Big Media Meets Its Match

FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, two Washington power players you've never heard of

Content Tools

Jonathan Adelstein strides up the front walk of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on an overcast spring afternoon, a small black travel duffel slung over his shoulder. Middle-aged, balding, and wearing a standard-issue blue suit, he has the inconspicuous carriage of a bureaucratic functionary, someone at peace with his own unimportance. He's got no posse, no personal assistant, no wheels on his luggage--just a change of clothes and the bare travel essentials a road warrior needs to do business in an unfamiliar city. 'Where's the FCC hearing?' he asks a bystander.

Around the corner, there's a buzz of activity in front of Louise Lykes Ferguson Hall, where a few dozen people are milling about. As Adelstein passes by and enters the lobby, where more people are gathered, heads swivel, hellos ring out, and people with video cameras and microphones of all sizes start sidling up to him for a quote or an on-air interview. It's clear that, despite his low-key demeanor, Adelstein not only is important; he's a star attraction.

One of five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an agency that regulates many aspects of the radio, television, cable, telephone, and Internet industries, Adelstein is in town to conduct a public hearing. Several hundred citizens have come to give the commissioners a piece of their mind.

Fellow commissioner Michael Copps, who arrived earlier, is also granting interviews and exchanging pleasantries. Like Adelstein, he has a distinct lack of flash or conceit, and he too holds court comfortably, receiving all comers in a manner that recalls an author at a book signing.

Copps and Adelstein are used to this sort of reception outside the Beltway. Since President George W. Bush appointed Copps in 2001 and Adelstein in 2002, the two have become cult heroes to people who view the corporatization of media and telecommunications as a threat to democracy. Despite being in the minority on the commission, which is always weighted three to two in favor of the party controlling the White House, the two Democrats have consistently challenged the interests of big media on a body that has long been criticized for being too cozy with the corporate conglomerates it regulates.

'They both understand, as few members of the FCC have ever understood, the public importance of the work they do,' says media historian and critic Robert McChesney. 'That it's not just about these industries and helping them get rich, it's about the quality of journalism and culture we're going to have in our society. These guys are like throwbacks--they actually believe in the idea that they're public servants and they're here to uphold the law and represent the interests of the public.'

A few minutes before the Tampa hearing begins, Gavin Baker, a University of Florida student wearing jeans, a lavender polo shirt, and a button that reads 'Stop Big Media,' sidles up to Adelstein and, grinning proudly, has a friend take a photo. It's a shot destined to live in his digital memory.


The 1934 Communications Act created the FCC to regulate the radio broadcasting and telephone industries. As new technologies have developed, its scope has expanded to include broadcast television, cellular telephones, and cable for television and high-speed Internet access. The agency operates in obscurity much of the time yet makes decisions that have a tremendous impact on people's daily lives, from the size of local cable bills to the quality of neighborhood news coverage to the songs that play on popular radio. In the future, the FCC is destined to play a key role in regulating the Internet's infrastructure and content.

'Democracy is premised on giving people sufficient depth and breadth of information that they'll generally make intelligent decisions for the good of the country,' Copps says. 'We are skating perilously close to denying folks that kind of information, in no small degree because of media consolidation.'

Copps, like Adelstein, fervently believes that a strong democracy requires vigorous, vigilant media. The two take seriously their agency's mandate to promote localism, diversity, and competition. Which is why, in the past four years, they've fought so hard against media consolidation.

'We have a lot of important issues in this country right now: issues of peace and war, finding a job and keeping a job, educating your kids--the list goes on,' Copps says. 'Maybe one of those is your number one issue, but media consolidation probably ought to be your number two issue. Because the only way the American people hear about your number one issue is largely how it's funneled through the filter of big media.'

The commissioners refer to this crusade for the public interest as a fight for 'media democracy.' Activists prefer the moniker 'media reform,' a phrase adopted by a growing movement that took shape in 2003, when Michael Powell, then FCC chair, attempted to loosen media ownership rules, opening the door for media conglomerates to snap up more television stations, radio stations, and newspapers.

