The accidental arbiter

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, atop an agency built to handle bandwidth and licensing, finds himself in a pivotal role for an election year: point man in a values clash over free speech and indecency.

He doesn't wear a robe or wield a gavel, but when Michael Powell holds forth on subjects ranging from antitrust laws to indecency, he often sounds more like a judge than a regulator. Comments about the Founding Fathers and the First Amendment tumble from his lips.

Like his father, the secretary of State, Mr. Powell commands attention when he speaks. The eldest child and only son of Alma and Colin Powell, he is not quite flashy fodder for the cover of People magazine. But as head of the Federal Communications Commission, his pop-culture footprint is large. An unelected official, he's in charge of regulating what people see and hear, and how. His purview ranges from new technology - using the Internet as a telephone, for example - to old debates with new heat, such as how much profanity seeps into TV programs.

Powell is talkative - even his own family says so - and often funny, reflecting an easy-going upbringing. A self-described technology fiend, he owns all the latest gadgets, listening to classical music or Outkast on his iPod. His management style? Military- influenced, of course. As his critics know, the man is decisive. He slips easily into that robe-and-gavel mode, reflecting more than a decade of studying law and free-market philosophies.

Yet he can be a reluctant judge. If it were up to Powell, his agency would be making headlines these days for helping to spread broadband from sea to shining sea, offering people in big cities and rural areas access to the means of transmission now driving digital communication. Instead - thanks to Howard Stern, Janet Jackson, and an election season that keeps pushing "values" to the fore - he spends more time lately focused on indecency.

Even if Mr. Stern weren't pounding the drum almost daily on his radio show about what he calls Powell's political motives (Powell is a Republican) or unequal treatment of violators, complaints from the public might make the issue too significant to ignore. In a talk last month at the annual gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas, Powell said the number of indecency complaints received by the FCC jumped from 14,000 in 2002 to nearly 540,000 in the first four months of this year.

The subject appears to temper Powell's humor and energy, but not his prudence. Powell cites the First Amendment concerns involved in regulating what people say on the airwaves - no matter how others may react to their words.

In an interview in his Washington office, Powell says that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that government should not hinder free speech, "it was essentially a command to government to always be uncomfortable when it is in the [realm] of 'content.' " What he'd like is for broadcasters to do more self-policing. Until then, he says, he will enforce the law Congress has set before him.

As he told attendees in Las Vegas: "Laws can be specific, bright-line rules, or they can be standards that require interpretation and judgment."

Back in Washington, Powell doesn't back down. He says he has no lack of confidence about what the commission is doing about indecency, such as imposing steep fines on some carriers of Stern's show. "I've felt quite comfortable with virtually every decision we've made in this area. But ... you listen to the debate, and [people] act as if I'm just sort of on my own discretion doing all this stuff, and I always bristle a little about that," he says. "Any chairman in my position who wouldn't enforce these [indecency] cases is in dereliction of their responsibilities, plain and simple."

By now, Powell is accustomed to jabs from critics, having endured another high-intensity period about a year ago when the FCC relaxed media ownership rules. Close associates point to his intellect and ability to relate to others, describing a rapport that invites deep loyalty. But beyond that circle, perceptions shift. Powell appeared to side-step interaction with the public, for example, in the run-up to the rule change on ownership.

The proposed changes - allowing a single company to own both a newspaper and TV station in the same market, for example - brought together disparate groups including the National Rifle Association and National Organization for Women to rally the public against media consolidation. Ultimately, more than 2 million people contacted the FCC about that subject during 2003.

Powell's concern at the time was that the rules he was tweaking were in imminent danger of being thrown out altogether by the courts, and he would not extend the deadline for making a decision about them when fellow commissioners asked him to, or hold more than one public hearing. Afterward, Congress got an earful from constituents and acted quickly to alter the new rules - a slap from his own party on one of his defining issues.

"[Running the FCC] has become a very difficult job," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, which opposes many of Powell's policies. "But I can't stress this too highly: A conservative Republican coming into a conservative Republican administration, working with a conservative Republican majority in both houses of Congress, ought to be able to have a better track record," considering how high expectations were for the Powell stewardship.

In addition to the slap on ownership, Mr. Schwartzman says, Powell initially dragged his heels on indecency and on resolving a multibillion dollar dispute involving a frequency-auction bidder. Powell's predecessor, William Kennard, a Democrat, also had trouble with a hostile Congress, Schwartzman says. But he adds, "Powell didn't start out that way. He kind of earned the hostility."

None of the criticism seems to keep Powell up at night, though. When he goes home to his wife and two sons after long days, he leaves work behind. His philosophy of life - shaped by his upbringing, and a near-fatal accident - doesn't leave much room for rumination. "You can have hard moments - you can have joyous moments - at work," he says. "But your happiness has to be tied to something a lot more significant than just your job."

