Sizzling mad When Michael J. Copps took his seat on the FCC in 2001, he joined a Democratic minority that found itself on the losing end of federal battles over media consolidation. (Jeb Harris / Orange County Register)
You may wonder why a long-time regulator like me is writing to you. The answer is that for more than a decade I occupied a front-row seat watching government policy undermine your profession and our democracy. I worked at the intersection of policy and journalism as a member of the Federal Communications Commission and saw first-hand how my agency’s decisions limited your ability to accomplish good things. Since I stepped down two years ago, the situation has only gotten worse. I want to do something about it. I want you to do something about it, too. Let me tell you what I saw.
I was sworn in as a commissioner in 2001. “What an awesome job this is going to be,” I thought, “dealing with edge-of-the-envelope issues, meeting the visionaries and innovators transforming the ways we communicate, and then making it all happen by helping to craft policies to bring the power of communications to every American.” It was a heady time when even normally sensible people believed that technology would bring the revolutionary wonders of the open internet to all of us. New media would complement the traditional media of newspapers, radio, TV, and cable, ushering in a golden age of communications. I was on fire to make good things happen.
The FCC that I joined had a different agenda. It had fallen as madly in love with industry consolidation, as had the swashbuckling captains of big media. The agency seldom met an industry transaction it didn’t approve. The Commission’s blessing not only conferred legitimacy on a particular transaction; it encouraged the next deal, and the hundreds after that. So Clear Channel grew from a 1970s startup to a 1,200-station behemoth. Sinclair, Tribune, and News Corp. went on buying sprees, too, and the major networks extended their influence by buying some stations and affiliating with others. Gone are hundreds of once-independent broadcast outlets. In their stead is a truncated list of nationwide, homogenized, and de-journalized empires that respond more to quarterly reports than to the information needs of citizens.
I notice now in the news the stunning announcement that Comcast hopes to buy Time-Warner, the second largest cable company, for more than $45 billion. That would make this one of the biggest mergers in media history, and I fear it will run roughshod over consumers in the end.
Let me be clear: Not every transaction is bad. Consolidation may offer some limited benefits, as when stations pool money to buy a better weather radar. But there is a huge difference between that and merged stations reporting the same news by the same reporters.
So instead of making good things happen, I would be spending untold hours listening to big media tell me how their latest merger proposal would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms like yours being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism hanging by the most slender of threads. Instead of expanding news, the conglomerates cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you.
While FCC oversight focuses most heavily on broadcast, its decisions affect newspapers, too. Numerous merger approvals have involved newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, which almost invariably translates into combined, downsized, or eliminated newsrooms. Obviously many factors contributed to the decline, such as the earth-shaking movement of advertising to the internet and the deep recession that hit in 2007. But here, too, private sector consolidation and public policy shortfalls had a direct and damaging impact. The FCC has actually made things worse for newspaper journalism, too.
It was disheartening to realize how government—my own agency—was an accomplice in diminishing our news and disfiguring your journalism. It isn’t just the excesses of a Wall Street bazaar run wild; it is also proactive government policy-making. And while it is true that many decisions at the FCC are non-partisan, this one often pitted the 2001-09 Republican majority against the Democratic minority (of which I was a member).
So I was expecting change for the better after the 2008 presidential election and the coming of a Democratic majority to the FCC. After all, Senator Barack Obama had opposed the pace of media-industry consolidation and had affirmed that public interest considerations should drive FCC decision-making. The senator’s letters to the FCC are an eye-opening matter of public record. To this day, two years after retiring from the FCC, I pull copies from my file drawer and shake my head at what might have been if performance had matched promise.