After a four-year stint that involved seemingly contradictory crusades to censor media outlets while allowing them greater freedom from certain ownership constraints, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell announced yesterday that he was stepping down from the post.
Powell led the agency during a time of sweeping technological change in the ways people communicate by phone and interact with media.
While the courts and Congress thwarted his overhaul of federal rules governing broadcasters and telephone giants, he promoted freeing emerging technologies, including broadband and Internet telephony, from some regulation. But his more technical moves were overshadowed by record fines his agency imposed against indecency on the airwaves, including Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during last year's Super Bowl show and Howard Stern's radio vulgarities.
"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," Powell said in a statement yesterday. "I look forward to spending some time off with my wife and two boys, before taking up my next challenge."
Powell, 41, and the son of Colin L. Powell, President Bush's departing secretary of state, said he will step down in March. Appointed to the commission by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and named chairman by Bush in January 2001, Powell was an uncommonly controversial figure at the head of an often obscure agency.
"History is going to be kind to Michael Powell. Most of the sniping now is inside-the-Beltway short-term thinking," said Scott C. Cleland, a telecommunications analyst in Washington. "He got the technology right, the market forces policy right. He got the big things right."
Critics, however, said he had a "tin ear" for politics, unable to win over even a fellow Republican on the commission, much less Congress. Like his father, Powell's background was in the military. He retired from the Army after a near-fatal Jeep accident in 1987.
"There are different moments when people suddenly know what the initials 'FCC' stand for and this is one of them," said James L. Baughman, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of Television's Guardians: The FCC and the Politics of Programming, 1958-1967. Not since the television game-show scandals of the 1950s has there been such focus on the commission as it confronts upheaval in the phone industry and political battles in the media, he said.
Bush will name a replacement to the commission, which requires Senate confirmation, and then will appoint a new chairman.
Although Powell's departure had been rumored for months, the timing - revealed in a Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday - came as a shock to some, including communications lawyers who attended a dinner with him last month.
"He basically said he was not leaving, don't worry about it, he'll be around well into " said Howard M. Liberman, a Washington attorney who represents broadcast interests before the FCC. "This really is a surprise. It's literally the day after the inauguration."
Possible successors include the commission's current Republicans, Kevin J. Martin and Kathleen Q. Abernathy, as well as Pat Wood III, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who served on the utility commission in Texas for Bush. Other names mentioned include Rebecca Klein, departing head of that commission, and Michael D. Gallagher, an assistant secretary of commerce.
The next leader must navigate the turf battle between cable and phone companies, balance expanded use of the airwaves with public safety concerns, and manage the continued transition to digital broadcasting.
"The most interesting challenge for whoever takes over is ... Michael Powell may have made it more difficult by unintentionally mobilizing folks that weren't mobilized before," said Philip M. Napoli, a media management professor at Fordham University in New York. "Communications policy is more politicized now than it has ever been. Even the things that used to seem technical have serious political ramifications. He was almost a victim of the incredible reactionary environment of the past four or five years."
For all the weighty issues that Powell attempted to address - whether the largest local telephone companies should have to cheaply share their networks to foster competition, for example, or how many broadcast outlets and newspapers one company should be able to own - his last year was consumed by controversies of morality over the airwaves.
Almost a year ago, after Janet Jackson's right breast was bared during a Super Bowl halftime show, Powell called the incident "a classless, crass and deplorable stunt." CBS stations were fined $550,000, a record for television. Later penalties climbed higher still: The FCC fined Texas radio giant Clear Channel Communications $755,000 for a "Bubba the Love Sponge" broadcast and a record $1.75 million, also against Clear Channel, for complaints against shock jock Howard Stern and other radio personalities.
In all, the FCC proposed a record $8 million in indecency fines last year. Broadcasters responded by toning down their programming and removing material they thought might earn the FCC's wrath, but with great uncertainty.
"The biggest issue is that the FCC has remained inconsistent in its application of the rules," said Bill Fine, president and general manager of WBAL-TV in Baltimore. The station decided not to air live reports from the infield at last year's Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, where infield patrons are known for lewd and unpredictable behavior.
Some groups accused Powell of not taking the matter seriously enough.
"Part of the problem is there's been inconsistent messages," said Lara Mahaney of the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group. "When you look at the amount of hours of television and radio combined, and the fact there were maybe a handful [of fines], it shows there was no real leadership from Chairman Powell."
But critics said Powell got swept away, eroding his case that the new age of media demands less regulation.
"Michael Powell's resignation is a great thing because this guy did not deserve the job in the first place," Stern said yesterday. Stern, who is moving from broadcast to unregulated satellite radio, claimed some credit: "Well, what do you expect? I'm leaving radio; he's got nothing to do right now."
Baughman, the media professor, said Powell's distraction was reminiscent of 1938, when then-FCC Chairman Frank R. McNinch demanded an apology after the actress Mae West made a bawdy joke during the Chase & Sanborn radio show, then was criticized for overreacting to West's gag.
"It must have been hard for him to be this ideological deregulator and slapping Howard Stern on the wrist," Milton L. Mueller, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, said of Powell. "I was impressed by the fact that he had a consistent philosophy, but wasn't impressed by the way he was able to translate it into policy."
Powell was a political lightning rod at the center of more complex telecommunications issues as well.
His attempts to allow media conglomerates such as Viacom Corp. and the Tribune Co., The Sun's parent company, to own more television, radio stations, and newspapers in various cities were rejected by a federal appeals court. Last June, a U.S. District Court panel in Philadelphia threw out the new FCC rules. The commission has until the end of this month to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Controversy over the rules - born out of fears around World War II about totalitarian control of media - mushroomed with questions on the release of information about the war in Iraq. Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group was criticized for programming said to favor Bush, while CBS News came under attack for a report against Bush that proved false.
Powell also struggled to fulfill his vision for telephone deregulation. When he sought to loosen restrictions imposed by Congress on the regional Bell companies such as Verizon, he was blocked by other commissioners, including Martin, a fellow Republican. In that case, the courts rejected the FCC ruling, handing Powell a victory. Last month, the FCC relaxed rules that had required the Bells to share their networks with local-phone competitors.
2003: Michael K. Powell's efforts to revise rules governing media ownership lead more than 2 million Americans to sign petitions or call to protest the changes.
February 2004: After Janet Jackson's breast is exposed during a Super Bowl halftime show, the FCC launches an investigation that results in a $550,000 fine for CBS-TV.
October 2004: Shock jock Howard Stern announces he will bolt to satellite radio because of fines by the FCC.
December 2004: The FCC votes to allow the four Baby Bells to phase out wholesale use of their networks to competitors.