Rebuffed by the brash, brusque Powell in their demands for more official public hearings, Copps and Adelstein attended unofficial hearings around the country, many sponsored by grassroots, mostly liberal media reform groups such as Free Press and the Media Alliance. The issue also inspired conservative organizations including the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Parents Television Council, who saw a bigger, more monolithic media as a threat to their special interests. In all, some 3 million Americans commented on Powell's proposed changes, mostly in opposition to them. And while the FCC passed the changes on a three-to-two vote, they never went into effect, in large part because of public outcry. The Senate voted to reverse the FCC's decision, and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually suspended the new rules and sent them back for revision.

By enlisting the public, Copps and Adelstein turned a lost vote into a populist crusade and, along the way, picked up something that's rare for a bureaucratic appointee: a fan base. 'They're the progressive power couple in Washington,' says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a media advocacy group that focuses on Internet access and openness.

The Washington Monthly, in the March 2007 article 'Let's Do Lunch,' put the commissioners at the top of a list of 21 'new power players you wish you'd been nicer to,' positing that their alliances with key committee chairs put them in a position to 'use high-profile hearings to advance the Democratic commissioners' priorities.'

'The game has changed somewhat,' says Copps, who, like Adelstein, is too diplomatic to gloat or talk about settling political scores. 'I think there is a spirit abroad in the land that would like to have us tackle some of these problems and put together a media environment that is worthy of this country.'


By congressional order, the FCC reviews media ownership rules every four years, and current commission chair Kevin Martin, a savvier and less confrontational conservative than Powell, has agreed to hold six official public hearings across the country to discuss community concerns about media ownership--a broadening subject that encompasses a number of specific issues. An FCC fact sheet on the hearings says the commissioners expect to hear public testimony on minority ownership, music and the creative arts, campaign and community-event coverage, jobs and the economy, family-friendly programming, and the growth of the Internet.

Tampa, Florida, site of the fourth gathering, is a case study in what can happen to a market when corporate media becomes an occupying force. The Virginia-based conglomerate Media General owns the Tampa Tribune; the biggest TV station, WFLA; and TBO.com, a website that the two outlets share. These entities compete with the St. Petersburg Times (which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a school and think tank for journalists) and its website, SPTimes.com.

Inside the auditorium, the hearing is about to begin. At stage left is a table with five spots for the commissioners; at stage right are two tables where a group of expert panelists of all stripes--including media executives, academics, and a political blogger--will give statements before the floor is opened to the several hundred citizens scattered throughout the 1,000-seat space.

Copps, Adelstein, and the three Republican FCC commissioners, who skipped the lobby meet-and-greet, take the stage and engage in a furious round of handshaking with the panelists. Mayor Pam Iorio opens the event with a brief welcome to Tampa, and all the commissioners deliver opening remarks. The three Republicans speak from their seats in measured tones that elicit little response; Copps and Adelstein each take the podium, preaching in a feisty style that draws hearty applause and shouts of approval. This is their show.

Copps tells the audience that they own the airwaves and that broadcasters must pay for the privilege of using them by taking time to serve the public interest. A savvy veteran of this sort of public gathering, he asks that people speaking on behalf of broadcasters refrain from lauding this or that media outlet's charitable works (a typical strategy to gin up empathy) and instead 'focus on the matters of localism, diversity, and competition as reflected in how the airwaves are used.'

'Citizen action can still make a difference and even carry the day if it is passionate and organized,' he says after recounting the grassroots battle against consolidation in 2003. 'It's an issue of democracy. Call it media democracy--I like the ring of that, don't you?'

The crowd responds with vigorous claps and hollers as Copps passes the baton to Adelstein. It's a natural transition that suits their speaking styles: Copps is authoritative and all business, while Adelstein's throaty voice and punchier delivery tend to inspire the rabble-rousers.

