Co-founder of Free Press. Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of several books, including his latest, The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas. He is widely regarded as one of the nation’s foremost media historians.
Lawmakers are urging the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the Pentagon’s propaganda program to determine if the major TV networks or the Pentagon-backed analysts violated federal law. We speak to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road in Minneapolis. We’re on the convention floor of the National Conference for Media Reform. We’re broadcasting here for the hour. Free Speech TV, our partner on channel 9415 of DISH Network, is going to be broadcasting these hearings, if you can call them that, the sessions, gavel-to-gavel, all day Friday, all day Saturday and for the whole time Sunday that this conference is taking place, of more than 3,000 people who are gathering, despite the terrible weather here in Minneapolis, from around the country.
Lawmakers are urging the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the Pentagon’s propaganda program to determine if the major TV networks or the Pentagon-backed analysts violated federal law. In April, the New York Times revealed the Pentagon recruited more than seventy-five retired military officers to appear on TV outlets as so-called military analysts ahead of the Iraq War. The so-called analysts were given classified Pentagon briefings, provided with Pentagon-approved talking points, given free trips to Iraq and other sites paid for by the Pentagon.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps joins us now here in Minneapolis at the National Conference on Media Reform, along with Free Press co-founder Bob McChesney. He has served — Commissioner Copps has served on the FCC since 2001. Welcome to Democracy Now!
MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you for having me here.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with that issue of the so-called independent analysts in the lead-up to the invasion and after. What’s the FCC doing about it?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, the FCC has been requested by powerful members of Congress to conduct an investigation. A letter went to the FCC, and I don’t think they have received a response yet. You kind of sit and wonder, if Dwight Eisenhower was still alive, if he’d be warning us about the military-industrial-big-media complex.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why this is so significant to you, what has been going on with these analysts who, among other things, we weren’t told, as a viewing audience, that, for example, when they worked for a military contractor — and here they had special access to the Pentagon, because they were getting their talking points — they were being great spokespeople for them.
MICHAEL COPPS: It’s part of this larger problem that you and Bob and Josh have been talking about, about too much power being concentrated in too few hands. So, if indeed this is going on and they only have to get a few people in to get the story on all these networks and all these stations, that’s what the American people hear. That’s the problem with big media, not just the homogenous and nationalized entertainment, but the dumbed-down civic dialogue, the inability to hear on the major networks a news report like you gave this morning, which really is a refreshing perspective on what’s going on in this country of ours.
My line on this — and I’m always so happy to be on Democracy Now! — I am here in Minnesota to get media democracy now, because I don’t think you can have one without the other. I don’t think you can have democracy unless you have a lot more in the way of media democracy in this country. And I think change is coming. I’m hopeful that change is coming. I’m hopeful that we will be able to address media in a comprehensive fashion.
But here’s what I want. I want, right off the bat, a down payment on media democracy, so that the message will go out that, number one, we’ve done something substantive and, number two, this is a big issue and it’s going to take a while to solve comprehensively, but there are some things we can do right now. And one of those — this is my down payment on media democracy proposal — is return to a broadcast licensing and re-licensing system for broadcasters that has some teeth in it, some public interest obligation, so you have local news, coverage of diversity, communities, all of those things that we’re lacking now, and, number two, would address not just the traditional media of broadcast, but the new media of the internet. This is all of a piece. It’s all the same problem that we face. So what the FCC could do, right off the bat next year, would be to have a binding and forcible principle of network neutrality, nondiscrimination on the internet. So I think if we could do those things, we’d have made some real progress, and we would have the message out in Washington and around the country that we were now going to get serious about comprehensive reform, working with Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, explain what you mean by “net neutrality.”
MICHAEL COPPS: To guarantee the freedom and openness of this most dynamic and liberating technology probably since the printing press, or maybe even more than that. Here we have this wonderful opportunity to have a two-way dialogue in journalism, two-way news, real interchange between people and their leaders and people in the media. We cannot afford to go down the same road with new media that we’ve gone down with old, where you let a few people control the networks, control the distribution and control the content, conduit content. That’s a recipe for what? Monopoly or oligopoly, at best.
AMY GOODMAN: How does public access fit into this picture, these national treasures in every community, where people can make their own media?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, it’s the last — hopefully not the last gasp, but the last remnant of localism, of local communities, of diversity of broadcasting, of opposing antagonistic points of view sometimes. This is what we have to have, and they become more and more important. Public access, PEG channels, Low Power, all of these things, so much more important as we go down this road of consolidation. I mean, we’ve spent twenty-five years deregulating media, getting rid of all of the public interest obligations we had, and then allowing the tsunami of media consolidation. And we are paying a horrid price.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what happened in December, a major victory for the media conglomerates. Your Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, approved a measure undoing the key barrier to media consolidation. The FCC voted three-to-two — you were in the minority — to ease the rules for companies seeking to own both a newspaper and television or radio station in the same city.
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, hopefully, we’re going to be able to reverse that. The Senate, under Senator Byron Dorgan’s leadership and others, has voted to reverse that. It will go to the House of Representatives. We’ll have to see what happens there. It will go to court.
We’ve been down this road before, in 2003, when Michael Powell was chairman of the FCC. He had proposals that he rammed through the FCC that had run roughshod over every media ownership rule that we had. You know what happened? He thought nothing would happen, because nobody was interested in this issue. Three million people contacted Congress and the FCC, about 99.9 percent against what Powell did. It was a grassroots movement. And the Senate voted to overturn it — the Congress, or the House part of it. And then it went to court, and the court sent them back to us. Citizen action, even in this great impersonal age and all the power the corporations have, citizen action still works. Citizen action is what’s going to get us democracy now and media democracy now.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, this latest move in December, where do you see it headed right now?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, we won almost unanimously in the Senate rejection, really unprecedented, even compared to five years ago with the — where we were able to overturn a lot of what the FCC tried to do then. This is dramatic improvement, when you get a voice vote, basically, because people didn’t want to go on the record in favor of media consolidation. It’s in the House’s hands now. We’re optimistic.
