS: You see media issues all of a piece. From broadband and internet to radio, television.

MICHAEL COPPS: I do. It's how we communicate with each other as a-- as a country. Beyond-- going beyond this table where you and I can talk personally, how do we learn all this other stuff? How do we communicate as a nation? That's through our media. It is all of a piece. It's not one over here, one there, one regulated, one deregulated or any-- anything like that. We've got to get serious about the issue. Because it's so serious for the future of our country.

BILL MOYERS: In 2003, when Michael Powell, the commissioner, wanted to allow a single media company to own in one community up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper. Even the internet service provider. What would have happened if those rule changes had not been challenged by citizens out across the country?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, you'd have a-- an even worse media environment than you have right now. You'd have-- you'd have more consolidation. You'd have fewer independent voices. You'd be combining newspapers and stations. You'd be shutting down newsrooms. You'd be firing journalists. All of these things that we've seen too much of already would have just been accelerated.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. But since then, we've seen Knight Ridder disappear. We've seen the Tribune company sold. We've seen Rupert Murdoch buying Dow Jones.

MICHAEL COPPS: Yeah. I'm not saying the old rules were good rules. I'm saying let's not make them any worse. And then, let's go back and revisit the bad old rules that got us into this mess in the first place. It's not the new rules that Michael Powell proposed that got us into the mess we're in. It's the old rules that we were operating under.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that Rupert Murdoch owns 20th Century Fox-- and he could be a liberal and I'd still be asking this question. What does it say to you that Rupert Murdoch owns 20th Century Fox, Fox Home Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting, Fox Television Station, Star, Fox News Channel, Fox Sports Net, FX, National Geographic, BSkyB, Sky Italia, Direct TV, TV Guide, the Weekly Standard, News America Marketing, more than one hundred newspapers, Harper Collins, Myspace,,, on and on. What does that say to you?

MICHAEL COPPS: It means when you've got the conduit and you've got the control, you've got so much power in a-- in a democratic country. And it ought to be raising serious questions in every home across this-- in this country of ours.

BILL MOYERS: But should government have anything to say about that? Because government too has its own interests?

MICHAEL COPPS: The public has its own interests. And the public owns the airwaves. And the broadcasters are supposed to serve the public interests. And the government, the FCC and the Congress are supposed to make sure that that happens.

BILL MOYERS: Why hasn't the FCC done it? You've been out and voted consistently on the FCC?

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, that's why it hasn't done it because I was out voted.

MICHAEL COPPS: When we had this near disaster four years ago when then Chairman Powell tried to impose new rules and actually got them through the commission over Commissioner Edelstein and my objections, I think those folks thought this wasn't something that really concerned the American people. Two arcane signal contour over-- overlap. And how many outlets can a company own.

But we go out and tell the people, these are your airwaves we're talking about. And they remember that they-- they own those airwaves. And we've got this little agency on the shores of the Anacostia River mucking around with them in secret. Don't want to have a lot of hearings or anything like that.

They got mad. So three million people, three million people contacted the FCC back in 2003. When I went there in 2001, I didn't know three million people knew there was a place called the Federal Communications Commission. But they knew.

And about 99 percent of them, 99.9 percent were-- were adamantly opposed to what we were doing. And Congress, the Senate went on to disapprove Powell's rules. The court sent them back to the commission to redo.

Citizen action can still work. We all get kind of frustrated in the 21st century. And you know, the big guys rule everything. And to a large extent, they-- they have too much power. But concentrated citizen action can still work. When three million Americans speak up, Congress pays attention. The country pays attention. And things can happen. And they can still happen. And that's where my hope is right now.

I don't want to just defeat bad new rules at the Federal Communications Commission on media ownership. I want to get some positive rules for the new environment we live in that will reinvigorate our media with some sensibility, to the common interest of the public interest.

BILL MOYERS: Michael Copps, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Thank you for being on the journal.

MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you for having me.

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