Twenty years ago, Powell was preparing for battles, but not like these. Back then, before all the Web surfing and the constant chirp of cellphones, Powell was stationed with the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Amberg, Germany. He was performing well in his military duties, or so his father, a three-star general, was hearing through back channels.

His relationship with the military had begun years earlier, with his birth in Birmingham, Ala., in March 1963. Colin Powell was in Vietnam when Michael was delivered. For the better part of a year, he relied on photos to acquaint him with his first child's face.

Colin and Alma Powell eventually grew their family. Michael's siblings - Linda and Annemarie - would become his closest friends as the family moved from place to place to accommodate their father's career.

"He's steadfast, he's kind of an anchor to us," says youngest sister Annemarie, a producer at ESPN.

Rather than a disciplined military household - like that of the Von Trapps in "The Sound of Music," he jokes - the Powell home was a playful place, reflecting the character of Colin Powell's Jamaican ancestry. "It was totally fun, and it's probably nothing like what I think people expect of children of a general," Michael says.

Powell played baseball in junior high, and later was a high school gymnast. He was an acolyte in the Episcopal Church. He watched TV when a black-and-white picture was the only option. Family photos chart his growing confidence - from a plaid-shirted 5-year-old standing shyly at his mother's side to a confident 12-year-old, grinning at the camera. Maternal grandparents nurtured his love of books and learning. And his introduction to technological gadgets began, he recalls, with an Atari Pong video game his dad brought home in the 1970s.

His parents' uncomplicated philosophy included teaching their children right from wrong, he says, and how to take responsibility for their actions. Michael acknowledged his mother publicly at a 1997 Senate hearing for his nomination to the FCC, and sitting in his bright corner office, he does so again.

"My father went to Vietnam twice while we were kids. And I've only really recognized in hindsight, as I got older, what that must have been like for her. I mean, we never had any perception he wasn't coming home, but she must have ... [she] never let it translate to us."

As his father tells it in his 1995 autobiography, "My American Journey," it was Michael's idea to join the Army. It was, Michael says, one of three professions he had in mind. The other two: a lawyer and a lighting designer in the theater. (Powell's sister, Linda, is an actress, and Powell jokes that his own future may lie on Broadway.)

In his book, Colin Powell describes his son's options for college: West Point, or the College of William & Mary on an Army ROTC scholarship. He chose the latter and his father approved. "I suspected that Mike would get a more rounded preparation for life in a school more broadly focused than a military academy," Colin wrote.

Michael studied government on the grounds once trod by Jefferson, and dated Jane Knott, who would later become his wife. After he graduated, Uncle Sam called him to Germany. But Michael's career in the military ended in 1987 on a trip back to base. In an accident on the Autobahn he was thrown out of the passenger's seat and then struck by the vehicle. A broken pelvis was just one of the serious injuries he sustained.

"In my mind, it was the worst thing that ever happened to us," says Annemarie, who was 17 at the time. Powell was quickly moved to an Army hospital in Washington. The year that followed included surgery and physical therapy. His mother sat with him every day. His father visited several days a week after working all day at the White House, and was the one waiting in the early morning after what Michael calls his worst surgery - 17 hours.

When Powell moved home, it was Annemarie who often slept in his room at night. "I was there every day ... watching the evolution from near death to walking again, getting up on his own, buying himself a car, rebuilding his life, and falling in love again...," she recalls. "It was really kind of a miraculous process to watch."

While he was recuperating, Powell rekindled his relationship with Ms. Knott, who had also been a fixture at his bedside. The first time he walked without the help of a cane was his wedding day in 1988. Powell has described his recovery as both an instinct for survival and a testament to the power of will. "It sounds very ironic, but it is the very best thing that ever happened to me," he says. The incident and his recovery, he adds, changed his approach to life. "It's with me every day, because I feel it every day. And I even keep my X-rays in my drawer. People always think I'm kind of macabre, or something, but you know when somebody says, 'Oh, this is really, really hard, I go, 'That's not hard, this is hard,' and I show this pelvis shattered in pieces."

When Powell realized his military career was over, it took some mental adjustment: Since childhood, his identity had been wrapped up in the Army. That his time in uniform was limited was perhaps a good thing, his sister Linda told The Washington Post in 2001. It allowed him to figure out where he fitted more quickly, she said, speculating that it would have been tougher for him to do so in his father's field.

Instead, Powell chose law. He worked as a civilian in the Defense Department for a few years, then got up the nerve to go to Georgetown University's law school. "I might not have if my wife hadn't really said, 'You got to go for it,' " he says. At Georgetown in the early 1990s, he used the Internet for the first time, and honed the give-and-take that characterizes his interaction with journalists and members of the industries he now regulates.

