If Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., wins his bid for the White House this fall, activist groups vow to launch an all-out campaign to ensure that Michael Copps is promoted to the Federal Communications Commission’s chairmanship, a move that industry lobbyists are already maneuvering to pre-empt.
Mr. Copps, 64, holds a Democratic seat at the agency. Over the past several years, he’s been getting rave reviews from the watchdog community for confounding the FCC’s Republican majority on a variety of key fronts.
He wins particularly high accolades for having energized an unprecedented wave of grass-roots opposition to a decision by his GOP colleagues at the agency last year to slash media ownership restrictions-a decision that has now been overturned by Congress and the courts.
“He is clearly the choice of the public-interest community,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.
But Mr. Copps’ effectiveness as an industry gadfly has also won him the enmity of many in the industry, who fear his promotion to the chairmanship will hammer their companies’ market values.
“Media stocks would negatively be impacted,” said Sean Butson, a financial analyst for Legg Mason Research. “On the margin, it’s definitely negative news.”
In an effort to derail Mr. Copps’ prospects, industry lobbyists are already bad-mouthing him behind the scenes.
“Clearly, the guy wants to go back to 1950,” one industry source said.
“Whatever Gene Kimmelman [senior director of public policy and advocacy for Consumers Union] and Code Pink [another activist group] want is what the agenda of the [Copps] FCC will be,” said another.
Industry sources are also already promoting a white knight alternative of sorts: Gregg Rothschild, the 38-year-old Democratic counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is said to be more moderate than Mr. Copps on industry issues. Among Mr. Rothschild’s claims to fame is that he served as Sen. Kerry’s legislative director for six years and is a consultant to the Kerry presidential campaign.
“If I was president of the United States, I would rather have my guy,” a broadcast industry source said.
Still, watchdog group representatives-who have hardly demonstrated the clout in the past to dictate presidential agency appointments-said that Mr. Copps might be particularly hard for Sen. Kerry to deny because the commissioner’s controversial campaigns against broadcast indecency, TV violence and media industry consolidation have drawn the support from conservative and liberal watchdog groups alike.
“Someone who has good relations with the Parents Television Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Common Cause is someone you have to take seriously,” said Harold Feld, associate director of the Media Access Project.
“The first war zone Kerry may find himself in will be if he does not want to appoint Copps as the chair,” added the Center for Digital Democracy’s Mr. Chester.
No matter what his ultimate prospects, Mr. Copps would appear destined to be named as the agency’s interim acting chairman in the wake of a Kerry victory, because Mr. Copps is apt to be the only Democrat on board at the time-and it could take a half-year or more for the new president to get his pick for the agency’s permanent chairman in place.
“He doesn’t always agree with us, but he’s smart and does his homework, and that’s all you can ask,” said Preston Padden, executive VP, worldwide government relations, The Walt Disney Co.
Mr. Copps, whose term expires in June next year, would certainly expect to be re-appointed by a Kerry administration-assuming that’s what Mr. Copps wants.
In his three years at the agency, Mr. Copps, who was once a top aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., has emerged as one of the agency’s most effective commissioners ever. Besides leading the charge to derail the media ownership deregulation he is also credited with fomenting the pressure that forced Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell to crack down on broadcast indecency. In what appears to be another win for Mr. Copps, the FCC last week launched an inquiry to consider a crackdown on TV violence-whether it occurs on broadcast, cable or satellite.
“Wanton violence on the people’s airwaves has gone unaddressed for too long,” Mr. Copps said in a statement.
Assuming he gets the nod for the agency’s top slot, Mr. Copps, who declined to comment for this article, would be expected to beef up the broadcast industry’s public-interest standards-perhaps to include new political advertising obligations.
Of course, a Copps appointment would all but sound a death knell for additional media ownership deregulation. In addition, Mr. Copps would be expected to do whatever he could to crack down on off-color programming-perhaps extending indecency prohibitions to cable.
“If Copps is the chairman, he’s going to want to yank a license or two just to send a message,” according to a broadcast industry source.