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Unlikely crusader
How libertarian technocrat Michael Powell saved his career — and lost his soul

MICHAEL POWELL MIGHT have been feeling just a little bit sorry for himself last February 1. As he sat down to watch the Super Bowl with his two kids, the onetime prince of media deregulation must have wondered where it had all gone wrong. His very position as chair of the Federal Communications Commission was in doubt.

The previous June, Powell had presided over his greatest triumph: a breathtaking proposal to knock down what few legal restraints on broadcast ownership still remained. A single company would be able to own television stations reaching 45 percent of the national market, up from 35 percent. Companies would be allowed to own daily newspapers, television stations, and radio stations in the same geographical area, breaking a long-standing ban against so-called cross-ownership. Concerns about corporate media consolidation be damned: Powell wanted the big to get even bigger (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, June 6, 2003). His proposal would have affected everything you read, see, and hear, with what remained of local programming and public service potentially giving way to cheap syndicated programming and an increased obsession with the bottom line.

What was Powell’s reward for his bold vision? Why, those know-nothing politicians on Capitol Hill revolted. And it wasn’t just liberal Democrats like Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Or the occasional rogue Republican, like Senator John McCain of Arizona. No. It was hard-core conservative Republicans, like Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, and virtual subsidiaries of the Republican Party, like the National Rifle Association. Some two million Americans called or wrote to the FCC, telling the commissioners they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. By September, both the House and the Senate had voted by wide, bipartisan margins to put large chunks of Powell’s deregulatory scheme on hold. Even in a Congress not shy about expanding the parameters of corporate power, the idea of a few enormous corporations controlling most of the media was too much — not just for liberals, but for conservatives as well. George W. Bush, who ran for president in 2000 as a uniter, had finally brought Republicans and Democrats together. And Powell’s reputation as the master of a new media universe was rapidly becoming a joke.

So it was likely that Powell sought relaxation and distraction as he kicked back to watch the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers battle for the NFL championship. But then came the halftime show. Need I repeat what happened? If you were paying very, very close attention — unlikely, given how lame the proceedings were — you might have caught a quick glimpse of Janet Jackson’s jewelry-enhanced right nipple. Powell, though, saw something else. He saw a violation of the FCC’s indecency standard, which, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., prohibits "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."

In other words, Michael Powell saw an opportunity. And he seized it.

Never mind that Powell was the very model of the modern technocrat, a man of the world who had heretofore seemed disdainful of the very idea of regulating media content. Never mind that, before February 1, he had almost never seen a media rule that he didn’t want to take off the books. Rules were rules, and by God, Michael Powell was going to enforce them. Powell called Janet Jackson’s nipple shot "outrageous." He said, "We all as a society have a responsibility as to what images and messages our children hear when they’re likely to be watching television." He wagged his finger some more, adding, "I don’t think that’s being moralistic, and I don’t think that’s government trying to tell people how to run their businesses. I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to understand the basic concepts of common decency here."

Thus did Michael Powell reinvent himself. The Great Deregulator morphed into the Moral Crusader. The technocratic libertarian became the avenging angel. CBS and its television stations eventually had to pay a $550,000 fine. Radio giant Clear Channel ended the career of Bubba the Love Sponge and tossed Howard Stern off six of its more than 1000 radio stations. Before the year was out, Stern announced he was leaving his long-time employer, Infinity Broadcasting, so that he could take his sexual and excretory content to Sirius, a satellite operation beyond the reach of the FCC. Bono learned that he may be fucking brilliant, but he can’t say it, at least not on broadcast television before 10 p.m. By one accounting, the FCC has levied 21 fines for $4.7 million within the past year. Powell tut-tutted when an unclothed female backside appeared in a Monday Night Football promo, and he shamefully kept his silence when ABC affiliates — including WCVB-TV (Channel 5), in Boston — refused to broadcast Saving Private Ryan on Veterans Day, because the soldiers who are depicted fighting and dying on the beaches of Normandy use some naughty words.

"I think he’s gone way too far. I think the commission has gone way too far. He’s the national nanny, the moral center," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Washington, DC–based Center for Digital Democracy. And Chester notes that the Democratic members of the FCC — who oppose Powell on ownership deregulation — have been only too happy to support him on his anti-decency crusade. "This focus on indecency," Chester says, "has, unfortunately, been a bipartisan obsession."

In other words, a political establishment that had been united against Powell was suddenly united with him. With the exception of a few free-speech gadflies, Republicans and Democrats competed with one another to see who could most loudly denounce the evils of flesh and foul language. It was a truly frightening development, and one that could get worse as we skid into 2005. Increasingly our media are being dumbed down so Congress may pander to a tiny band of cultural conservatives whose tastes and standards are alien to those of the country as a whole. Yes, Michael Powell saved his career. But at what cost?

IN ANALYZING Michael Powell’s newfound dedication to decency, it is useful to consider the career of his father, Colin Powell, the much-admired, much-humiliated secretary of state who will soon be replaced by George W. Bush’s pliant national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. To Colin Powell’s critics, his failure to resign and speak out against a president with whom he was clearly at odds was inexplicable. Yet there was never any doubt that Powell was, indeed, in disagreement with the Bush administration’s hyper-aggressive foreign policy. Powell himself made sure we knew, leaking profusely to the likes of Bob Woodward, who wrote about Powell’s dissent and isolation in his book Plan of Attack (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, April 30).

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sees a parallel between the Powells and the Bushes. Like George W. Bush, Sabato says, Michael Powell has openly embraced conservative views that his father only flirted with. Referring to the fathers, Sabato explains, "Powell and Bush are both relative social moderates. Their sons have evolved along with the Republican Party and have taken much more conservative stands on moral and cultural issues. This new generation either believes it or goes there because it’s required by the modern-day composition of the Republican Party."

And if Colin Powell could be criticized for acquiescing to policies he fundamentally opposed, his son, in a manner similar to George W. Bush, has gone several steps better — or worse. Because Michael Powell has actually become what he appeared at one time to oppose. Now, maybe this is unfair. Maybe he had been appalled by indecency all along, and just hadn’t had a chance to show it until 2004. But by all appearances, Powell changed directions this year (he’s been an FCC commissioner since 1997, and chair since 2001), ensuring his support among the moral-values crowd, if alienating the broader public he had once hoped to impress.

To be sure, Michael Powell, as he himself likes to point out, is merely following the law. Kevin Werbach, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the FCC’s former counsel for technology, has worked with Powell and likes him personally. According to Werbach, the seeming contradiction between Powell’s deregulatory approach to ownership and his heavy hand with respect to indecency is the result of two very different responsibilities borne by the FCC. One is to foster competition — and Powell sees deregulation as part of that, as it would put broadcasters in a better position to compete with newer forms of media, such as satellite and cable (never mind that the same few megacorporations dominate in those media as well). The other is to regulate indecent programming, something that the FCC has been required to do by law since the 1920s.

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Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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