A Fighter for the Public Interest at the FCC
Posted: 04/17/2013 11:55 am
Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication
Does it matter who chairs the Federal Communications Commission? People might be forgiven if they think it doesn’t, especially as President Obama considers a former corporate lobbyist to head the agency. Won’t Rupert Murdoch, regardless of who’s FCC chair, simply buy whatever media outlets he desires? Won’t powerful companies like Comcast or AT&T just continue to dictate policies affecting internet speeds, access, costs, and content?
Given repeated concessions to industry interests in recent years — from weak net neutrality protections to approving the Comcast/NBCU mega-merger — it’s easy to assume the FCC has always been helpless to rein in the powerful media and telecom corporations that it’s meant to regulate. But history suggests otherwise, reminding us of what could, and what should, be possible.
Over 70 years ago America faced similar challenges with harnessing a communication technology’s democratic potential, and a public interest defender rose to the occasion. In the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt watched as newspaper companies rapidly bought up broadcast stations. What had been hailed as a great democratizing force — radio — was being over-commercialized, degraded by poor programming and excessive advertising. Roosevelt wanted an FCC chair who would stand up to powerful media lobbies and help rescue radio’s fading democratic promise. In James Lawrence “Larry” Fly he found someone who not only wouldn’t back down, but would relish defending the public interest against media monopolies.