Every so often I catch a TV program that makes me feel really fortunate to have access to modern tools of communication. That's how I felt as I watched one of Washington's brightest new stars, Michael Powell, 37, hold his first news conference since becoming the Federal Communications Commission's new chairman.
I caught Powell on C-SPAN a few days ago, and it was quite a treat. He showed all of the quick intelligence and wry wit that has made his famous father, Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of America's most respected men.
The son also rises. If you missed him this time, you can catch a rerun in streaming video on the FCC's web site. What? You don't have access to a computer that has access to the Internet? Can't afford one, either? Well, sorry about that. You won't even be able to see Chairman Powell tell you how disinterested he is in helping the FCC to help you get the access you don't have.
When reporters asked whether he thought the FCC had a role to play in closing the "digital divide," the popular term for the gap between those who can afford new digital-age technology and those who cannot, he recoiled at the term.
He allowed that the FCC should do what it can to "eliminate barriers in every segment of the population and its geography," but he took issue with the phrase "digital divide." He thought it was dangerous, he said, because it might be used by some to justify new government entitlement programs to guarantee poor people cheaper access to new technology.
"I think there is a Mercedes divide," he quipped. "I'd like to have one; I can't afford one. I'm not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it's an important social issue. But it shouldn't be used to justify the notion of essentially the socialization of the deployment of the infrastructure."
The younger Powell does not seem to see the world from the vantage point of those who still struggle in neighborhoods like the one in which his father grew up in the South Bronx.
His Mercedes comment, for example, inadvertently reveals a very cruel reality in the lives of the geographically isolated. Call it "the transportation divide." Many minority workers are unemployed simply because they tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods far away from the places where jobs are most plentiful.
As one consumer advocate who was unhappy with Powell's comment quipped, "A Mercedes? A lot of people will settle for a bus!"
Indeed, for increasing numbers of people in the new telecommunications age, the Internet is the bus. These days, you have to know how to get wired in order to get hired.
Hardly anyone argues the value of good public transportation. Why recoil in horror at the notion that government should care about who gets access to the Internet.
Internet access and computer ownership have risen dramatically for all groups, according to a the Commerce Department study. Blacks and Hispanics, for example, showed "impressive gains in Internet access since 1998," the study found. Yet the gap between them and the overall national average actually continued to grow, because access rates for white and Asian-American households grew faster.
It is unfortunate to hear Powell react negatively to the mention of a digital divide, as if the very mentioning of it was a call for new laws, "socialization" and other governmental intervention. Quite the contrary, there are numerous non-governmental avenues like churches, libraries, community organizations and private businesses that already are helping disadvantaged people to get connected.
One consumer advocate who calls Powell a friend describes him as "reflexively anti-government action." That's fair, as long as he doesn't become anti-public. Instead of fretting over terminology like "digital divide," an administration that operates under a banner of "compassionate conservatism" should be looking for ways to work constructively with the private sector to help close it.
If Powell agrees, he has yet to communicate it.