In just a few short months, the Trump wrecking ball has pounded away at rules and regulations in virtually every government agency. The men and women the president has appointed to the Cabinet and to head those agencies are so far in sycophantic lockstep, engaged in dismantling years of protections in order to make real what White House strategist Steve Bannon infamously described as “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
The Federal Communications Commission is not immune. Its new chair, Republican Ajit Pai, embraces the Trump doctrine of regulatory devastation. “It’s basic economics,” he declared in an April 26 speech at Washington’s Newseum. “The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
His goal is to stem the tide of media reform that in recent years has made significant progress for American citizens. Even as we rely more than ever on digital media for information, education and entertainment, Pai and his GOP colleagues at the FCC seek to turn back the clock and increase even more the corporate control of cyberspace.
Net neutrality, the guarantee of an Internet open to all, rich or poor, without preferential treatment, was codified by the FCC in 2015. Pai—a former lawyer for Verizon—wants net neutrality reversed and has taken the first steps toward its elimination. He has abandoned media ownership rules and attacked such FCC innovations as the Lifeline program that subsidizes broadband access for low income Americans. Among other rollbacks, he also has opposed rules capping the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls (that cap was overturned on June 13 by the US Court of Appeals).
A veteran of the FCC, Michael Copps vehemently opposes Pai’s master plan to strengthen the grip of big business on our media. Copps served two terms as a commissioner, including a brief period as interim chair. He also has taught history, worked as chief of staff to former South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings and was an assistant secretary of commerce.
Today, Copps is special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at the nonpartisan grassroots organization Common Cause. He “just may be,” Bill Moyers once said, “the most knowledgeable fellow in Washington on how communications policy affects you and me.”
Recently, I spoke with Copps to get his assessment of how the election of Donald Trump and Ajit Pai’s FCC chairmanship are affecting Americans and the media landscape. “I remain convinced that the last presidential election we had was of, by, and for, big media,” he said. “It made billions of dollars for these big media companies. We’re entering into a period where there likely will be more mergers than we’ve ever had before. The political and marketplace atmosphere that we have in this country right now favors them.”
The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Copps: [CBS CEO Les] Moonves said it best: “I don’t know if Donald Trump is good for the country. but he’s damn good for CBS.” The election was just a glorified reality show and I do not think it was an aberration. Until we get that big picture straightened out and we get a civic dialogue that’s worthy of the American people and that actually advances citizens’ ability to practice the art of self-government—that informs citizens so they can cast intelligent votes and we stop making such damn-fool decisions—we’re in serious trouble.
To me, that remains the problem of problems, it remains at the top of the list. Journalism continues to go south, thanks to big media and its strangulation of news, and there’s not much left in the way of community or local media. Add to that an Internet that has not even started thinking seriously about how it supports journalism. You have these big companies like Google and Facebook who run the news and sell all the ads next to it, but what do they put back into journalism? It isn’t much.
I don’t think right now that commercial media is going to fix itself or even that we can save it with any policy that’s likely in the near-term, so we have to start looking at other alternatives. We have to talk about public media—public media probably has to get its act together somewhat, too. It’s not everything that Lyndon Johnson had in mind back in 1967 [when the Public Broadcasting Act was signed], but it’s still the jewel of our media ecosystem. So I’m more worried than ever about the state of our media—not just fake news but the lack of real news.
That’s priority No. 1; I don’t think you solve anything until you find some ways to repair our commercial media. That’s not coming from inside the fabled Beltway anytime soon. It’ll require major input from the grassroots. Big media won’t cover its own shortcomings, so we have to have a national conversation and make some democracy-encouraging decisions. We just have to find a way.
Michael Winship: What about “fake news?”
MC: The fake news thing is a challenging phenomenon. No one has a viable solution yet that I know of. Again, don’t look to Washington for much input under the present management. Maybe reinvigorating real news, the fact-based investigative journalism that big media has done so much to eliminate, would be the best solution. True journalism can do more than anything else to push aside fake news.
MW: So how do you characterize the Trump administration’s attitude toward communications issues?
MC: This is not populism; this is a plutocracy. Trump has surrounded himself with millionaires and billionaires, plus some ideologues who believe in, basically, no government. And the Trump FCC already has been very successful in dismantling lots of things—not just the net neutrality that they’re after now, but privacy, and Lifeline, which is subsidized broadband for those who can’t afford it. And just all sorts of things up and down the line. The whole panoply of regulation and public interest oversight—if they could get rid of it all, they would; if they can, they will.
I think the April 26 speech that Ajit Pai gave at the Newseum, which was partially funded, I think, by conservative activist causes, was probably the worst speech I’ve ever heard a commissioner or a chairman of the FCC give. It was replete with distorted history and a twisted interpretation of judicial decisions. And then, about two-thirds of the way through, it became intensely political and ideological, and he was spouting all this Ronald Reagan nonsense—if the government is big enough to do what you want, it’s big enough to take away everything you have, and all that garbage. It was awful.
