FCC’s Tristani No Longer Lone Wolf

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commissioner Gloria Tristani is getting some help in what has to date been her solo push for tougher enforcement of broadcast indecency rules.

New FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, joined Ms. Tristani’s solo push for the agency’s Enforcement Bureau to, at the very least,conduct more rigorous investigations of indecency complaints brought by listeners. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau routinely dismisses complaints because of a lack of evidence.

To that end, Mr. Copps suggested requiring broadcasters to keep tapes of what goes out over the air. Broadcasters say that would be a huge burden.

It was Mr. Copps’ first public action since being sworn in on May 31.While not likely to result in any immediate impact on broadcasters, it could shape his relationship with the broadcast industry as it continues to seek liberalization of ownership rules at the FCC.

“The process by which the FCC has enforced these laws places an inordinate responsibility on the complaining citizen,” Mr. Copps said in a statement. “It seems to me that when enforcing the indecency laws of the United States, it is the commission’s responsibility to investigate complaints that the law has been violated, not the citizen’s responsibility to prove the violations.”

“This will be an important priority for me as I begin my service at the commission,” he said. However, it’s not clear how much headway he’ll make.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is cautious about policies that affect First Amendment free speech rights, and has shown no inclination to back Ms. Tristani’s repeated complaints. Ms. Tristani herself is expected to leave the commission by the end of the year to run for public office in New Mexico.

Broadcast industry attorneys say they take indecency complaints seriously. But it’s more of a public relations problem than a financial one.

Fines are low. A recent high-profile case involving the broadcast of rap artist Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” during daytime hours brought only a $7,000 fine. And broadcasters typically don’t pay these fines, which are enforced by a Justice Department not interested in going to the expense of pursuing the relatively small amount of money.

But Mr. Copps’ message could telegraph more readily to Capitol Hill than Ms. Tristani’s. He was the choice of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D.,S.C.), who chairs two committees that oversee the FCC and has shown an interest in reigning in broadcast indecency. He also has opposed liberalizing broadcast ownership rules, a question that is more critical financially to the industry.

Mr. Hollings can’t easily stop expected actions by the FCC’s Republicans to ease ownership restrictions. But he can apply pressure in an attempt to moderate decisions.

The cases in question this week involved radio broadcasts in Chicago and North Carolina.

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.