On Feb. 5, Federal Communications Commission member Michael J. Copps lunched with former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite at Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel. Copps reminisced about one of his first memories of media -- listening, at eight years old, to the 1948 election returns on the radio. Cronkite recalled reporting those results from the front lawn of Harry Truman's home. Copps was turning to the venerated broadcaster for his views on one of the most important issues before the FCC, a review of rules restricting the reach of media companies. Says Cronkite: "The gathering of more and more outlets under one owner clearly can be an impediment to a free and independent press."
For months, Copps, 62, had been the lone voice at the FCC sounding that warning. Until recently the agency's sole Democrat, the former history professor has been a one-man band banging the drum for a national debate on the FCC's review of regulations curtailing the size of TV, radio, and newspaper companies. At stake, he says, is the diversity of views that a democracy needs to flourish. "The decision we make will be with us a long time," he adds. Copps says he and the FCC haven't gathered enough information to warrant lifting current rules. But if the agency decides to loosen the rules, say FCC watchers, he may argue for additional safeguards for independent programmers, advertisers, and others.
At the five-member agency dominated by three Republicans, Copps had long been tilting at windmills. But now, joined by new Democratic Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein in December, he's surprisingly gathering strength -- and attracting unlikely conservative allies. Copps and Adelstein joined with GOP Commissioner Kevin Martin recently to oppose FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell on telecom deregulation.
Copps took that stance as he was goading Powell into holding the FCC's sole public hearing on media deregulation in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 27. Then he held his own in Seattle a week later, with plans for another in Durham, N.C., in late March. Now, with the FCC set to vote on the issue in May, a half-dozen more town halls are popping up. Among his supporters: grunge musicians and right-wing activists. "He's becoming a folk hero," says Michael Bracy, co-founder of the Future of Music Coalition, which lobbies against radio conglomerates.
An unlikely leader of this growing chorus, Copps is a soft-spoken liberal Democrat, almost a generation older than the other FCC commissioners. His hero is Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his academic specialty was the New Deal. After teaching at Loyola University New Orleans, Copps worked for Senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and later at the Commerce Dept. On his wall is a framed note from historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. egging him on in his current quest. Says colleague Adelstein: "He's the conscience of the FCC."
That conscience has irritated Powell, whose relations with Copps are icy, according to FCC insiders. "In the digital age, you don't need a 19th century whistle-stop tour to hear from America," scoffs technophile Powell, 39, who notes the 18,000 electronic comments filed at the FCC so far on the topic. He says recent court decisions challenging FCC regulations may force it to relax rules -- especially when the explosion of media outlets enabled by new technologies makes the restrictions obsolete. "I'm trying to be ruthless about this because my [court] overseer is," he says.
But Copps soldiers on, enlisting such strange bedfellows as conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III, a former Pat Buchanan campaign aide, now president of the Parents Television Council. While Bozell says Big Media isn't the sole root of trashy TV, larger companies aren't as responsive to complaints about indecent shows.
In the end, can Copps convince the FCC's GOP majority? That may depend on whether he can win over GOP Commissioner Martin, who shares Copps's concerns about offensive programming. But even if Martin sticks with Powell this time, Copps and his increasingly vocal supporters "will moderate what started off as a wholesale rewrite" of ownership rules, predicts one broadcast lobbyist. And that would be sweet victory for a New Dealer in the digital age. By Catherine Yang in Washington