'Are you happy with the media you have here in Tampa Bay?' Adelstein asks, prompting shouts of 'No!' He points out that in Tampa, four media companies control 73 percent of the market; nationally, five media conglomerates control 80 percent. 'We're here to serve the public interest, not the interests of the big media companies. We came here to hear from you, so I'm going to sit down and listen.'

During the next several hours, people step forward to address the commission in two-minute statements that range from cogent to rambling, amiable to angry, earnest to satirical. Although they were required to sign up in the lobby to guarantee a spot at the mike, there are no restrictions on what they can say, and there's no holding back.

'I demand, quit relaxing broadcast ownership rules,' says a former broadcaster who laments the domination of radio by the 'Texas monster' Clear Channel Communications, which became the Big Media bogeyman when it grew from 40 stations to more than 1,200 after the 1996 Telecommunications Act loosened ownership limits.

'Local news is best handled by local people,' says an Irish priest in a melodious brogue.

A woman representing Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian farmworkers describes how community radio reaches these workers in their native languages. Another representing the RainbowPUSH Coalition says the issue of race in media 'goes beyond Imus.' Another lambastes the quality of news in the United States, saying, 'If I want to learn about this country, I have to leave this country.'

Most speakers are opposed to further media consolidation, and the most impassioned and articulate testimonials spark loud applause. ('Media consolidation has worked well in China and the USSR,' says one man, delighting the crowd.) Representatives and employees of media companies have also come to testify, however, and despite Copps' preemptive strike against tributes to charitable work, they heap praise on local outlets for serving the public interest.

Media workers 'don't need to come to our children's funerals, but they do,' says a woman representing the Children's Cancer Center.

'The media has never let me down,' says Mark Lunsford, the bereaved father of Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old girl who was murdered north of Tampa in 2005. 'I can't believe . . . someone has to tell you that you can't change the way the media has done things for me and the children across America.' (It doesn't go unnoticed that, just a few minutes earlier, Dan Bradley, Media General's vice president of broadcast news, paid a visit to Lunsford's seat.)

The stream of speakers continues all evening, with a half-hour break at the midpoint and another round of panelists kicking off the second half. The commissioners do not chime in, even when they're goaded by speakers to answer questions. They are here to listen, and they do so intently, taking only short, intermittent breaks.

Adelstein says that the hearing process is physically exhausting but mentally engaging, and that the time limit forces speakers to be concise. 'People are capable of saying an enormous amount in two minutes. Because of their eloquence and because of how interesting this topic is, I find myself pretty engaged, and I can sit there for a long time without getting distracted or bored. The speakers give me the energy to keep going.'

While the tone and tenor of the testimonials vary from city to city, the general themes remain the same: People are fed up with McPapers that don't cover important stories, TV news programs with the 'if it bleeds, it leads' outlook, radio playlists that cycle the same crappy songs ad infinitum, and cable service that costs much but offers little.

Copps and Adelstein 'are actually listening to what people are saying, taking notes, and digesting it,' McChesney says. 'And I think they feel a real bond and a real attachment to these tens of thousands of people who come to these hearings.'


Adelstein is on stage again, but this time he's not listening to testimony, and the only public interest he's serving is the human urge to get down and groove. A rock 'n' roll rebel in a button-down dress shirt and jeans, he's jamming on harmonica with the North Mississippi Allstars, a blues-rock trio that's come to the Memphis Marriott's ballroom on Martin Luther King Day weekend to play a gig at the 2007 National Conference for Media Reform.

As their brother-in-arms leans into a meaty riff next to guitarist Luther Dickinson, the harmonica barely concealing the smirk on his face, the crowd of alternative journalists, media activists, and wonky policy makers--two or three beers past the day's last seminar--lap it up.

Outside of work and family, music is Adelstein's favorite pastime: listening to it, going to concerts, and playing it, mostly on harmonica but also on flute, accordion, and percussion. (He confesses to playing along with the radio on harmonica, one-handed, while he's driving to work.) He calls himself 'a rock 'n' roll guy' with a predilection for jam bands and anything rooted in American traditional music, including bluegrass, country, Cajun, zydeco, and the blues.

