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Copps, a liberal voice on the FCC, knows how to get his message out

He speaks bluntly to the industry and rouses the grass roots, urging quality content and battling consolidation.

November 05, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — His dark suits. His wing-tipped shoes. The nearly four decades he's toiled in the nation's capital, including the last six years on the Federal Communications Commission.

Everything about Michael J. Copps screams bureaucrat -- until he opens his mouth.

Copps, a Democrat whose crusade against media consolidation has helped make him Hollywood's public-policy enemy No. 1, is more proselytizer than pencil pusher.

The public airwaves, he says, are filled with "too much baloney passed off as news." The Republican-led FCC is so lax that "unless you're a child abuser or a wife beater, it's a slam-dunk" to renew a TV station license. "Our country is paying a dreadful cost for this quarter-century fling with government abdication and media irresponsibility," he said this year.

Copps' ability to distill the complexities of media ownership into plain English and fire up crowds like a revivalist preacher helped derail an industry push in 2003 to loosen restrictions on owning broadcast stations.

Now, as the FCC prepares to tackle the volatile issue again, with Chairman Kevin J. Martin proposing a vote on new rules by the end of the year, the 67-year-old former history professor is reemerging as a hero to the firebrands fighting media consolidation.

In a city where officials speak in bland pronouncements, blurring their message with acronyms and jargon, Copps stands out like high-definition TV.

"He's the first FCC commissioner-rock star," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public policy law firm that has fought media consolidation.

Combining his historian's skill of framing an issue with political acumen he learned on Capitol Hill, Copps is regarded by supporters and critics as perhaps the most effective FCC commissioner ever from the minority party. If a Democrat wins the White House next year, FCC observers said, Copps would be on the list of potential chairmen, although the 2005 retirement of his top political backer, former Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), lengthens the odds. At the least, Copps could serve as temporary head for several months until a new chairman is selected and confirmed.

The prospect worries media executives. While liberal activists laud Copps as a visionary who wants broadcasters to better serve the public in exchange for free use of the airwaves, industry lobbyists complain he's stuck in the past.

The days when broadcasters and newspapers ruled the media are history, they say, overrun by new technologies such as cable and satellite TV and the Internet. In their view, permitting additional consolidation by letting companies own a broadcast station and a newspaper in the same city is crucial to cutting costs and surviving in the 21st century.

Copps' opposition to major mergers and his strong support for FCC crackdowns on coarse language and violence on the airwaves put him at odds with Hollywood. Media industry lobbyists envy his effectiveness and praise him for always courteously hearing them out. But on their issues, they said, Copps is a lost cause and a potential threat should he become chairman.

"It's 'Ozzie and Harriet,' " said one lobbyist, who did not want to be named because of business before the FCC. "He's mired in the 1950s."

Copps readily admits that some practices from the early days of TV appeal to him, often referring to the role broadcasters played in educating the public during the 1952 presidential contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

"I remember two or three times a week in September and October, you'd have a half-hour for each of those candidates on television. Eisenhower would get up and talk about an issue. Stevenson would get up and talk about an issue," Copps said. "Maybe it wasn't the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it was a hell of a lot better than what passes for campaign coverage now."

Although he's nostalgic, Copps denies living in the past.

"I think I'm Commissioner Up-to-Date. I'm a fellow who's thinking about how to use this new technology," he said. "The Internet is a wonderful complement right now to broadcast . . . but it's not a substitute, it's not a replacement. It's not going to be for a long, long time."

Copps' office on the eighth floor of the FCC's Washington headquarters is a bit of a time warp. The walls are covered with campaign posters from the early 20th century -- Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Copps' hero, Franklin Roosevelt.

"I believe in government," Copps proudly declared.

In his view, the public and private sectors must work together to build high-speed data lines as they did throughout U.S. history to build other vital networks, such as canals, railroads and interstate highways. Market forces alone aren't enough to ensure the public's interest will be served -- particularly when it comes to broadcasters that are allowed to use the airwaves for free, Copps said.

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