FCC Primed for Hard Right Turn

Nov 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Along with their losing the race for the White House, Democrats found their influence at the Federal Communications Commission in a steep decline last week, with the agency slated to lose one of its two Democratic commissioners later this month-and little hope for a successor anytime soon.

At the same time, crackdown efforts against indecency and so-called 527 organizations appear to be emboldened in the wake of Election Day.

The FCC is set up to have five commissioners. Whichever party is in the White House gets three seats, one of which is the chairmanship of the agency; the two remaining seats are reserved for the opposing party.

So President Bush’s re-election last week ensures Republican control of the FCC’s chairmanship-and the agency’s majority-for at least another four years.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, the term of Jonathan Adelstein, one of the FCC’s two Democrats, has expired, and he will be forced to vacate his seat when Congress adjourns for the year later this month, giving the FCC Republicans a 3-1 majority.

Also, unfortunate for Mr. Adelstein is the fact that his longtime mentor on Capitol Hill-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.-lost his bid for re-election to the Senate last week. So Mr. Adelstein’s prospects for a renomination to the FCC appear to be nil.

On a related note, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the legislative mentor of Michael Copps, the FCC’s other Democratic commissioner, is resigning this year. Sen. Hollings’ retirement is expected to take some of the wind out of Mr. Copps’ sails.

Over the past several years Mr. Copps has been one of the most visible and effective critics of the FCC’s Republican majority. He is credited with stirring up much of the fuss that resulted in Congress and the courts overturning a controversial effort by his GOP colleagues to relax agency media ownership rules.

President Bush’s re-election comes as a particularly bitter pill for Mr. Copps. If Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry had prevailed, Mr. Copps was widely expected to be named FCC chairman, at least on an interim basis. As it is, Mr. Copps’ term at the FCC expires June 30 next year. Without Sen. Hollings’ support, Mr. Copps’ prospects for a re-appointment are grim, sources said.

With the influence of the FCC’s Democrats on the wane, at least some industry sources are hoping to encourage the FCC’s Republicans to ax the media ownership restrictions anew.

“For major companies seeking ownership relief, they’re breathing a sigh of relief,” said Shaun Sheehan, VP, Tribune, Washington.

But even some other industry sources doubt the FCC will oblige Mr. Sheehan anytime soon, not after the public-relations shellacking Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell took over his last efforts to deregulate.

While much of the opposition to the FCC’s deregulatory efforts was originally spurred by Mr. Copps, it was opposed by such influential Republicans as Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

In addition, watchdog group representatives have vowed to fight any new effort to deregulate.

“We will be able to mobilize millions to flood the FCC and Congress to protest,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

w The fact that concern over declining moral values spurred many citizens to vote for President Bush’s re-election is expected to breathe new life into the campaign to crack down on off-color broadcasts-a crackdown that could have been even more severe under a Copps chairmanship.

In an interview last week, Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council, identified Mr. Copps and Republican Commissioner Kevin Martin as longtime allies in the group’s effort to rid the nation’s airwaves of indecency. Mr. Winter said Chairman Powell had to be dragged into the debate.

“[Mr. Powell] has been no friend of ours,” Mr. Winter said. “It was only after an angry public pushing a concerned Congress that actually got an embarrassed FCC to enforce the indecency laws.”

The new evidence of the importance that many Americans place on moral issues is expected to make it easier for PTC to make its case, Mr. Winter said.

“We believe it’s not only going to help us at the FCC, but in Congress and the media in general,” Mr. Winter said.

w Also last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., vowed to crack down on the 527 organizations as part of his campaign finance reform agenda. Groups such as MoveOn.org spent tens of millions of dollars for political advertisements promoting the presidential candidates this year.