WASHINGTON — Announcing his intention Friday to resign as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell signaled the end of a divisive tenure and the beginning of a charged debate over the substance of his legacy.
Appointed as a commissioner by President Clinton in 1997 and then made chairman by President Bush in 2001, Powell, a Republican, was to have served until 2007. But early departures by chairmen are not uncommon, and Powell’s had been rumored for months in media circles.
“It wasn’t announced internally until today, so, in that sense, it was a surprise,” an agency official said Friday. “But I can’t say anyone was really shocked.”
Powell gave no specific reasons for his desire to leave early other than releasing a statement saying he had “completed a bold and aggressive agenda. … Therefore, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency.”
But some suspect the announcement was prompted, at least in part, by Powell’s having wearied of two behemoth issues — media ownership rules and indecency enforcement.
In June 2003, Powell succeeded in getting the FCC to pass his proposal relaxing federal regs that restricted the number of media outlets any one company could own in a given market. Large media companies applauded the proposal, but smaller companies as well as consumer and activist groups denounced the move as monopolistic and anti-competitive.
A court eventually blocked the proposal, but not before the dispute grew even bigger when another issue — complaints about indecent programming — exploded. Complaints about indecency were climbing but Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl saw the FCC inundated with protests and demands that the agency do something.
A fine mess
The FCC responded by issuing a record $7.7 million in indecency fines last year. But Powell seemed to enforce indecency regulations only reluctantly, which angered conservative advocacy groups like the Parents Television Council and Morality in Media.
The PTC, in particular, was often sharply critical of Powell on the indecency issue, which made unlikely bedfellows of social conservatives — who claimed more media outlets in the hands of fewer owners led to more indecent programming — and First Amendment liberals — who claimed media concentration stifled competing voices.
“Powell had taken it so hard on the chin with the media ownership fiasco that he probably didn’t have the energy to fight the indecency fight,” said Adam Thierer, director of communications studies at libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. Powell stepped up indecency enforcement activities, but not enough for some, as evidenced by the PTC’s reaction to his announced departure.
“We’re delighted,” said Lara Mahaney, a spokeswoman for the council, “because from the indecency standpoint, he gets an F for his efforts.”
“Powell has been a bold deregulator on everything except indecency,” Thierer said. “So his legacy is going to be decidedly mixed.”
Indeed, reactions to Friday’s announcement ran the gamut.
“Michael Powell will not be missed by those of us concerned about creating a more democratic media system,” said Robert W. McChesney, founder and president of Free Press, an activist media-reform group. “His tenure was marked by some of the lowest moments in the history of the FCC.”
Ray Gifford, president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a pro-free-market think tank, said: “No policymaker could have done a better job of articulating the critical importance of embracing the changes inherent in the digital age.Powell always puts consumers first, recognizing that the best way for the government to serve them is to ensure that it not prevent the emergence of a world of choice in platforms and services.”
Critical of means
“We shared his goals but not his means,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, a watchdog group. “Implementing new technologies? Yes, we were with him. But his mechanism of doing that — by letting big boys get even bigger? No.”
Jonathan Cody, a friend as well as Powell’s senior legal adviser at the commission on media ownership, maintained that his boss’s legacy will rest on a solid foundation. “He talked from the beginning about digital migration,” Cody said. “The vision he had in 2001 is a reality now, if you look at how telecommunications has gotten into video, and cable has gotten into voice and the explosion of broadband and wireless communications.” Meanwhile, speculation on possible successors has centered on Kevin Martin, also a Republican and one of the FCC’s current commissioners; Becky Klein, a former head of Texas’ public utility commission; and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration’s Michael Gallagher, among others.
The White House likely will ask Powell’s opinion regarding a successor, but it’s doubtful he will recommend Martin, with whom he has clashed bitterly over policy. Powell’s resignation becomes effective in March.