It’s maybe the worst FCC I’ve ever seen or read about.
MW: How much of all this do you think is just simply the idea of destroying anything supported by the Obama White House? Is it that simple?
MC: Well, I think that some of it is the ego problem, but I think it goes beyond that. I think there is that right-wing, pro-business, invisible hand ideology, and then there’s just the unabashed and unprecedented and disgusting level of money in politics. I don’t blame just the Republicans; the Democrats are just about as beholden to it, too.
MW: You mentioned Pai’s speech at the Newseum; does he have any real philosophy?
MC: Yes, I think he believes this stuff, I think he’s a true believer. He was in the Office of General Counsel when I was in there—very articulate, very bright, very pleasant. He is an attractive personality, but he has this Weltanschauung or whatever you want to call it that is so out of step with modern politics and where we should be in the history of this country that it’s potentially extremely destructive. And Michael O’Rielly, the other Republican commissioner, is about the same. He’s an ideologue, too.
It’s all about the ideology, the world of big money, the access that the big guys have and continue to have. It’s not that the FCC outright refuses to let public interest groups through the door or anything like that; it’s just the lack of resources citizens and public interest groups have compared to what the big guys have. The public interest groups don’t have much of a chance, but I think they’ve done a pretty good job given the lack of resources.
MW: Did you expect Pai to move so fast against net neutrality?
MC: It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s so dangerous. Net neutrality is the sine qua non of an open Internet—“You can’t have one without the other,” as the old song goes. We’ll need to hope for a good court outcome if the FCC succeeds in eliminating the rules. But I really don’t see how big telecom or the commission can make a credible case to overturn what the court approved just two years ago, and then go back to what the court overturned before that. It’s downright surreal. But citizens should not limit their pro-net neutrality messages to just the FCC; Congress needs to understand how popular these rules are, so they keep their hands off it, which they may be more inclined to do as the 2018 elections come closer.
MW: There’s so much of an X factor to everything.
MC: There really is. I just hope we can get the media covering it better. I think if we get a couple of really big mergers, and of course we have AT&T and Time Warner out there now, which Trump said he was going to oppose. I don’t think he really will, but that itself should be an issue. And then, if we can join that to the net neutrality issue, then I think we can get some media attention. If we can do that with Time Warner and AT&T or whatever other mergers come along, certainly including Sinclair-Tribune, then we can actually make some progress. I sure hope so.
MW: There still seems to be a lot of public support for net neutrality.
MC: No question about it, but there would be an avalanche if more people were informed about the issue by the media. Many Trump voters, I am convinced, are not consumers who support $232 a year for a set-top box or who like constantly rising bills for cable and Internet service, or who want a closed Internet. That’s not why they voted for him.
MW: Have the net neutrality rules passed in 2015 had a chance to work? Have they had a chance to be effective?
MC: Yes, I think so. Some say they are a solution in search of a problem, but that’s not true. I think the companies have been on their good behavior over the last few years, by and large—but there have been numerous abuses, too. But once you throw out the rules we have now, it’ll be “Katy bar the door,” and by the time we get another administration in, either the FCC or the Congress, it’ll probably be too late to reverse the tide.
MW: What are the implications for free speech?
MC: They are huge. If you have an Internet service provider [ISP] that’s capable of slowing down other sites, or putting other sites out of business, or favoring their own friends and affiliates and customers who can pay for fast lanes, that’s a horrible infringement on free speech. It’s censorship by media monopolies.
It’s tragic: here we have a technology, the Internet, that’s capable really of being the town square of democracy, paved with broadband bricks, and we are letting it be taken over by a few gatekeepers. This is a First Amendment issue; it’s free speech versus corporate censorship.
MW: I want to talk to you about privacy, about protecting consumer information that’s on the net.
MC: If the huge Internet service providers are going to glean all manner of personal information about us and share it with others or sell it to others, we ought to have a right to say, “Yes, count me in, I don’t mind that,” or “No, I don’t want any part of that.” And I think the vast majority would say, “No, thank you, I don’t want any part of that.” So privacy is a huge issue. We’ve talked about it some in national security terms, but it’s a much bigger issue in citizen terms and what it does to the average person.
MW: You mentioned Lifeline; I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that . . .
MC: Lifeline is directed toward those who cannot afford to be connected to broadband. How do they find a job when most corporations don’t accept paper resumes or don’t want to interview you in person? Nowadays you have to email something to potential employers. How do you and your kids educate yourselves? How do kids do their homework when they don’t have broadband, and the kid in the next town or even in the next block has high-speed broadband? How do you care for your health—especially that now we’re getting seriously into tele-health and tele-medicine?
