Commissioner Copps decries lack of public interest guidelines and compliance by broadcast licensees

The same week that local broadcast groups petitioned the FCC that spectrum reclamation was against the “public interest,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told an audience in Los Angeles that previous commissions “have wiped the slate virtually clean of the public interest guidelines and responsibilities of licensees that had been built up by generations of reformers.”

Copps, speaking at the Walter Cronkite Awards Luncheon at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, noted that “all is not well in the land of journalism. The praise-worthy reporting that we honor today becomes harder to find because there is less of it. Across our country’s media landscape, accountability journalism is — let’s be blunt — struggling to survive.”

Copps said journalists are hindered by inflated profit expectations from Wall Street. “They face round after round of job cuts and belt-tightening that require them to do ever more with ever less,” he said. “And let’s be honest — in an Information Age like this one, the need for high-quality reporting is perhaps greater than it’s ever been. It’s not just journalists’ jobs at stake here — it’s American democracy; it’s freedom’s future.”

The veteran FCC commissioner noted the price broadcast journalism has paid for the blistering pace of media consolidation experienced over the past two decades — an era of rampant private sector speculation made even worse by the abdication of public interest responsibilities by successive FCC bodies.

“Big media likes to tell us the age of mergers and consolidation is over — but I guess Comcast, NBCU and AT&T never got the memo,” Copps said. “And most of what I read from the analysts now is that the stars are aligning for more deals, more consolidation, more stations owned by hedge funds, banking trusts and private equity firms for whom the public interest may be a wholly alien concept.”

Copps said don’t expect a return of good times — and good times are returning for broadcasting, he noted — to result in rehiring all those laid-off reporters or the mass reopening of newsrooms that have been shuttered. It will not change, he said.

We are still waiting for media reform, he said, or even a down payment on media reform. He said we are “waiting for a public interest licensing system with some guidelines to encourage news, diversity and localism across all our markets. Waiting for something credible to replace the slam-dunk license renewal system we have now wherein a broadcaster sends us basically a post-card every eight years and gets a license back with virtually no questions asked.

“Waiting for the sun to shine on who is bank-rolling all those political ads we saw in the last election cycle — post Citizens United. Those ads totaled more than $2 billion,” Copps said.