BOSTON, April 11, 2011 – Speaking to a standing-room only crowd on Friday afternoon, Federal Communications Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn addressed media consolidation and broadband deployment before fielding questions at a town hall meeting during Free Press’s National Conference for Media Reform.
Media scholar, Robert McChesney, offered the introduction for the event, addressing both the packed auditorium, an overflow room and those watching live via the web. Both commissioners received standing ovations from the crowd as they took the stage.
During his speech, Commissioner Copps focused on the need to reinvigorate journalism, address the consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer hands and refocus the FCC to ensure that spectrum licensees are serving the public interest.
Later on, during the question-and-answer portion of the event, Copps encouraged a system wherein use of the license for a demonstrable public service would be required in order to obtain and keep a broadcasting license. If a licensee did not show that it was using the license for the public good, Copps proposed that the FCC impose a one- or two-year probationary period and, if the licensee still did not serve the public interest, “then [the FCC] ought to take that license back and give it to someone who will.”
“Money controls so much of what’s going on in our society,” said Copps. “We have to get away from Wall St. mentality where it’s only the bottom line that counts.”
Commissioner Clyburn’s remarks focused heavily on the technological progress of the last 20 years and how the FCC could facilitate that progress while ensuring that all Americans have opportunities to access it.
Clyburn noted the rapid increase in wireless Internet use as it becomes the preferred method of access for many, especially among minority populations. She continued to compare the airport waiting areas of 20 years ago – where people would “read a book or stare at the ceiling” – with those of today, where people are emailing, texting, or playing a game with a friend halfway across the world.
“This is a new reality and Americans have embraced it,” said Clyburn. “I know that these technologies – the way this world is evolving – hold the potential for unlocking the hopes and the spirits and desires in all of us.”
Volunteers at the event squeezed between standing-room attendees and stepped over those camped out in the aisles to collect questions on index cards from the crowd. Inquiries ranged from radio spectrum policy to the race and gender diversity goals of the Commission.
As one question asked the commissioners what it thought about the FCC’s ability to regulate the Internet, more than 400 miles away in Washington, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and his fellow Republicans made the final push on the House floor to pass a measure that would undo the FCC’s recent net neutrality rules.
In Boston, the commissioners defended the agency’s Open Internet Order, with respect to both the content of the rules and the commission’s authority to make them.
“What we did was establish high level rules to make sure that people have access to the internet to do what they want,” said Clyburn, noting that the public has expectations of FCC “to ensure that we have a robust communications network and industry.”
Commissioner Copps defended the Commission’s authority to regulate the Internet as a foregone conclusion.
“People ask whether [the FCC] can do this – well of course we can do this,” proclaimed Copps, who has frequently criticized the Order on the grounds that he believes it does not do enough to protect consumers.
“No other country on the face of the earth has gone down this road – calling [the Internet] an information service,” he said, referring to the difficulty the agency has had in making a regulatory classification of the Internet.
The commissioners also addressed the need to free up spectrum for wireless broadband and to keep too many media outlets from falling into too few hands that do not represent the range of voices in America.
“Diversify the space. Have more voices,” Commissioner Clyburn said and then directly addressed the crowd. “I am challenging you to push the agency and the powers that be to diversify.”