You cannot be a fully functioning 21st century citizen in this country unless you have access to high-speed broadband. It’s as simple as that. We shouldn’t settle for less. I don’t know that the FCC can do this by itself, and we need a national mission to do this. And we need everybody pushing for it. I hope it’s going to be included in Trump’s infrastructure plan, but I’ll be surprised if it’s in such a meaningful way that it’s going to get coverage for all the people in the inner cities and rural America.
And, you know, we’re way, way down in the rankings in broadband penetration, adoption and affordability. And without competition, even when you have broadband, without competition people are paying through the ceiling for inferior service. They’ve got to feed families and find shelter, but broadband is also essential to them.
MW: I think another issue that a lot of people aren’t aware of is the whole prison telephone problem.
MC: Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has done a fantastic job on that. We have such a high percentage of our population in the United States incarcerated and for their families to communicate with them or vice versa has become just very, very expensive. It’s an industry that has made a lot of money off of other people’s distress, and if you have a son in prison, and you can’t afford to communicate with them, that doesn’t help anybody, including the person who’s in prison.
Commissioner Clyburn made some good progress on interstate calling in this regard, but then you’ve got to go state by state, and now the court has just thrown some obstacles in the way of the intrastate calls. So, there’s work to be done, and we’ll see how far it goes. But we were on the track of making good progress under the previous commission.
MW: Do you think there’s any interest in consumer service remaining among the Republicans on the FCC or in Congress?
MC: It’s mighty hard to find if you look at all the party-line votes and partisanship at work. I think there will be some cooperation for infrastructure if broadband is included. It depends on how much. Some Republicans will vote for that, but you can’t find a Republican for net neutrality, and you can’t find a Republican for doing anything to counteract the outrageous influence of money in the political bloodstreams.
MW: With so many of these American Enterprise Institute types and various other conservative groups and people wielding influence, would they lobby to eliminate the FCC completely?
MC: Oh, yes indeed. There were reports during the transition that some of those people were actually saying, “Do we even need an FCC? Why don’t we just get rid of it?”
MW: So what can we all do at this point?
MC: Figure out how you really make this a grass-roots effort—and not just people writing, in but people doing more than that. In July, we will have a day devoted to Internet action, so stay tuned on that. In addition, as Bill Moyers says, “If you can sing, sing. If you can write a poem, write a poem.” Different initiatives attract different audiences, so whatever you can do, do. John Oliver made a huge difference in getting us to net neutrality and now he’s helping again. If you went up to the Hill right after that first John Oliver show on net neutrality [in 2014], you saw immediately that it made a difference with the members and the staff.
There’s no one silver bullet, no “do this” and it suddenly happens. You just have to do whatever you can do to get people excited and organized. It’s as simple as that.
MW: So that’s where the hope is?
MC: Well, that’s where my hope is. I don’t see anything else unless we get a change in power in Washington, and not just the name of the party in control but candidates who really are ready for a change and ready to do something to make it more reflective of what, I think, is the popular will.
MW: Which of the Democrats are good on these issues?
MC: There are a lot of them. I hesitate to get into names for fear of missing some. The problem is that Republicans inside the Beltway are joined in lockstep opposition on almost all these issues, and the level of partisanship, lobbying, big money, and ideology have thus far been insurmountable obstacles. But I believe if members of Congress spent more time at home, holding more town hall meetings, they would quickly learn that many, many of their constituents are on the pro-consumer, pro-citizen side of these issues.
It’s just such a formative time, and in many respects the future is now. I don’t know how long you can let this go on. How long can you open the bazaar to all this consolidation, how much can you encourage all this commercialization, how much can you ignore public media until you get to the point of no return where you can’t really fix it anymore? And I also think that the national discourse on the future of the Internet has really suffered while we play ping pong with net neutrality; one group comes in, does this, the other group, comes in and reverses it, boom, boom, boom. And net neutrality is not the salvation or the solution to all of the problems of the Internet. As you know, it’s kind of the opening thing you have to have, it lays a foundation where we can build a truly open Internet.
But net neutrality alone doesn’t solve consolidation, it doesn’t solve commercialization, it doesn’t solve, really, the big questions of the future of the Internet. Add to the list issues of artificial intelligence and is AI going to put us out of work? These aren’t strictly communication issues, but they are Internet issues. What does AI mean for the future of work in our society? Are we even going to be working? Or, can we say the Internet is throwing people out of work without sounding Luddite, because that’s been said throughout history and it’s been proven wrong, but I think now it looks like a lot of people already have been thrown out of work by it.
If Hillary Clinton had been elected, I would have gone down and talked with her and suggested a White House conference on the future of the Internet. You can’t answer all these questions that I just posed but you can ask the questions and you can get the best minds in the country talking about them. Give the conference a mandate and get them to come back with a report and some recommendations and at least put people on it with enough visibility that the media has to cover it.
If we could win net neutrality, which is a stretch, there will be a lot of people who say, “Well, that takes care of the Internet, everything’s fine and dandy right now.” But that’s not true at all. It’s just not true.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.