BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, dissident FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein held one of their trademark town meetings in Dearborn, Michigan. Appealing to the public over the head of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, they always ask roughly the same question: Do you like how the airwaves are being used? Mr. Copps, for one, emphatically does not. As the Republicans gathered last month in Madison Square Garden, Copps decried the networks' skimpy coverage in the New York Times, and while condemning the general state of broadcast TV, he heartily bit the hand that feeds him. Could you read that part, Commissioner?
MICHAEL COPPS: I'll be happy to. [READING] The FCC is doing nothing to help, as the situation deteriorates. It has weakened almost every explicit duty stations once had for serving the public interest - like ensuring that stations cover local issues and offer viewers a diversity of opinion. Just as bad, the Commission eliminated protections against media consolidation last year, even though critics warned that this would result in even less local coverage. Luckily, a federal court rejected this decision, so we have another chance to save these rules.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You noted that the courts rejected the FCC's reasons for lifting some of the remaining restrictions on media ownership. Where does that issue stand now?
MICHAEL COPPS: Excellent question. On June 2003, the Commission passed these rules, greatly loosening the ownership caps. Since that time, the American people, the Congress and the Courts have gone on record saying the FCC has made a mistake. The United States Senate voted to overturn the entire decision. Has since voted again to do that. Went to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals said the reasoning that you gave us for these rules is substantively flawed. Do it over. So that's the good news. Now, the bad news is -- where do they send these rules back to? They send 'em back to the very same Commission that dreamed them up in the first place, and herein is the challenge -- because big media doesn't cover this issue and tell the American people what the state of play is, a lot of folks will read a story about -- the Senate voted today to overturn the rules and think - oh, boy - the forces of justice and right prevail -- or the court sent them back. Whoopee. In reality, we're right back where we started.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of your principal beefs with media consolidation is that you believe it reduces the coverage of local issues. Do you have any data to back up your position?
MICHAEL COPPS: Well, I think there's all kinds of data. We know that in the 2002 so-called "off-year" elections, over half the newscasts had no mention whatsoever of the congressional and local races. We know that political ads probably outweigh political stories by about 4 to 1, too. But I can just tell you time and again -- I remember being out in Phoenix at a, a hearing about a year ago and the mayor or the former mayor was talking about when he went there, and they had media diversity and lots of stations and newspapers. He said people used to just -- in fact, they opened the door to go out and get a bottle of water or take a rest break or something one day, and about three reporters fell through the door, because they were lined up to find out what was going inside. Now that city has a very consolidated media environment, and he says you can't get anybody to come out and cover these events.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the networks' shrinking convention coverage sparked your op-ed piece, but the public did have ample opportunity to see the convention -- even the 17 percent that don't have cable or satellite could have tuned in to PBS -- but they didn't. Are you saying that the networks should provide this coverage even if the public has amply demonstrated that it doesn't really care?
MICHAEL COPPS: I don't think the public has amply demonstrated that, and I don't know how networks are in a position to say that they have. You know, we don't even require, any more, broadcasters to go out and do what used to be called "ascertainment" and finding out what people really want to hear and what people think needs to be on. So this is - this is yes, oh, we're giving the people what they want to hear. That's within a very narrow parameter. They're giving the people what they want to hear -- that-will-make-money-for-them on the niche groups that they're targeting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it perhaps just too late in the day for the networks to sort of cycle back and start offering the hours to civic duty type coverage that you would want them to?
MICHAEL COPPS: Absolutely not. My little op-ed piece focused on the convention because that was the news du jour. But this is ongoing. It has to do with the entire democratic dialogue. It has to do with local races as well as national races. I would love to see them step up to the plate and say, boy, we're really in an important time here with the war, the health care crisis, education, all these things-- to cover it. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You would love to [LAUGHTER] that and a quarter won't even get you a cup of coffee in New York.
MICHAEL COPPS: [LAUGHS] No, but that and public pressure might just get it done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
MICHAEL COPPS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Copps is a Democratic Commissioner of the FCC. [MUSIC]