On the long list of resignations of Cabinet members, agency heads and political appointees that has accompanied the launch of the second Bush term, no member of the Administration’s team left under quite so dark a cloud as Michael Powell. The decision of the chair of the Federal Communications Commission to step down was met with near-universal sighs of relief–from the citizen activists and members of Congress who had battled his ham-handed efforts to allow Big Media to get even bigger, of course; but also from industry insiders who had come to see the hapless Powell as an inept champion. It was a measure of how thoroughly Powell had botched his primary mission–eliminating barriers to media consolidation and monopoly–that within days of the announcement of his impending departure, the Justice Department decided not to appeal the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s ruling that struck down FCC rule changes that would have unleashed a new wave of conglomeration at the local and national levels.
But don’t think that Powell’s exit and the Justice Department’s backing off mean the fight is done. As Representative Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who was in the forefront of the fight against Powell’s rule changes, notes, a bad turn has been avoided, but “we still have a long way to go toward achieving honest and balanced reporting” and toward the development of regulatory structures that “provide greater rights to smaller media outlets who too often are silenced by the media giants.” Those giants haven’t given up on their battle for bigness. And it appears that the Bush Administration is preparing to bring in new, potentially even more industry-friendly troops. With Powell leaving, there will be a reshuffling of the three-member Republican faction that now dominates the FCC. (Democratic commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, both critics of rule changes that would have allowed one company to own a newspaper, television and radio stations and other media in the same market, and that would have dramatically eased controls on the growth of national networks, will remain. But they will also continue to be on the weak end of a 3-to-2 partisan divide.)
Bush will definitely have an opportunity to appoint a new chair, and if, as some predict, former wireless industry lobbyist Kathleen Abernathy also leaves, he could radically reshape the commission. One prospective replacement for Powell is the third Republican appointee on the commission, Kevin Martin. But Martin upset industry insiders when he sided with Democrats Copps and Adelstein to block Powell’s attempt to choke off local phone competition–former House Commerce Committee chair Billy Tauzin dismissed Martin as a “renegade Republican” after that vote. And the insiders want to be sure the agency is chaired by someone who is 100 percent in favor of their agenda.
That’s created something of a bandwagon for the appointment of Becky Klein–a former head of the Texas Public Utility Commission–with whom the industry has already developed a cozy relationship. When Klein challenged Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett last year, the Austin Chronicle described her as “a horrible candidate” who appeared to be less serious about winning a House seat than “auditioning for her next GOP patronage job.” Despite that fact, Klein collected more than $800,000 in campaign contributions, with a substantial portion coming from telecommunications and energy companies–more, in fact, from those industries than any other first-time GOP candidate in the country. Klein earned just 31 percent of the vote, but as Gene Kimmelman, a senior director of Consumers Union, explained, “Clearly, the companies are investing in the future.”
There is no way that Bush is going to put a champion of the public interest in charge of the FCC. But members of the Senate, which must confirm his nominee, should signal now that Klein is simply unacceptable. It would be an important show of independence by Congress, where there is growing bipartisan awareness of public disenchantment with one-size-fits-all media. Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders says, “It is time for Congress to become pro-active and to fight for legislation which will allow for more localism, more diversity of opinion and more competition in the media.” Sanders is right. And what better first step than to say that the next FCC chair should come without strings attached?