Deregulation: Powell's exit marks end of 'bold' FCC era

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As the tumultuous tenure of the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell comes to an end, so, too, does his self-proclaimed "bold and aggressive agenda" for media deregulation.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., called the loosening of ownership restrictions that was a hallmark of Mr. Powell's reign "the single-worst decision in the FCC's history."

"It is my hope that the next chairman will revere the public interest and protect consumers," he said.

Upset with key elements of the FCC's media-ownership changes, the Senate last year voted to overturn them only to see the House fail to go along. Now the Senate will confirm Mr. Powell's replacement and consumer groups and some Congress members are sure to use the confirmation process to press for limits. "The resignation presents a fresh opportunity to re-examine the direction of media-ownership policy," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.

Mr. Powell, 41, said Jan. 21 he would depart the FCC in March after a four-year term as chairman that followed three years as commissioner.

"Having completed a bold and aggressive agenda, it is time for me to pursue other opportunities and let someone else take the reins of the agency," he said in a letter to President Bush. He said during his tenure, "We worked to get the law right in order to stimulate innovative technology that puts more power in the hands of the American people, giving them greater choices that enrich their lives."


The son of outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mr. Powell was one of the most controversial heads of the agency ever, pursuing a deregulatory agenda with vigor.

In the most sweeping change, the FCC adopted new rules that would have eliminated many of the cross-ownership regulations the agency for decades required to ensure diversity of broadcast voices. The new rules let broadcasters and newspapers own each other and the local cable companies in a market, and also allowed a single company to own three stations in major markets (up from two) and two in many more markets. "Here's the guy who, under guise of trying to create competition, created less competition," said Jon Mandel, chairman of Grey Global Group's MediaCom U.S.

The moves infuriated consumer groups, which sued to stop them and won an appellate-court decision. Mr. Powell's four-year tenure "is a case study of the consequences of ideological zeal and intellectual bias," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Common Cause President Chellie Pingree in a statement called Mr. Powell "a disaster for the public."

One legacy left by Mr. Powell, however, is expected to live on: the FCC's crackdown on obscenity, which has bipartisan backing and also is supported by conservative supporters of Mr. Bush.

It was with Mr. Powell at the helm that the agency recommended a $550,000 indecency fine against CBS for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." And while the FCC under his tenure ruled that singer Bono's on-air utterance at the Golden Globe Awards wasn't obscene, the FCC later reversed the action amidst bipartisan congressional complaints.

"He hasn't been the worst FCC chairman," said Andrew Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm that won the appellate-court case. "But he may have been the least effective politician."

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