By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
So what to make of Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who is stepping down after four years? He was a man of good ideas and poor political skills.
Of course, even Machiavelli himself would have had a hard time mediating between the two forces tugging at the FCC: on the one side, increasingly libertarian technology; on the other, an increasingly authoritarian political culture.
On the technology side, the do-your-own thing trend is hard to ignore and harder to stop. Today, thanks to cable and satellite technology, consumers can choose from hundreds of TV channels, from the United States and around the world. And of course the Internet: Web sites and blogs around the world number in the tens of millions.
For his part, Powell was a techno-enthusiast. Under his tenure, the FCC, created during the New Deal to be a heavy-handed regulator, became more of a light-touch bystander -- as new technologies, such as Internet-based telephony (VoIP), and wireless Net connectivity (WiFi), took off in every direction. The media have never been freer.
Yet paradoxically, many in the media criticized Powell. The New York Times trashed the outgoing chairman for "his abdication of responsibility for regulating the businesses that came before him," specifically on questions of corporate consolidation. The Times seems to think that the government should lay off free speech, but at the same time keep the communications business under heavy domination. But as Viacom discovered when the bloggers unmasked the Memogate scandal of its subsidiary, CBS, even the mightiest media conglomerates are helpless when confronted by truly liberated media.
Moreover, those on the left who wish to regulate commerce should understand that they will be joined by -- and perhaps overwhelmed by -- those on the right who wish to regulate culture. An FCC that's strong enough to thrash big business is also strong enough to throttle the First Amendment.
Red State conservatism
And so to the other force: the rising tide of Red State conservatism. Powell, the libertarian, underestimated the reaction to flesh and foul language on TV. In 2003, the FCC was confronted with a case in which the rock singer Bono used the "f" word at the Golden Globes awards show. Under Powell's influence, the commission ruled that since Bono had used the offending word as an nonsexual adjective, not as an explicit gerund, he wasn't guilty of obscenity. It was libertarian lawyering at its best.
But then, in February 2004, came a case that was more, er, open and shut. Janet Jackson's notorious "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl caused such a wave of outrage that Powell's libertarianism was washed away. Prodded by Congress, by the Bush administration, and by his fellow commissioners, Powell flip-flopped, launching into a new phase as media-morals-nanny.
Which, of course, led Powell into a word war with Howard Stern, radio's bad boy. Last fall, after a spate of FCC fines, Stern announced his retreat off the airwaves and onto Sirius satellite radio. Yet to its great credit, when asked about legal limits upon Stern's new venue, Powell's FCC put principle ahead of pique; the commission declared that "subscription-based services do not call into play the issue of indecency." Translated, that means that Stern can say whatever he wants on Sirius -- including, no doubt, awful things about Powell.
And that's the point: no matter how much the censors would like to button up Stern's mouth and Jackson's blouse, technology keeps opening new vistas for expression and exhibition -- and it would take the KGB to close them all down. If some people wish to control the media, they will have to do it in their own homes, not in everybody else's home.
The Financial Times editorialized that "as a bureaucrat and a Washington insider," Powell was a "failure." If his goal is now to become a rich lobbyist, that's a harsh assessment. But if Powell wishes to be remembered as a man who did his best to put liberty ahead of coercion, then he has much to be proud of.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service