Disappearing Act: Clay Shirky on Michael Powell’s radical plans for the FCC

THE FCC IS the EPA of the twenty-first century. Americans spend more of their lives in the media landscape than the natural one, putting the FCC in charge of the environment most of us really inhabit. This concentrates a huge amount of power in the hands of Michael Powell, the FCC’s new chief. And if Powell goes through with even half of what he’s been promising in his speeches over the last couple of years, the FCC under his tenure will catalyze the greatest change in our media landscape since the Depression.

THE FCC IS the EPA of the twenty-first century. Americans spend more of their lives in the media landscape than the natural one, putting the FCC in charge of the environment most of us really inhabit. This concentrates a huge amount of power in the hands of Michael Powell, the FCC’s new chief. And if Powell goes through with even half of what he’s been promising in his speeches over the last couple of years, the FCC under his tenure will catalyze the greatest change in our media landscape since the Depression.

The FCC has an astonishing amount of regulatory power, derived from a single law, the Telecommunications Act of 1934. This act gives the government the power to regulate media as it sees fit, so long as its actions are consistent with “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” As if that mandate were not sweeping enough, one of the bill’s sponsors was quoted approvingly as concluding “It covers just about everything.”

Michael Powell, if his recent speeches before bodies like the Freedom Forum and the Media Institute are any guide, intends to obliterate the 1934 Act. His argument is that the initial impulse behind the regulation — the narrowness of the broadcast spectrum — was never an appropriate justification for government censorship, and is especially irrelevant today, when the story of the media landscape is not scarcity but explosion.

Fifty years of relatively stable broadcast media have been followed by twenty-five years of explosive innovation: the VCR, the internet, cable TV, PCs, digital satellite broadcast, and their converged cousins like TiVo, a computer that digitizes video sent through cable. In this environment, where Web sites can appear on the TV screen and video can come through phone wires, supporting different regulatory regimes for different means of transport is increasingly unworkable.

Powell intends (or says he intends) to abandon any attempt to treat broadcast differently from cable differently from the Internet, and to declare that any restrictions on First Amendment freedoms are illegitimate. Under United States Law, corporations are treated as individuals — ABC TV has the same presumptive First Amendment rights that you do. Under the Powell Doctrine, ABC would have the same actual rights as well.

It would be difficult to overstate the seismic effects of this kind of deregulation. The 1934 Act has so shaped the media landscape that we no longer think it odd that broadcasters are forced to have news departments but enjoined from endorsing candidates, or that there is a ceiling to the amount of sexual content and a floor to the amount of children’s content a broadcaster can have in any given week. That kind of government intervention would disappear.

And as tempting as it is to think of Bush II as a Restoration Government committed to status quo, Powell’s plans are radical, in the sense of change at the roots. His plan strikes at the contradiction at the heart of the modern conservative movement, where believers in free markets make common cause with believers in managed culture. (The old Left of free culture and managed markets died with Clinton’s first term.)

Powell’s plans run directly counter to the work of that sect of the Republican party that wants to put Web filters in every school and library and censor every pop CD and Hollywood movie. Those God-fearing people recognize that there is no force more corrosive to cultural restriction than free markets, and they will not take reductions in the government’s power to censor lying down.

There is a fissure in the current administration, and it runs right under Michael Powell’s desk. Though the 1934 Act was communist in its most literal sense, it has served the cultural conservatives well, and how far Powell gets following his libertarian ideals to free media from government interference will be the first bellwether we have as to which side of the free markets/managed culture split is going to get the run of the Bush White House for the next four years.

Clay Shirky is a contributing editor at FEED and Professor of Media Studies at Hunter College.

Author: Clay Shirky

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