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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Interviews FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, May 2, 2003

MOYERS: My next guest is one of five people who from one month to today will decide an issue crucial to democracy in America.

Most of you probably don't even know what's about to happen, but the Federal Communications Commission is going to decide whether any one media company can control more than 35% of the nation's audience or own the newspapers and television stations in one market.

Michael Copps is one of those five commissioners on the FCC. He has almost single-handedly conducted a series of public hearings around the country, inviting citizens to speak up on the issue.

With the clock ticking, he's been calling for even more public hearings. But the chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell says nothing doing.

Welcome to NOW.

COPPS: Thank you, sir.

MOYERS: You've been dismissed, if I may so, in some quarters as a, quote, "solitary impotent voice in the wilderness crying out against an unstoppable juggernaut of media ownership deregulation."

COPPS: That's depressing. I don't think so. I think we need to have a real media dialogue in this country. And I had hoped that we could generate it before we do this vote. I'm not so sure that we can do that now.

But I'm gonna do my dead-level best in the next month remaining to do it. But we've got to get hold of this at some point. We're talking here about the future of the Internet, TV and radio. We're talking about our democracy.

We're talking about teeing up issues that the American people need to be talking about and want to talk about.

MOYERS: In February, I think it was, several members of Congress wrote to Chairman Powell asking for more hearings and saying that the FCC has failed to publicize what's at stake.

The letter says, quote, "The elimination of the media ownership rules merits a thorough and complete examination by the public. But most Americans have no idea that such sweeping change is under consideration."

COPPS: The Pew Research folks did a survey a few weeks ago. And they said more than 3/4 of the American people have not heard of this issue.

There's two reasons for that, I believe. Number one is the commission has not done the outreach job as it should have. And I think when we're dealing with an issue so profound that it affects every American and what they see, hear and read in the media that we have an obligation to go out and tell them about it. And go out and look at local media markets like I've been trying to do and see what the reality of the situation is out there rather than just sitting around waiting for comments to come in from the regular lobbyists.

But we haven't done that. So that's one reason. The second reason is the inability to get the big media network attention.

MOYERS: How many of these public forums have you held so far?

COPPS: Well, I've attended probably somewhere between eight or ten. I've held a couple of my own despite of the fact that the FCC won't give me any money to advance these or to go in and rent a room where I have a microphone.

MOYERS: Is there a budget for this? There's no budget for this?

COPPS: I have been given no budget for this.

MOYERS: How are you paying for it?

COPPS: You get a limited travel allotment. And it is pretty limited. So I'm using that to go around to these forums. And a choice between a hearing on a shoestring and no hearing, I'll take the hearing on a shoestring every time. So that's what we're trying to do. These things are not well advanced. Yet we go into an area and four, five, six hundred people will turn out to testify.

MOYERS: But Commissioner…

COPPS: Or to hear.

MOYERS: Commissioner Powell has said you don't have to travel the country to know what America thinks on issues like this.

COPPS: Yeah, they call it horse and buggy, an anachronism, and foot-stomping. I call it pulse-taking. I think I don't believe that all expertise resides within the beltway in Washington, DC. They seem to think they can get these comments in from the usual players and suspects and organizations and there's nothing else out there.

But when you go out into the media market, there are journalists that have been around for a long time. There are broadcasters, there are academics. And there are just plain citizens who are very concerned. And you do get new facts. You do get a new perspective. No question about that.

MOYERS: Is there time between now and June 2nd to involve the public officially so that at least the voice of people gets heard?

COPPS: When this was launched last September I said to my colleagues, "if we really commit doing something now and go out and have our hearings and really encourage the compilation of an adequate record, and maybe we've got a fighting chance to get something between now and such time as the chairman calls a vote." He hadn't identified June 2nd at that particular time. But now we're a month away and I don't think so, no.

I don't. Not only do we not have all our answers, we haven't asked all the questions that need to be asked. This is not just some little mechanical thing about numbers or a little decision about numbers of stations. This is something that has very widespread and profound implications.

