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.
Larry Fly's appointment to the FCC chairmanship in 1939 marked a decidedly different turn for the commission, initiating a nearly decade-long progressive regulatory orientation for American media policy. Previously Fly had cut his regulatory teeth on policy battles handling anti-trust cases at the Justice Department and then heading the Tennessee Valley Authority's legal department. He viewed monopoly power with a deep-seated suspicion, believing that capitalism foundered without competition. He held special disregard for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), whom he once likened to a "dead mackerel in the moonlight -- it both shines and stinks."
Fly did not fear provoking powerful industries. Corporate attorney and presidential candidate Wendell Willkie called Fly "the most dangerous man in America -- to have on the other side." Beyond being known as a fighter, his life's work would be defined by a commitment to civil liberties and democratic principles. He viewed the American media system as democracy's infrastructure; too precious to leave to profit motives alone.
Confronting rampant media conglomeration, Fly aggressively investigated newspaper ownership of broadcast stations, and completed a long study on the radio industry, titled the deceptively innocuous-sounding, "Report on Chain Broadcasting." The FCC dramatically intervened against media concentration by acting on the report's recommendations to force NBC to divest itself of one of its two networks, which became ABC, and by loosening the networks' control over their affiliates, which promoted localism. In addition to increasing competition and breaking up media companies, Fly's FCC fought against wiretapping, placed constraints on broadcasters' political editorializing, and pressured the NAB to amend its code, making it easier for marginalized voices like labor activists to get on the air.
It's tempting to believe that back then, FCC commissioners didn't have it as rough as they do now. Not so. Commissioners were red-baited by reactionaries far worse than the Glenn Becks of today. They were subjected to investigations and harassment by Congress and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and they were attacked in the press by commercial interests championed by some of the country's most powerful corporations. Fly certainly was not flawless, but his commitment to defending the public interest never wavered. And like former Commissioner Michael Copps today, he would continue to push for media reform even after leaving the FCC.
In seeking the next FCC chair, President Obama would do well to recall this history. A previous administration, facing similar challenges, chose a public interest advocate to lead a key regulatory agency, one who would stand up to powerful corporate interests, one who would relish a good fight. Today, much of our media system is dominated by oligopolies more concerned about profits than providing essential communications -- like fast and affordable internet -- to all Americans. The public, more than ever, needs an FCC chair who won't back down from the Comcasts and the AT&Ts of the world, but who will fight for the public interest. The future of our communication systems may depend on it.