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FCC Chairman Michael Powell Sees Bright Future for Online Media

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The admitted techno-geek sees the Internet fitting in with -- and ultimately influencing -- print and broadcast journalism. But he frets that lack of filters threatens information overload and a loss of credibility.

When does a community have enough independent media outlets in this age of increasing consolidation? How many different ways should consumers be able to access news? When does competition exist?

These are just a few of the issues on the Federal Communications Commission agenda as the agency and its controversial chairman Michael K. Powell grapple with the fallout from the FCC's June 2 decision to loosen media ownership rules.

Championed by Powell, the new rules would increase the number of TV households one company can reach and would eliminate the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban in larger markets.

The new rules were slated to take effect Thursday, but the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay Wednesday that prevents the rules from taking effect for now.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would reverse the rules, and the U.S. Senate may vote on a similar measure this fall.  

Last month, Powell traveled to Aspen to speak at the annual conference of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank that "studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy" and advocates keeping government regulation to a minimum.

Powell used the occasion to warn those looking to the federal government for solutions to beware the law of unintended consequences.

Later that day, he sat down for a discussion on his own use of online journalism, the impact of current technology on politics and policy, and the evolving role of the Internet in FCC decisions. 

Powell's belief that consumers have enough diverse forms of access to news and information to warrant loosening the media ownership rules stems in no small measure from his own use of technology and media. The admitted techno-geek thrives on technology, weaving it throughout his personal and professional worlds.

The Internet ... is not going to take TV out and it is not going to take newspapers out but it is going to change the nature of media and information.

The FCC not only streams audio and video of open commission meetings and press conferences, last month it became one of the first federal agencies to offer free WiFi access to visitors.

An avid consumer of journalism in various forms, Powell uses plenty of gadgets to feed his news habit, to gauge reaction to his moves and to keep up with his father, Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell's description of his then-new TiVo as "God's machine" at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year made headlines.

On his Aspen trip -- where this interview took place -- he had a BlackBerry, a cell phone, a PDA (Sony Clie), an Apple iPod, a laptop and two USB mini-drives loaded with family photos and work in progress.

Powell remembers going online for the first time in the early '90s while at Georgetown University Law Center, awed by the ability to swap hours in the library stacks for a few minutes at Lexis-Nexis. That first foray was at 9600 baud. Since then, Powell says with a grin, "It's exploded at a phenomenal pace."

The following is an edited excerpt of the Aspen interview.


OJR: How does that speed change the way you do things?

MP: I actually think we're becoming so saturated in some ways, contrary to the popular discourse about media I actually think we're awash. I say to my staff, "I guarantee you with all the stuff that we have that no significant news event can happen in the world and we're probably less than 20 minutes from hearing about it. ?" Besides all the e-commerce stuff, I think as an information resource tool the Internet's the most amazing thing that's ever been invented. I think we've actually already gotten so accustomed to it we've forgotten how hard it used to be.

It's pretty remarkable that I can go to Google News and immediately have 4,000 sources of news from all around the world. The breadth of access gives me a perspective that's pretty fascinating. The power of it is not just the sheer volume but the ability to get it when and where you want it, right?

I don't get home to see the network news. If I didn't have the Internet, it would be much harder for me to stay current with these things because I have to fit it into my hectic life, and this lets me do it at home, at work, at any moment.

I don't get home to see the network news. If I didn't have the Internet it would be much harder for me to stay current with these things because I have to fit it into my hectic life, and this lets me do it at home, at work, at any moment.

OJR: You have TiVo.

MP: TiVo's another part but the theme here that's really powerful is that it's instant and the personalization. I can get it quickly, but I can also get what I want quickly. As simple as weather.com knows my ZIP code [and] gives me the weather for my space or that My Amazon has the collection of books that I'm more likely to be drawn to or that I have an interest in telecom -- I can tell my news source that and it will bring me all of those stories.

We used to manually clip out articles and put them together -- we still do -- but you can see a story so quickly so tailored to what you want.

OJR: I was an intern in the White House news summary office back in the Carter days reading dozens of papers a day.

MP: I did the same thing at the Pentagon, the Pentagon Early Bird at 6 in the morning. Tape it together. Imagine now how silly that looked. And now you don't even have to centralize it anymore. I get everything from clips cut, pasted, sent to my RIM all day long, to my phone all day long, to my e-mail account all day long and that's before I even go on the Internet. It's blown a hole in the way people inform themselves.

OJR: You said something this morning and within hours it was popping all around the world because of AP's automated news script. Ten years ago, even five years ago, you probably could have gotten away with saying something and it would have taken a full news cycle to go through. How does that change the way you think about news?

MP:  I actually think it's part of what has made public policy so much more difficult and also in some ways nastier. It's difficult because ? you're plugged in all day. There's no end. Unless you have a perfect mind you wrestle with stuff, you struggle with stuff. That struggle sometimes takes time in a medium that's very impatient.