He lights up at the mention of his two-song stint as a North Mississippi Allstar. 'It was one of the great moments of my life,' he says. 'I love that band.'

Copps and Adelstein share some striking biographical parallels. Both are natives of the Midwest, Copps coming from Wisconsin and Adelstein from South Dakota. Both are family men. Copps and his wife, Elizabeth, have five children, ages 19 to 35, and Adelstein and his wife, Karen, have two children, ages 3 and 6. Both worked on the staffs of influential Democratic senators, Copps for Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and Adelstein for former majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Fascinated with politics at a young age, Copps remembers writing letters to senators and filing their replies and signed photos. 'I always had this little bug that said you've got to go to Washington and get politics out of your system,' he says, and after more than 30 years inside the Beltway, he still hasn't shaken it.

The low-key Copps spends most weekends visiting his grandchildren and other family members, 'piddles around with cars,' and, well . . . that's about it. 'I used to hunt and fish a little bit, but I don't get to do too much of that anymore,' he says.

Adelstein is the son of South Dakota legislator Stanford Adelstein, but he decided not to follow Dad's Republican Party line. 'I like to think I got an education,' he quips. 'That's my joke about it, but I just learned that my concern is with the people who are the underdogs. So I naturally gravitated toward being a Democrat.'

Like Copps, Adelstein logs lots of family time, devoting most of his spare hours to his kids.

Perhaps owing to their Midwestern roots, both Copps and Adelstein have a plainspokenness that helps them distill complex issues into easily understood language. Both spent time teaching history, which has contributed to their working bond.

'Everybody else [on the commission] is a lawyer, but Jonathan and I are historians,' Copps says. 'I'm not going to say that it gives you the path to the future, but history repeats itself often enough that it's worth knowing about. You need to understand how journalism and broadcasting and media in this country developed if you're going to make an intelligent contribution.'


The rapid rise of the Internet has dramatically shifted the media and telecommunications landscape, kicking up a flurry of new questions: Who will build and control the Internet's future infrastructure? Will all Americans get equal access to high-speed broadband service? Should the government attempt to control digital content, be it spam, pornography, or anything else? Should Internet radio stations and video providers be subject to rules similar to those that traditional broadcasters follow?

With these issues looming on the horizon, many media reformers are urging activists and policy makers like Copps and Adelstein to shift their priorities rapidly. 'The Internet is the most democratic medium we've ever seen, so that's where I'd rather put all this energy--to supporting universal access to the Internet, rather than worrying about who owns what old-fashioned television networks,' says Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York and a blogger (scrawford.blogware.com) on Internet issues. 'Now the real focus should be on Internet access control. It's the same issue, but on a grander scale--and where it really matters.'

In 2004 the Bush administration set a goal of providing affordable, universal broadband access by 2007, but many rural areas remain unwired, and the United States continues to lag in worldwide rankings measuring per capita broadband usage--an issue that media critics believe will affect the future of democracy and the economy. What's more, neither Congress nor the FCC has vigorously addressed the now pressing issue of 'net neutrality': the idea that broadband network operators such as Comcast and Time Warner, who control the Web's infrastructure, should not be allowed to block or degrade competing content.

Internet issues are on Copps and Adelstein's radar (they were instrumental in inserting some net neutrality language into the recent merger agreement between AT&T and BellSouth), and, rhetorically at least, they can switch from analog to digital when they're prompted (Copps calls broadband 'the big infrastructure challenge of this generation'). But online issues are not high on the agenda during this round of FCC hearings; they come up only incidentally, which concerns media advocates like Jeff Chester.

'I challenged Copps recently, saying that in a way the broadcast ownership rules don't make a difference anymore,' Chester says. 'I've spent most of my time since 1991 working to preserve those rules, but my analysis is that it doesn't make a difference anymore for two reasons: One, it's not going to change the basic structure of the media. What difference does it make if it's NBC or Rupert Murdoch? It's the same commercialized, corporate approach. And--I think this is very important for progressives--we have to be focused on where younger people are, and where the market's going. We must do it now, because the new system is so much more powerful and interactive and personalized.'

