Big Media Meets Its Match

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

| Utne Reader July / August 2007

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.'

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