MOYERS: I've actually heard from conservative groups, right-wing groups alarmed that the concentration of media power in the handful of a few corporations interested only in profit has led to what they call a sewage running through American homes. You know, the lowest common denominator, vulgarity...

COPPS: That's something we have to look at. Is there mayhap a relationship between the rising tide of media consolidation on the one hand and the rising tide of indecency on the airwaves?

As I said, I don't have the answer. But I don't think we should be rushing pell-mell to vote before we at least tee up the question and try to do a little bit of credible research to see if there's something to that.

MOYERS: What I hear you saying is this issue hasn't been examined.

COPPS: No, it hasn't. There are just huge ramifications for you and for me and for everybody watching this show and everybody in America that need to be dealt with before... This is gonna be, you know, we do this review — it's called a biennial review — every two years.

But this is not something that we're just gonna be able to fix if we get it wrong in two years. This is the mother of all biennial reviews. Suppose that we vote on June 2nd on the basis of the inadequate record that we have now. And suppose, simply for the sake of argument here, that we make a mistake. How do you put the genie back in the bottle?

MOYERS: What is the role for Congress here? Is there a role for Congress?

COPPS: Oh, sure. Congress writes the Telecommunications Bill. We're responsible... my job is not to make policy or make law. My job is to implement the law as passed by Congress. Now, it's not always 100 percent clear what the intentions are there. But I think by and large it is.

And I think what really motivates and gives life and gives force to that Telecommunications Act is the fact that 112 times in that law appears the term "public interest." My job is to protect the public interest. Not the financial interests of any group, not anybody else's interests but protect the public interests. And that translates into those things we were talking about at the outset of the show.

MOYERS: But Chairman Powell says that the Communications Act which we all operate under now was written in 1934. That's the year I was born. That was in the first 1/3 of the 20th Century. We're in the first part of the 21st Century. And he said those old rules are anachronistic in this kind of world.

COPPS: Well, the Constitution was passed even before you and I were born — 1789. That's not anachronistic. These are enduring values and enduring virtues that we are talking about that we are trying to preserve through the law. They are not anachronistic. There's a proud, wonderful heritage in journalism. There is still is a proud, wonderful heritage in broadcasting. And there are a lot of broadcasters out there, I think, who are wonderfully motivated and interested in serving the public interest.

I go around and talk to them a lot. But less and less are they captains of their own fate. And more and more are they victims of this kind of bottom line quarterly report mentality. And I understand that. I mean, I understand they live in a commercial culture and a business culture. But this is a special industry with a special charge administering the public airwaves. Nobody owns these airwaves. There's no TV company or radio company that owns the airwaves. The people of the United States of America own the airwaves.

MOYERS: There are five commissioners. Three are Republicans and two are Democrats. Is this going to be a straight party vote?

COPPS: It's not a straight party issue. Let me begin by saying that. I think in Congress it's bipartisan. We've had two hearings in the last eight or ten weeks, one in the United States Senate, one in the House of Representatives. Interestingly, both of them were called to discuss telecommunications, the big Bell telephone companies and all, but quickly evolved into meetings with a lot of attention on media ownership.

But I heard their concern in the Senate hearing-- not just from Democrats. And I, you know, I knew Senator Hollings and Senator Dorgan and other people like that have been concerned about this on the Democratic side.

But I heard from Senator Lott. I heard from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. You've seen some of the letters urging Chairman Powell to slow down a little bit signed by Republican Senators: Senator Snowe, Senator Collins, Senator Allard. So it's not a partisan issue in Congress. I hope it's not a partisan issue at the FCC.

MOYERS: What can someone do who wants to be heard on this issue, for or against it?

COPPS: Well, you can get in touch with the FCC. We're at FCC.gov.

MOYERS: FCC…

COPPS: FCC.gov on the Internet.

MOYERS: G-O-V?

COPPS: Right.

MOYERS: Commissioner Michael Copps, thank you for joining us on NOW.

COPPS: Delighted to be here. Thank you.