It used to be true if a politician said something you'd have a couple of hours to fix it. Now if I said something in there I didn't want to say, it's too late ? within an hour I'm talking to people who say you were great on TV. ? Within minutes we're getting commentary from people on e-mail.

It puts a real premium on being more careful and judicious about your words and your thinking, which I think is good. But sometimes I think it's bad because I think that's why you get political speak out of a lot of politicians -- rather look like you're talking and say nothing than to be candid and maybe regret it. That bothers me because I'm a believer in candor and I like to be pretty straight about what I think about things, but at your peril you have to be sensitive to what you're saying. ? This is the new reality.

I also think that misinformation can get dramatically abused very quickly in a way that's difficult to correct because of the speed and pace of those things.

The other thing is what we don't even understand is that Dan Rather or whoever is also using the power of technology to make those predictions -- not only is what they say being distributed at great speed, they are using the power of that speed to make these decisions in the first place.

What you see in journalists -- and this is not always good -- is pressure to quickly explain something that's going on. ? I sit at CNN and watch wars like other people. It is so quick that a camera is on the scene, that things are being visually circulated around the world and the pressures to explain them are intense on whoever's standing there, but yet in the fog of that war I know as well as anyone, having once been a soldier, nobody knows yet what really happened, who pulled what trigger and why, why did they shoot. Trust me, there's a lot more to that story but the intensity of that is really wild.

Finally, we're a country that believes in democracy as sort of direct representation, but we've always believed in a representative form, which means it's not just majority rules in things; we elect people to represent us.

Newspapers, I think, serve a very valuable function as editors. What they do for us is not just spew out raw news to us. What we hope they do is help us figure out what's really important. Is it on 1A above the fold? The editorial process sends all kinds of signals to the reader about at least that editor's view. Stories get killed because they're not factually sound or stories get run even though they're controversial and bring down government officials.

That function to me is a pretty important one and -- while I love the Internet and I think it's going to be one of the most spectacular things in empowering consumers -- there can be a point where that's also worrisome.

Where are the filters? If I say something nasty about you, I make up some story -- you were in here and you pulled out a bourbon bottle -- that story can be around the world in seconds. I tell you, if you've ever been on the wrong side of one of these, it's a nightmare to pull back. Sometimes it's an impression that gets left about people forever. Just look at some of the nasty political incidents, whether it be the Clinton impeachment, pick your favorite one. The intensity of that can ruin people.

OJR: You can correct a mistake all you want but you can never correct all the places that it's been.

When I was a kid, there were three networks, and if you had me you could hold me a while. My kids swing that remote control like it's a pistol, and two seconds into a show, if they are not entertained, you're gone.

MP: No, and the other thing is we're trying to teach my children this, and the schools are struggling with this because kids have gotten incredibly lazy with it -- "well, it was on the Internet."

Well, it is, but on the Internet where and who said? If you think about it when you go to Google -- my son can go "Abraham Lincoln book report" right and I guarantee you if you type that in right now you'll get a whole lot of stuff you can use. Is it right? Is it plagiarized? Does it credit authors? These are things journalists learn, these are the things scholars learn. These are the things we learned in high school and college when I was growing up ... and there was this cumbersomeness to the writing process that forced you to check sources, to validate. Electronic media have an ability to easily make you scoot right past these parts and that's a problem.

OJR: What makes this different from radio or the wires or television news?

MP: Because I think even there, while radio, television can deliver things quicker, there's still an editorial process; there's still a newsroom. There's still editors who make decisions about stories, whether the facts exist for the stories. Yes, the pressures are probably more intense than the print medium, although I'm not an expert on journalism. But what worries me about it is I don't need a newsroom.

I personally have the view that there's no information in the world that's not available on the Internet anymore. I can find anything. But what am I finding? It's the same Times Roman font. It's not that hard to make something look credible.

OJR: Anonymity changes the whole tenor of the debate.

MP: Lobbying used to be something where you'd have your Washington person and they'd go up to the Hill and meet with members or go the FCC. But now people can run whole campaigns against you on the Internet and very effectively. We have plenty of controversial issues, and I take time to look at what they're doing just to know. 

All of them have big Web sites with all kinds of rhetoric about what we're doing and not doing, the accuracy sometimes deeply flawed being sent rapidly out to hundreds and sometimes thousands and millions of members with one-click e-letters to congressmen, one-click letters to your commissioner. There's something I love about that because it's democracy at its wildest but on the other hand it's democracy at its wildest.

OJR: How do you sort through that when you're making a decision and you're faced with a stack of opposition e-mails?

MP: It's the same point we're making generally about the importance of being a thoughtful intellect, which is you have to take stuff at more than face value. This (media ownership) is a perfect example -- and I don't want to minimize it, I think there was a lot of public sentiment about this issue -- but I also know that an enormous amount of it is engineered. Why? Because people talk about us having almost a million or two million comments. I also know that 75 percent of them are postcards from the NRA. Now, OK, so that's one voice.

