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The Reform Era. The New Deal. Obama's FCC?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, May 15 2009

The most salient reason Julius Genachowski's Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to be chair of the Federal Communications Commission has been delayed seems to be an understanding by congressional Republicans that the U.S. is perched on the cusp of historic, transformative change in the media landscape. Republicans are searching for a heavyweight representative to the FCC who can put a conservative stamp on the commission. (It echoes, in many ways, Obama's search for a new Supreme Court justice who can provide not only a liberal vote, but a counterbalance to some of the intellectual might on the right side of the bench.)

The evidence in favor of the idea that FCC will be overseeing a historic shift includes the billions of dollars dedicated to telecom reform in stimulus spending, the journalism world in upheaval, and the diminishing stature of traditional corporate telecom companies in DC -- at least in relation to the Googles and Microsofts of the world.

Acting FCC chair Michael Copps made the case yesterday that a window of opportunity has opened that makes possible communications reform on par with past historic periods of great change:

[T]he good news, the happy news, the historic news is that change has come to America. Change has come to Washington, DC. Reform breezes are blowing through the corridors of power all over this city. And if things go well, we may be launched on an era of reform to match what the Progressives and New Dealers of the last century gave us. What a shining, beckoning opportunity we have.

But it’s no sure thing that it will end so well. Reform is never on auto-pilot, and in spite of all the marvels of twenty-first centurytechnology, there is no GPS system that can deliver us to a new, progressive promised land. My friend, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., believed that periods of reaction in America are succeeded -- with a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears -- bywaves of reform. But it’s impossible to predict how long the window of reform will remain open. I don’t think we’ll be circling the wagons any time soon -- but if we’re not quick about it and smart about it and thorough about it, the winds of change could blow themselves out before our job is done. We must seize the opportunity when we have it. Us. Now.

Copps isn't one to shy away from the dramatic -- quoting Hamlet, here, to proclaim that "When it comes to public policy, eight years of shallows and misery was enough for me."