Friday, April 04, 2014
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.
I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a five to four decision, the Supreme Court ruled this week to raise the limit for individual campaign contributions from $123,000 to $3.6 million. It’s not that the old limit was too low. Only a few hundred donors met it during the last election. But imposing limits was based on the idea that they’re needed to prevent deep pocketed donors from corrupting – or further corrupting - the democratic process. The ruling in this case, McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, much like the decision in Citizens United before it, rejects that argument in favor of one based on the idea that money is speech and speech should be free, or at least unfettered. Michael J. Copps, a former commissioner of the FCC, disagrees. But right now he’s not arguing that point. He’s stuck on a different one, specifically the FCC’s old dictum that we are entitled to know by whom we are being persuaded.
MICHAEL J. COPPS: All of America, I think, is exhausted from these endless, mindless, anonymous political advertisements. And most of them are really anonymous. A front group, perhaps masquerading as citizens for purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain, might really be a chemical company dumping sludge into the East River. But you wouldn't know that because they’re not required to tell you who is really sponsoring these ads. A solution is at hand if we can get the FCC to do something about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s tucked inside the Communications Act, where it has slumbered unenforced for decades.
MICHAEL J. COPPS: In the law, and it’s been there for almost 80 years now, is Section 317, which has to do with sponsorship identification, which means that people who sponsor ads, either commercial or political, on radio and now television and cable too, have a duty to inform people on who is really [LAUGHS] paying for the ads. This has never been enforced, even though it’s been on the books all of these years, from the standpoint of the political aspects of it. It has been from the commercial.
In the 1960s, the FCC updated the rules a little bit. I don’t know why, ‘cause they never really implemented them, but they made it clear that the American people have a right to know by whom they are being persuaded. The FCC could say tomorrow morning, we’re updating the rules, here they are, you have 90 days to comment. We could have this in place for the 2014 elections, but we surely should have it in place before the 2016 elections. And, again, that doesn’t solve the problem of money but I think a lot of those ads would maybe go away as a result of this. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay but a petition filed with the FCC nearly three years ago by the Media Access Project called for the law's disclosure requirements to be applied, that’s just been sitting there. Why isn’t the FCC acting?
MICHAEL J. COPPS: Well, I pushed while I was there from the inside, and that wasn’t sufficient to get that petition pulled out of the desk drawer. [LAUGHS] Now I’m pushing from the outside, and I’m hoping the forces of public opinion, fed-up voters, fed-up TV viewers will join what I think is a rising chorus to have disclosure.
And, interestingly, in the Citizens United decision on political spending by the Supreme Court and in the McCutcheon decision this week that lifted aggregate contribution levels for individuals, both times the court said we’re not going to regulate the money, but there is an antidote and that’s disclosure. It’s almost an invitation for the Commission to update its sponsorship identification rules. So let’s do it. We can do this now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you propose to do?
MICHAEL J. COPPS: I propose that Americans raise their, their voices and let the Federal Communications Commission know, you guys have the power to actually enhance the political environment. Please do it and do it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You want the public to send letters to the FCC.
MICHAEL J. COPPS: Sure. There are allies in Congress. At hearings, the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Nelson from Florida was very strong on this. There are others. The chairman of the Committee, Sen. Rockefeller evidenced a strong interest in this too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The only way you think that the FCC might even be inclined to implement this rule is if there is a public outcry. Can you give me an example of when a grassroots effort actually forced the FCC to act?
MICHAEL J. COPPS: Well, when I went to the FCC in 2001, the chairman at that time, Chairman Powell, was starting to think about loosening the media ownership rules; that was how many outlets can one big media company own. And he wanted to fix it so that one company can own more and more outlets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chairman Michael Powell.
MICHAEL J. COPPS: I think he and his Republican colleagues at that time thought this was an inside-the-Beltway issue and people really didn’t care about it in the grassroots. And Commission Adelstein and myself thought otherwise. So we went and we had some hearings around the country and we worked with some senators and congressmen and went to their town hall meetings around the country. We accepted invitations from groups like Free Press and Common Cause and others who were holding hearings. And, as a result of all of this concerted action by a lot of people, three million people ended up writing to the FCC and to Congress. This was before the internet really took off. These were people sending in cards and letters.
And, lo and behold, when that happened, the Senate overturned those rules. And then the House expressed its disapproval. I remember talking to a member of Congress after that happened, and this member said, you know, I went home to a town hall meeting and somebody raised their hand in the audience and said, what about media ownership? Nobody had ever asked me a question about media ownership. I didn’t think it was an issue. And then he went back to Washington and, guess what, voted to overturn the rules.
So even in this age of outrageous money and the power of special interests, the grassroots can still prevail if it speaks loud and strong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not to be a wet blanket –
[COMMISSIONER COPPS LAUGHS]
- but you were in the FCC and you and Commissioner Adelstein were able to hold those public meetings all over the country. You - you're not there now.
Number two, now you’re talking about the politicians’ own lunch, an issue that directly affects every sitting member of the political class.
MICHAEL J. COPPS: Well, I’m not in the same position but I am going around the country, we'll be in Colorado next week. We were recently in Wisconsin. And I sense out there a real feeling that something is out of kilter here, and we’ve got to fix it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You need a bumper sticker, “317 Lives.”
MICHAEL J. COPPS: [LAUGHS] or prevails or survives, yeah!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good luck.
MICHAEL J. COPPS: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Coops is a former commission of the FCC and currently special advisor to the Media and Democracy Reform Project at Common Cause.