"[He] participated a lot in class, was kind of eager for what we lawyer-types call the Socratic dialogue - sort of getting pushed on tough questions and trying to think them through," says Joel Klein, a friend and former law school professor. "He was like a magnet for people. You would walk in the lunchroom and see everyone sitting around Michael."

Powell also impressed high-profile members of his new profession. After graduating from law school in 1993, he clerked for Judge Harry Edwards in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Powell has the qualities of a judge, says Judge Edwards. "He's very fair-minded, he has great integrity, he works very hard, and he's willing to listen."

Powell wasn't afraid to challenge his formidable employer on his favorite subject: technology. "In the early days he would tease me about being a Neanderthal, and being in the dark ages and unwilling to take risks," says the judge, who now counts Powell among his friends. "And those were some of our funniest exchanges."

After a stint at a law firm, Powell would be tapped by Mr. Klein to be his chief of staff when Klein took over the antitrust division at the Department of Justice. He chose his former student because he sensed Powell would be a unifier. "People in the antitrust division used to come up to me all the time and say, 'Yeah, it's great having Michael here, he's a team-builder, he's a consensus builder, his ego doesn't get in the way,' " says Klein, now schools chancellor for New York City.

Klein doesn't buy into the notion that what came next for Powell was simply attributable to his father's fame. And in an interview with USA Today several years ago, Powell said those who suggest such things don't know his father. "There's no tolerance for, 'Won't you do this for me?' " he told the paper.

In 1997, Powell was suggested for an opening at the FCC - as a commissioner, one of five who run the agency. He was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate. In 2001, he was elevated to chairman by President Bush. Powell came with developed ideas about how markets are better served by loosening rules and regulations, rather than adding them. He has often had to defend his position to members of Congress, some of whom wonder if the public interest is being served by a regulator who seems reluctant to regulate. "I think you'd be a wonderful executive vice president of a chamber of commerce, but not a chairman of a regulatory commission at the government level," Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina told Powell in a March 2002 hearing.

Those who would suggest that his approach doesn't fit the job are wrong, Powell says. "It's seductive to always think somehow regulation is always in the public interest and somehow free markets aren't," he says. "Name when the free market hasn't better delivered quality of life ... than anything else tried in the world." The chairman is particularly adamant about that approach at a time of developing technology, saying the notion of trying to regulate the swiftly changing Internet is "arrogant."

Powell maintains, too, that he does know when to lay down the law. "I have more fines and enforcement actions than any commission ever," he says. "I am the only chairman who has blocked a major merger ... in 60 years," Powell adds. "If you're a true free-market believer like I am, you're not credible unless - for the limited rules that are enforced - you're ruthless about them."

That sense of authority permeates any topic he discusses. Annemarie says her brother is a born lawyer, because he's good at arguing his side of things. One former staffer, when asked how Powell deals with being wrong, simply says, jokingly, "He's not ever been wrong."

But some critics are less lighthearted about Powell's style of communicating. "Michael Powell suffers from what the Greeks call hubris," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "While his father seems to be ... flexible, Powell is not."

He uses as an example Powell's refusal to hold more hearings on media ownership. "Even if he was so sure of his own analysis, at the very least he should have been willing to raise the issue and encourage debate."

Opponents of the chairman's aggressive strategy on indecency - which broadcasters say goes against a recent, more hands-off FCC trend - level a similar charge. Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, is not impressed by Powell's appearing in Las Vegas to discuss the issue. "Did you get the impression that he was interested in changing his mind or hearing anything?' He was explaining [the FCC's] position," Mr. Harrison says.

Powell's Achilles' heel, some observers have suggested, may be that disconnect between his passion for technology and law and an understanding of the people affected by his decisions. He has been called a technocrat, and occasionally his comments can reflect that. Powell seems to imply in passing, for example, that American consumers would think to turn to the FCC's website to learn more about the dawn of digital television and what that means for their old TV sets.

In Las Vegas, he was asked what he gleans from the mountain of correspondence the FCC receives, some of it generated by advocacy groups that push write-in campaigns and distort the numbers. "I find it a very difficult and increasing challenge," he responded, "to try and understand 'Where does the public mind truly lie?' "

When Powell was named chairman, his energy and qualifications were applauded, and he worked quickly, winning congressional funds to bulk up the agency's equipment, brainpower, and training programs. Stunts like the somersault he once performed on the way to a podium at a trade show - he followed an acrobatics act - further cemented the perception that this chairman was something different, and that he would bring change.

The chairman's term is not up until 2007, though whenever the White House changes hands, the new party typically names a chairman of its own. Powell says he is not particularly comfortable talking about his legacy while still in office. But, when pressed, he again rolls out the issues that engage him the most - wireless Internet access, for example, and modern consumer benefits like portable cellphone numbers - rather than the issues he's obliged to address, like indecency.

"I like tackling the problems about the evolving world that [are] really going to shape the Information Age," he says. "And I hope ... if we do that well, then that's what's most memorable."

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