And I think the tide is turning. I mean, I think this is where the grassroots pressure is really beginning to pay off, years of organizing. Politicians who want to get elected, on each side of the aisle, understand that people don’t like consolidated media. They don’t like one company owning all the media in their town. They don’t want company town media, one newsroom fitting all. And they oppose it, whatever their political views. That’s simply unacceptable. And politicians have routinely voted on behalf of the monopolists, because they didn’t think anyone was paying attention. Now they know millions of Americans are paying attention, and if they want to keep their jobs, they better get in line.
MICHAEL COPPS: Here’s a difference that change can make. We can stop playing defense. We’ve been playing defense for years and years and years to defeat these proposals that come from various chairmen of the FCC. We can go on the offense now. 3,000 people here in this city are ready to take this issue on the offense, talk to all the candidates, get them signed up on this media down payment and further reform. That’s what change means.
AMY GOODMAN: Commissioner Copps, I want to ask you about the FCC beginning an investigation into allegations that the Alabama TV station censored the transmission of a recent 60 Minutes expose about the state’s imprisoned former governor, Don Siegelman. The station was WHNT in Huntsville, went black during most of the segment. The station claims it was an equipment failure?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, they do claim that. And again, this is one of the things that the FCC is reportedly investigating, and I’m still waiting for the results of that investigation. We’ve got to be proactive on these things. We have to be proactive on complaints like that, on the Pentagon episode that you talked about before and on violations of this network neutrality. We’ve got to jump in when a complaint comes in and resolve it. We can’t just bury these things or deep-six them.
AMY GOODMAN: The media giant Comcast admitting to paying people to fill the seats at the government net neutrality hearing at Harvard University, which was organized by the FCC?
MICHAEL COPPS: It’s not a pretty story, is it?
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the story?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, if indeed that did take place — I think there’s probably some indication that it did — again, I don’t know that it’s a violation of any law, but it’s just a perfect manifestation of the excessive power of a few people to try to control the dialogue and try to control the business of the Commission.
AMY GOODMAN: So they paid people to pack the hearing at Harvard, which means the critics are kept out of the hearing. We went to the next site of the next hearing, which was at Stanford, and then the corporations didn’t even show up. Bob McChesney?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, you know, what’s happened is we’ve had now almost two dozen public hearings, official and unofficial, that Commissioner Copps and Commissioner Adelstein and sometimes the entire Commission have attended in the last four years, and what they’re finding at every single hearing is that the overwhelming majority of people at these hearings all across the country, whatever the community, really care about media, and they don’t like the status quo, and they want more community media, more nonprofit, noncommercial media, more local media ownership. And these companies were freaking out, because that’s the only — that’s what the people are saying in this country. So rather than trying to actually win our — a debate and argument on the surface and make coherent arguments, it’s easier for them to buy off people who need a job and send them in to fill the room, so that the people actually — citizens who care don’t even get a seat at the table, don’t even get a chance to talk. They make a mockery of these hearings.
AMY GOODMAN: Commissioner Copps, does the FCC play a role in the debates when a network decides who gets to debate? I mean, in Las Vegas, when Dennis Kucinich was not invited into the Democratic debate, the next day on Democracy Now!, we ran parts of the debate, and we inserted him into it. He could respond, as well. But these are the public airwaves. Why are these corporations getting to determine who gets to speak and who doesn’t?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, people can bring complaints. I’m not going to guarantee that those complaints always have good outcomes at the Federal Communications Commission. But we are trying — I’m trying to push for, really, publication, when people — when complaints come in, so people know what the process is and who’s complaining and what’s the basis for a determination that the Commission makes.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your last point on licensing — I don’t know if people fully understand what you’re saying, because it has become so automatic that they may not even understand how stations have licenses.
MICHAEL COPPS: It used to be that every three years a licensee had to come in, apply for an extension of their license and demonstrate that they were serving the public interest. And we had about fourteen different guidelines: are you running local news, covering community events, doing reports that are relevant to that community? That’s all gone now. And what we have is something called postcard renewal. Every eight years, they basically send in a postcard, and it’s not much more than that and a slam dunk that they’re going to get their license renewed. We haven’t taken away a license on public interest grounds since I have been at the Commission.
So, I think if we do that, folks are going to understand real quick that their license is dependent upon this oversight. That’s one reason we had the Ed Murrow era of journalism and we had investigative journalism, because stations understood they needed to do this to keep their license. It doesn’t have to be micro-regulatory or burdensome, but it can be real, and that’s where we need to go.
And, you know, this issue is so important. You talked about so many issues at the top of the show, on the news, war, and educational challenges, the economy, equal opportunity. All of those are important, and one of those issues may be, to every listener in your audience, the most important by far to them. None of those issues are going to get resolved until we get hold of this media democracy, because all of those issues are increasingly funneled through the filter of big media, and that’s why I think our civic dialogue is in the state it’s in.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Bob McChesney, co-founder of Free Press, why we’re here today — we’ll be recording all that’s happening and bringing folks these speeches that will be taking place next week. Free Speech TV is going to be broadcasting this gavel-to-gavel. It starts today, on Friday, going right through to Sunday. We are in Minneapolis at the conference, at the convention center, where the National Conference for Media Reform is taking place. And Commissioner Michael Copps, thanks so much for being with us.
MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Thank you.