In what was billed as the largest-ever collection of current and former FCC commissioners, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association Thursday hosted a Minority Media & Telecommunications Council salute to retired commissioner Michael Copps, who exited the agency at the end of December.
NCTA headquarters was an appropriate venue, since the association is headed by one of Copps’s former chairman, Michael Powell, and now employs one of his former top aides, Rick Chessen.
There was no lack of quorum at this meeting of FCC minds, with 14 former commissioners and a video from former chairman Bill Kennard. Actually, there technically was, since only two of the three current commissioners were there. FCC chairman Genachowski had a conflict, but sent chief of staff Zac Katz to speak for him.
The afternoon event was filled with lots of hugs and a few tears as former colleagues — Copps’s policy foes remain friends and fans, something of a anomaly in Washington — stepped up to the mic, and the Mike, to wax eloquent.
There also were a few jabs. Former chairman Dick Wiley, whose broadcast clients were rarely enamored of Copps’s passionate opposition to loosening media ownership rules, said that in a town divided into red states and blue states, he was “true blue.” But Wiley also praised Copps as a statesman whose door was always open and whose principled stands were always based on a thorough vetting of the record. He also gave Copps props for stewarding the DTV transition as well, something Wiley himself was instrumental in achieveing.
Copps got in a good-natured counter jab at Wiley. An emotional and touched Copps, in his closing remarks, said: “This is not farewell,” then added: “I think Dick may come out to these things to make sure it is final.”
Katz boiled the chairman and FCC staffs tribute to three words: “We miss you.”
Commissioner Robert McDowell threw in a couple of roast-like jokes, saying he wanted to thank Copps for being such a caring steward of his public office. “I don’t mean his position as commissioner, but his actual physical office, which I now occupy.”
He also said the Roosevelt Room is still called the Roosevelt Room (Democrat Franklin is a Copps hero), “but there are pictures of Teddy up there,” McDowell added.
But on a serious note, McDowell echoed his praise at Copps’s last public meeting. “His style ran counter to the culture in Washington,” he said, “leaving a bipartisan legacy that is almost unheard of these days.” McDowell pointed out that he voted with Copps 100% of the time during the latter’s six-month tenure as acting chairman.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said that there were two sermons she recalled from her childhood: If we disagree, we should do so without being disagreeable, and the world would rather see a sermon than hear it. She said Copps embodied those precepts.
Copps was lauded as the conscience of the FCC, a devoted public servant, and someone who not only kept the door open for those defending the public interest, like former commissioner Gloria Tristani, but put out the welcome mat.
It was almost impossible to tell the Republicans who had butted heads with Copps over the years with those who stood with him in his battles against consolidation and for a more diverse and inclusive media.
Former Republican commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth said Copps was responsible for the fact that there were still media ownership rules, something that he himself had worked to remove.
Furchtgott-Roth suggested there was nobility in that cause. He said that when they made a movie, Jimmy Stewart should have played the part: “If there ever was a Mr. Smith that came to Washington,” he said,”it was Michael Copps.” A close-up of Copps on a big screen behind the dais showed just how much the comparison meant to him.
Another former Republican commissioner, Kathleen Abernathy, called Copps a gentleman, a scholar, a man of integrity, and a “worthy opponent.”
Gary Knell, president of NPR and head of Sesame Workhop in another life–” I traded in Big Bird for Nina Totenberg” he quipped–said that his goal for NPR was to develop a civic and civil dialog steeped in diversity, taking that plan directly from Copps’s drawing board for the media in general.
Former commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, now running the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, talked about the old days of field hearings on media ownership rules. He talked about getting 1 million signatures on a petition opposing loosening the rules, and wondered what they could do today with all the social media out there. He said Powell, whose rule changes he and Copps were opposing, should “thank his lucky starts” it was just a whistle-stop tour, while Copps later suggested that he was contemplating firing up that engine once more. “Sign me up,” said Adelstein.
Copps, himself a former acting chairman, got several shout-outs for his handling of the DTV transition which came under his watch after Republican chairman Kevin Martin (not in attendance) exited with the election of Barack Obama. And he was praised for his obvious appreciation of the work of the FCC staff, which he thought of as family. Staffers at the FCC still talk fondly of Copps’s address to the troops after he was named acting chairman, setting a tone of collegiality that had been notable for its absence.
Powell was a gracious host. He praised MMTC for “forcing public policy to have a conscience” and said the fact that 14 commissioners had attended was an extraordinary testament to an extraordinary career.” He called Copps one of the country’s most passionate and dedicated public servants. He also praised his integrity and consistency, values Powell holds particularly dear.
Everett Parker, age 99, MMTC board member, former director of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, and a seminal figure in the defense of the broadcast public interest standard Copps has held high, sent along a message: I’m not retired and you better not be, because we need you.”
Copps said he would continue working on the issues he remains passionate about. Almost on cue as this item was being written, an e-mail came from the Benton Foundation with this blog item from Copps on one of the hot topics of the day, broadcast disclosure
Among others offering their praise for the public servant and the man were former commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate; Meredith Attwell Baker (in asbentia); Susan Ness; Andrew Barrett, who praised Copps as a family man; and Henry Rivera, MMTC chair emeritus.