Chester also points out that the business model for the next generation of Web content, commonly referred to as Web 2.0, is based on interactive advertising, marketing, and entertainment. 'It's learning about you, collecting data about you. It will send avatars to meet your avatars.'

This spring, the commission did issue a 'notice of inquiry' on matters related to net neutrality. Crawford calls this a small, tentative step. 'Copps and Adelstein didn't have the power to request a rulemaking on that issue,' she says, 'so the change in the makeup of Congress is not making that much difference so far.'

Copps and Adelstein will remain in the minority on the commission at least until the next president takes office in 2008, when their terms will be nearing an end: Adelstein's in June 2008, Copps' in June 2010. If a Democrat takes the White House, though, he or she could reappoint both, give one of them the chair, and bring in a new Democratic commissioner. 'It would be almost like a revolution, that sort of change in policy,' McChesney says.

Others are wary of expecting too much from a change in administration. The industry-friendly 1996 Telecommunications Act, which Chester regards as a 'giveaway' to the media lobby, passed under the Clinton administration, and on some up-and-coming media issues, such as content regulation, it's not altogether clear what the 'conservative' and 'liberal' positions are.

'There are some Democrats who would like to see the same limitations or public requirements placed on Internet programming as there are on broadcast,' says Crawford. 'So either the Democrats or the Republicans may decide we need regulation to affect something like spam or pornography. The content battles are up for grabs.'


It's 11 p.m., the scheduled end time of the FCC hearing in Tampa, and people are still stepping up to the microphones. The moderator cuts statement times to 90 seconds in an attempt to accommodate more speakers. Everyone's a bit frazzled by now, and a fair share of statements descend into incoherence or animosity.

One man declares his presidential candidacy and describes an utterly incomprehensible platform.

'You're not doing your job. You've sold out. You've sold your souls,' another tells the commissioners, who betray no reaction to the tongue-lashing.

Still, there are flashes of insight.

'Rarely is bigger better,' says a soft-spoken man who used to work at a family radio station partly owned by his father. 'Now I feel like I have to convince you that you're on our side.'

'The decisions you make affect perceptions of the United States,' says a military veteran, a young woman who urges the commissioners to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine (abolished by the FCC in 1987) to make sure that political candidates on both sides of the fence get equal amounts of free airtime during an election cycle.

By 11:30, everyone who signed up has spoken. The audience files out into the still night and disperses in cars and cabs. After most of them have disappeared, a man in a ball cap wanders in front of the Performing Arts Center, clutching a sheet of paper that contains two signatures.

'Do you think the commissioners have all left? I'm trying to get their autographs,' he says dejectedly as he scans the fast-emptying parking lot. 'I've got Copps and Adelstein, but I was hoping to get all five.'


A Media Reformer's Handbook

These books can help you understand current media and telecommunications issues:

  • The Federal Communications Commission: Front Line in the Culture and Regulation Wars (Greenwood, 2006): a textbook-style introduction to the FCC
  • The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century (Seven Stories, 2005): a collection of incisive commentaries by media reform activists
  • Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New Press, 1999): media critic and scholar Robert McChesney describes how concentrated corporate control of the media is bad for the United States
  • Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media (Metropolitan, 2007): social scientist Eric Klinenberg focuses on broadcasting consolidation
  • Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy (New Press, 2007): media reform activist Jeff Chester writes about the battle for control of the Internet

These groups are advocates for media reform or media democracy:

For a dose of pro-industry, anti-regulation perspective, check out the following sites, some of which are funded or supported by big media companies:

These blogs cover media reform and related issues from various angles:

And don't forget the FCC itself, at www.fcc.gov. Many commission documents and resources are available, including the commissioners' opening statements from the April 30 public hearing in Tampa, Florida.