Ill Communication

Craig Aaron

Critics say magazines like this one never print any good news about the Bush administration. Here’s some: Michael Powell is leaving the FCC.

Powell's greatest accomplishment—besides keeping children safe from Janet Jackson's nipple—may be inadvertently awakening a media reform movement.

Powell exits the Federal Communications Commission as perhaps both the best-known and most-despised chairman in history. The disdain Powell showed for average citizens was rivaled only by his enthusiasm for fraternizing with industry insiders.

But in a tenure marked by cocksureness and ineptitude, Powell’s greatest accomplishment — besides keeping children safe from Janet Jackson’s nipple — may be inadvertently awakening a media reform movement.

The policies he put forward were tailor-made for the media moguls, most notably the June 2003 ruling to allow one company to own stations reaching up to 45 percent of U.S. households and control up to three television stations, eight radio stations and the daily newspaper in a single market.

The public response to Powell’s plan was swift and angry. Three million people contacted Congress and the FCC to oppose the new regulations. But Powell didn’t get it, decrying a concerted grassroots effort to attack the commission from the outside in.”

The House and Senate moved to block the new ownership rules (ultimately compromising with the White House on a 39 percent nationwide cap that conveniently allowed Fox and Viacom to keep all of their stations). In June 2004, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the rules (except the new 39 percent cap) and ordered the commissioners to come up with a new plan that didn’t abandon logic and reality.”

The level of public awareness and enthusiasm for media issues, unthinkable a few years ago, hasn’t dissipated. Issues of media bias — like Sinclair Broadcast Group’s anti-Kerry efforts or the taxpayer-funded payola given to pundit Armstrong Williams — especially resonate. In fact, recent surveys of the membership of MoveOn and the progressive group True Majority rank media reform as a top priority, second only to fixing the electoral system.

Media reformers will have their hands full in the coming months, with a series of major decisions expected at the FCC even before Powell steps down in March. On January 27, the FCC decided not to appeal the decision rejecting the ownership rules to the Supreme Court, meaning they must restart the entire rulemaking process. February could bring major decisions at the commission about the digital transition of television, including how many of the newly available broadcast channels cable providers will be required to carry.

A key issue in the digital transition is what happens to the portion of the public airwaves being vacated by the TV broadcasters. The Media Access Project, New America Foundation, Free Press and other groups are pushing to preserve at least half of this bandwidth as unlicensed spectrum” — meaning it could be used by anyone for wireless broadband Internet service at super high speeds.

More than 15,000 letters have been sent by media reformers to the White House, asking President Bush to appoint someone as Powell’s successor who will defend the public interest and promote a more democratic media system.” But right now the leading candidate is Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin J. Martin — who wouldn’t need Senate confirmation. Martin is a hardliner on indecency with close industry ties. According to the Center for Public Integrity, he held more private meetings with broadcasters in advance of the 2003 ownership rulemaking than any other commissioner. Martin is friendly with the White House — where his wife, a former top aide to Dick Cheney, works as a special assistant to the president on economic policy.

Another leading contender for Powell’s job is Becky Armendariz Klein, the former head of the Public Utility Commission of Texas. When lobbyists from SBC, Verizon, AT&T and elsewhere got word last fall that she was on the FCC shortlist, they poured money into her sinking congressional campaign, even though they admitted she stood little chance against incumbent Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett. Washington is about getting in early,” one executive told the New York Times. That’s the way the game is played.”

Other names that have popped up include Michael Gallagher, who handles spectrum issues at the Department of Commerce; Earl Comstock, a top aide to Sen. Ted Stevens (R‑Alaska), the new chairman of the Senate committee with oversight of the FCC; and Pat Wood, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), who was considered for FCC chairman in 2001. A Ken Lay crony who also once headed the Public Utility Commission of Texas, Wood may be a tough sell because of his disastrous performance at FERC in response to the Enron scandal. Then again, job performance didn’t exactly disqualify Alberto Gonzales or Condi Rice from getting promotions.

Michael Powell won’t be missed. But when you remove a lightning rod, you’d better be prepared for a shock.

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Craig Aaron is senior program director of the national media reform group Free Press and a former managing editor of In These Times.
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