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Copp was the only FCC commissioner to vote against Comcast's 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal. Now, Comcast is seeking to buy Time Warner. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Former FCC Commissioner Warns Against Comcast-Time Warner Merger

Michael Copps says the commission’s love affair with industry destroyed independent media outlets.

BY Michael Winship

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.

Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner, frequent Bill Moyers guest and now a special consultant to the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, has written an open letter to the news media over at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Copps, who was the only commissioner to vote against Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal in 2011, notes “the stunning announcement” of the proposed Comcast takeover of Time Warner for more than $45 billion. “That would make this one of the biggest mergers in media history,” he writes, “and I fear it will run roughshod over consumers in the end.”

More broadly, Copps writes of his initial excitement at joining the Federal Communications Commission in 2001 and his subsequent disillusionment.

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.

Copps says that he was expecting “change for the better” after the election of Barack Obama. “After all,” he remembers, “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.”

To those who see the explosion of cyberspace as a more than acceptable tradeoff for “the shrinkage of traditional media,” Copps warns, “The Internet is at a vulnerable crossroads, and decisions made in the public realm generally, and at the FCC specifically, will have as much to do with its success as will innovation and technology.” Copps sees the challenge as two-fold.

One is much greater deployment of the broadband that enables Internet communications. The other is guaranteeing a truly open Internet (often uninformatively called ‘network neutrality’). Some would have you believe that America is a veritable broadband wonderland, but stubborn facts belie their optimism. In fact, our country has fallen from leader to laggard in broadband. American consumers are paying more and receiving less than broadband customers in other industrial nations, thanks in no small part to industry-friendly FCC deregulations that passed over objections like mine. Broadband is the critical infrastructure that will fuel 21st century jobs, health, education and democracy, just as roads, bridges, railways, highways and rural electricity fueled the earlier growth of our nation. But until we develop a sense of mission to bring high-speed, low-cost broadband to everyone—no matter the particular circumstances of their individual lives—the future will belong to others. This is partly an FCC job, but also that of our top government. Our forebears moved America forward with infrastructure often supported by innovative private-public partnerships. It is time to do this again.

Unless the FCC responds to a recent federal court ruling overturning the concept of net neutrality, Michael Copps writes, “Internet service providers are free to fashion the Internet into something like cable television, with the most desirable news and information behind pricey pay-tiers. It is a very real threat to the delivery of news. Under the current rules, a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service. Such frightening scenarios should galvanize anyone who cares about journalistic freedom.”

Reprinted with permission from BillMoyers.com.

Michael Winship is a senior writer for Public Affairs Television, which was founded by Bill Moyers.

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