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.
But Copps wasn’t finished. Invigorated by the outcry over Jackson’s split second of nudity, he threatened to go after daytime soap operas, as well as network dramas like “ER” and “The Bedford Diaries.” The ripple spread even to public media, for which the commissioner has an unabashed fetish. PBS pulled certain episodes of the British detective series “Prime Suspect,” and a PBS programmer in Boston felt compelled to ask his superiors if he should cut an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” that featured a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe. According to a report from the First Amendment Center, Copps’ stomping around got so bad that “television producers complained about network intimidation.”
Hailed by groups like the Parents Television Council and Concerned Women for America, Copps appeared to be unstoppable until 2006, when Fox, NBC, and other networks filed suit against the FCC for going overboard on indecency. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the commission “had enacted its policy correctly,” but sent the case back to the Second Circuit to determine which of the FCC’s guidelines were constitutional. The Second Circuit decided in July of this year that they were not.
In response, Copps promptly labeled the ruling as “anti-family” and encouraged his colleagues “to clarify and strengthen [the FCC’s] indecency framework.”
While the FCC has a statutory obligation to respond to complaints about broadcast content, it has no jurisdiction over cable TV or the Internet. Copps, whose tenure at the commission ends next year, hopes to change that before he leaves. At a National Association of Broadcasters event held in April, Copps said that “we need to have a national discussion about” decency standards on the Internet, because Americans dislike “over the top…mindless violence” and sexual content.
Copps’ obsession with telling media companies what content they cannot publish or broadcast is rivaled only by his insistence on telling them what they should publish or broadcast. Never was this more clear than in March of this year, when Copps traveled to Los Angeles to present a USC-Annenberg study of LA-area TV that found the “average 30-minute TV newscast packs all of its local government coverage into just 22 seconds.”
Copps put on a grave face while delivering his response to the study. “I am really, really worried about this. We’ve got too much infotainment subbing for real news and I think democracy is, is in peril by this and it’s a problem. It’s a problem, it’s a challenge for us to fix our old media,” he said.
“The FCC has not regulated any of these stations with anything approaching a serious degree of public interest oversight,” Copps added, trailing off.
But it very well could.
Copps has been incredibly supportive of a Federal Trade Commission working paper called “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.” Among the project’s many proposals are plans for increasing government-owned media’s market share and knee-capping private media corporations. One of the biggest influences on this working paper is Free Press founder, neo-Marxist media scholar Robert McChesney. In his book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” McChesney praises Copps for being one of only a few bureaucrats willing to publicly assert that the government should have greater control over news, writing, “Copps has been concerned about the decline of journalism, especially at the local level, for years.”
His remarks last week suggest that Copps isn’t going to quit his media reform crusade any time soon.