The FCC Needs a Conciliator

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President Bush will soon pick a new Federal Communications Commission chief. To many, that could be ho-hum. But because of the rapid pace in consumer technology, the FCC has power to influence the lives of Americans in all their waking hours, from Internet telephony to digital TV to Janet Jackson's future as a singer on network TV. Mr. Bush needs to choose wisely.

Hatched in the 1930s when government saw a need to control the new electronic media, the FCC is no longer just a dispenser of TV and radio licenses. As Congress has tried to react to market trends and to viewers' concerns about broadcast content, it's given the agency vast authority over major media, telecommunications, and the Internet.

Now that FCC Chairman Michael Powell is leaving, Bush and his new pick for chief of this powerful regulator - whoever that may be - have an opportunity to build on the best of Mr. Powell's four-year legacy. Powell's most popular legacies include the portability of cellphone numbers when switching and the federal Do Not Call register. But his best legacy may be a warning that government can't always predict or influence the uses and abuses of new technologies.

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Market "liberty," to use Bush's new mantra, often brings its own corrective forces that benefit consumers far better than the predictive abilities of five FCC commissioners, and especially Congress.

That libertarian streak, however, only goes so far when the agency faces potential concentration of ownership in media markets or pressure to curb indecency in broadcasts.

Powell often clashed with fellow commissioners, a sign of the difficulty in balancing market liberty against morality or concerns about corporate media influence.

As a battleground for red-blue differences as well as red-red debates (libertarians vs. the "moral" right), the FCC needs a leader who can find some consensus. Giving it too much power can stifle free expression and new technology, and yet many citizens and companies look for protection of their interests.

It's easy to tell a parent to simply not let a child watch TV. But parents would rather government help them to censor media. It's easy to tell a baby Bell to open up its local telephone lines to competitors, but many Bell customers like the service they have.

The person who walks the FCC's political tightrope as its new leader must be just that - a leader, one who can react to quick shifts in technology while trying to reconcile competing cries for help from the public.

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