You've got to be concerned that people don't get disproportionate influence either, because of their ability to mobilize. So 75 percent of them are postcards and what do they say, what are they really telling us? I'm opposed to big media. Period. Well, so am I.

You have to be willing to wade in and struggle through and make distinctions between things that are candidly of very little value for the task you have in front of you and ones that are more valuable and more reasoned. But when every NRA member's asked to send five postcards to each commissioner saying they hate gun-hating media liberal elites -- that's what a lot of the cards say -- [that's] the exact opposite of what the liberal end of the political spectrum says about big media.

OJR: Is the Internet a medium or a distribution system?

MP: Both. It is a distribution system, the most powerful one the world's yet to see, but it has a character of its own. The old Heisenberg scientific principle says you can't observe something without acting on it. In some ways, information doesn't stay the same when it's put over the Internet ? the Internet changes news. Information are not numerical facts; they are words and they are subject to many interpretations.

OJR: There's a long-running debate about keeping some elements the same when news is personalized -- for instance, if there's a major event in your city you should not be able to opt out. Would you draw a line personally?

MP: I think it's very difficult to say because the dividing line as decided by who? The value American culture holds highest is that of an individual to make free choice, so the minute you decide there's some value in them not having a choice as decided by who?

This is why I think media actually is so difficult because a lot of times people cite legitimate concerns, but the solution they invite is even more dangerous -- which is do you want the government to decide? I am Mike Powell. I'm a government official. The First Amendment says the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press, so if I think you should really [run] that piece about Rush Limbaugh ...

Who do you want to ask to serve that function? That's why I think we believe in a free press and that's why I think you ought to believe in a free media, because even if there are downsides to private organizations, newspapers, media companies making those decisions, they're better than government making those decisions in our society because you don?t want political discourse skewed with the preferences of the people who have the guns and the money.

OJR: At what point does the Internet become a significant enough medium to equal access to television or print or radio when it comes to making judgments on whether people have enough access to news and information?

MP: Now and never. I hate to be flip but when did television supplant the newspaper? It didn't. They coexist, they will always coexist but they're equally significant in the shaping of our lives.

The Internet, in my opinion, is already there and is going to get richer as the younger generation rises and is going to exist just as prominently as a source to our citizens. It is not going to take TV out and it is not going to take newspapers out but it is going to change the nature of media and information because it exists.

OJR: When you look at media ownership caps, there are a number of news organizations online that can instantly transmit messages to millions of users. Does that enter into your thinking at all when you're looking at the influence and power of media outlets?

MP: Absolutely. You know whether it be anti-trust law or political philosophy or anything else, coercive power comes from the ability to exclusively control. ... The real question -- most people don't understand -- is whether they can succeed, not that they might want to.

We're not pro-business because I know better than anybody that they might want to control. What we examine is, could you succeed [at shutting out other voices]? The more outlets you create and the more distribution media you create and the more places that you allow messages that some would otherwise kill can still find a place to your eyes and ears, the more that they can't do that.

So rather than talking about whether the Internet is good enough to replace TV, what we really ought to be talking about is how we continue to drive this so we can make sure that whether it be Fox and Rupert Murdoch or CBS and Viacom, that even if they wanted to they couldn't keep information from you.

OJR: You have a stake in making sure there are as many voices as possible?

MP: The only difference in emphasis from me and some who are opponents [to loosening rules on consolidation] is that I think the answer is to power more devices and technology in the future so that there are so many sources, so much diversity, this is a moot issue. Others are dismissive of that and want to focus on the most mature industries and their power. 

When CBS goes to sell advertising, don't doubt for a second, that Madison Avenue rep asks why should we pay you that when we can do it on the Internet (or somewhere else) ... The reality is their value is diminished and fragmented by the ability to reach consumers other ways. It's already happened. That's an objective fact. [Broadcast] television used to own 80 percent of the viewership in the United States. It's below 50 percent. That's amazing.

Last point ... the problem in a society is not concentration and scarcity but actually abundance, fragmentation and hyper competition. There's so much of it the audience is getting fragmented across so many different media that they're very hard to reach and hold onto. 

When I was a kid, there were three networks. and if you had me you could hold me a while. My kids swing that remote control like it's a pistol, and two seconds into a show, if they are not entertained, you're gone. If there's nothing on TV ... they go play Xbox and if they're bored with their Xbox they go play Playstation and if they're bored with that they go to the Internet.

If you're an advertiser chasing my son, you're trying to chase him around this whole electronic sphere. It's because there's so much, because it's so fragmented.

This article was updated at 11:30 p.m. Sept. 3, 2003

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Related Links
Apple iPod
BlackBerry
FCC goes WiFi
FCC's cross-ownership rules decision
Federal Communications Commission
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle
Media Access Project
Powell bio
Sony Clie
Stay granted on FCC case
The Progress & Freedom Foundation
Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
USB Mini-Drives
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Michael K. Powell: "Newspapers ... serve a very valuable function. ... (They) help us figure out what's really important."

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