Where is Media in America? An Interview with Michael Copps

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent agency of the United States government whose mission is to make available communication services across the nation. Not surprisingly, there is often a bit of discussion around the policies of this organisation, as their role is to address public interest, monopolies, and regulation of America's media.

Michael Copps served for two terms with the FCC, acting both as commissioner and later additionally as chairman of the organisation. He has in the past opposed media consolidation in America (a practice which favors large corporations) and supported open internet. He currently leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.

As the Rising Voices focus on digital media is global, we often do not discuss the state of media in places like the United States. However, we interviewed Michael Copps for his perspective on universal access to media in America.

At Rising Voices, we report on media access concerns from around the world, meaning we at times don't report very extensively on the USA or Western Europe – both of which are to a certain extent seen as leaders in new technologies. But, you've said that roughly one third of Americans are not connected to broadband, with the percentage reaching a shocking 90 to 95% in Native American households. 

As the need to be connected continues to grow, can you explain briefly, for those who don't know, why America is in this state and what it implicates for citizens? 

America is in its current sorry state of broadband penetration because for many years we were captive to the idea that the “free market” would take care of everything for us and get broadband universally deployed, even in areas where there was no business plan for such deployment. We failed to see the need for creative private sector-public sector government partnerships wherein the objective of universal deployment is clearly laid out in public policy and accompanied by incentives to make it happen.

In July you spoke at the Native Public Media and Native American Journalists Association conference in Tempe, AZ, after which you wrote on the Common Cause blog that you saw “excitement, entrepreneurship, and a host of innovative approaches to bring telecommunications and media infrastructure to Native lands”, but you also said “It has been aptly remarked that the nation’s first Americans are also the least-served Americans when it comes to the availability of communications infrastructure.  And get this: only about two-thirds of our sisters and brothers living in Indian Country have even plain old telephone service… today’s reality in Indian Country is not a slowly-shrinking communications gap that is on its way to closure.  It is instead a widening communications gap consigning yet another generation of Native Americans to a future bereft of the tools they need to become fully participating citizens in Twenty-first Century life.” 

How have those creators of innovative approaches gotten around some of these access barriers? Are these solutions that could be replicated in other places? 

I AM encouraged at the innovation and entrepreneurship I see at the local level and certainly what I've seen in our Native lands.  I have seen creativity, genius even, in bringing Twenty-first century communications to even difficult-to-reach areas.  But to get the job done, we need more vision from our public policy leaders and real incentives.  We just haven't treated broadband deployment and adoption as a national mission–yet this is the central and primary infrastructure of the Twenty-first century.  Without access to high-speed, affordable broadband, our citizens and our country are working with one hand tied behind our backs. Not having broadband means not having access to good jobs, good education, and good health.

Can you briefly describe the two possible futures for America's native citizens regarding media access: what are some of the more detailed implications if these barriers are not crossed, or what could the potential future look like if they were?

I think the basic answer here is in the last few sentences of the previous response. Down one trail is more stagnation, too few jobs, poor education, lack of access to health care, and, generally, closed doors to the expansion of equal opportunity.  Down the other trail–with clear objectives, real incentives, and cooperation between the private sector and all levels of the public sector (certainly including making a reality out of the trust relationship and the unique status of Native people–is a future that can turn promise into reality.  If we don't take this latter road, I don't see a very pretty vision for our nation's future.

To combat monopolies of major media companies would mean big-picture policy changes in America. But you also suggested that incentives for creative public-private partnerships could help. 

Can you describe what you see as particularly useful in terms of public-private partnerships? How could citizens play a role in this potential future to get around the problems of major media monopolies?

Media monopolies have meant far fewer local, independent and diverse broadcast outlets. Minorities and diversity groups have encountered a much more difficult time in making their voices–and values–heard and seen in our present consolidated media environment. The Federal Communications Commission keeps blessing this merger-mania; it is long past time for the FCC to start saying “No” to such transactions.  But the FCC, and Congress, need to hear from the American people that we have had enough. One especially harmful result of the nationalization of our media has been fewer newsrooms, fewer reporters on the beat, and much less investigative journalism.  People in power are not being held accountable by a vibrant press.  One result is the way special interests and almost unlimited money have warped our political system…

On the Common Cause blog you recently called for journalists to report upon media practices, asking “what is the responsibility of journalists to report on the radical changes that have so dramatically diminished our media?” But considering the current monopolized state of American media, a journalist might be at least censored and at worst comprising his or her job, in pushing forward such reporting. 

Is this where citizen journalism comes in? Do you see a role for citizen journalism in the US as it has shown to be effective in other actions around the world? 

Citizen journalism can play a valuable role in getting us out of the hole we have dug ourselves into.  I wish we had more incentives to support such journalism, but I am encouraged by what I have seen in helping restore some semblance of local news and independent viewpoint.  We must find ways to encourage this, both in the new media of the Internet and in traditional media of broadcast and newspapers, too.  When I was in Phoenix recently with Native Public Media, I learned about numerous initiatives that are already at work.  Now we must find ways to support them better and to create many, many more.

Sourcewatch quoted Michael Copps during the 2003 National Conference on Media Reform as saying:

Talk it up amongst their family, talk it up amongst their friends, use the media that you can have some access to and is willing to do something about it: talk radio if you can but also letters to the editor. Something that's very important is the Internet — I've seen the power of the Internet to alter the terms of public debate — and we've seen it right here on this issue already. So I think what the bloggers need to do is stay involved.

Michael Copps publishes often on the Common Cause blog. 


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