In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission created a rule requiring broadcasters to cover issues that the government deemed important, and to do so in a way that the government found “honest, equitable and balanced.” If a broadcaster did not agree to abide by this rule, the FCC reserved the right to revoke the station’s broadcasting license. This rule was called the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC abandoned it in 1987. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a socially conservative Democrat appointed to the FCC in 2001, would like to bring it back.
Copps has a long history of advocating for government control of media, dating to the beginning of his tenure. But it wasn’t until last week, after Copps spoke to the BBC and an audience at Columbia University, that Congress decided to look into the commissioner’s philosophy against private media companies.
“We are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the future direction of their country,” Copps told the BBC. Media outlets are not “producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue.”
Copps went on to criticize his Republican colleagues at the FCC, who he claims, “eviscerated just about every public interest responsibility that generations of reformers had fought for and won in radio and TV.” In other words, the FCC folded the Fairness Doctrine in the 80s when it should have been cooking up legal justification for applying it more widely.
Republican Rep. Joe Barton got wind of Copps’ remarks and sent him a letter in which he asked if Copps meant “to suggest that it is the job of the federal government, through the Federal Communications Commission, to determine the content that is available for Americans to consume.” While Copps has not publicly answered Barton’s query, it’s no secret what he’d say: Hell yes.
Just a year after assuming his role at the FCC, Copps made clear that he wasn’t interested in mediating just when necessary. In a 2002 speech, Copps revealed that he was on a crusade against programming that isn’t good for America.
“Every day I hear from Americans who are fed up with the patently offensive programming coming their way,” Copps said. “I even hear from broadcast station owners that something needs to be done….When it comes to the broadcast media, the FCC has a statutory obligation to protect children from obscene, indecent or profane programming. I take this responsibility with the utmost seriousness.”
Copps demonstrated his commitment to cleanliness in 2004, when he made a federal case out of the now infamous Super Bowl nipple-slip incident, in which pop singer Janet Jackson’s breast was visible to TV viewers for a full split second. In the aftermath of the incident, Copps had no problem rallying Democrats and Republicans around his philosophy. As a result of the incident, the House passed a bill empowering the FCC to increase indecency fines by more than 10-fold, from $27,500 to $500,000.