The Next Chair of the FCC

by Art Brodsky, Public Knowledge

The great parlor game in Washington these days is to try to figure out who is going to get what appointment in the Obama Administration. Every sector of the town is buzzing, because official Washington is a collection of little communities of interest, each with its own institutions and officials, from Congressional committees to executive agencies. There’s Defense City, Housing Village, Steel Town.

Our little corner of the world is Communicationsville, and so people are constantly speculating about who will be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Guessing is easy. Getting it right is hard. So often in these matters people appear from off the normal radar screen and parachute into the Commission. Dennis Patrick, a former chairman in the Reagan era, worked in the White Houser personnel office and got himself appointed to the FCC. Who knew Gloria Tristani, or Ervin Duggan, or Sherrie Marshall, to name just a few. Duggan got his job when he met former White House Chief of Staff at a party when the first President Bush was looking for a pro-family Democrat. Duggan later parlayed his Commission spot into a job as president of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Go figure.

There’s even a story that old-timers tell about a Commissioner in the Eisenhower Administration. He was destined for the Federal Trade Commission, but a typographical error put him on the FCC instead of the FTC.

Rather than focus on a specific person, it would be better to focus on the specific type of person that should be the FCC chairman, and, for any subsequent slots that open up.

Who Should Lead the FCC

The first qualification should be a firm dedication to Goal No. 1 — The public interest, not private interest, should govern. Within that broad scope, one top task will be to bring back the quaint concept of competition, which was all but destroyed over the last eight years. Thanks to the Commission, what had been a vibrant competitive industry was all but wiped out. It will be particularly important to restore competition to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) sector. In spring, 2001, the late Boardwatch Magazine’s Internet Service Provider guide listed 7,288 ISPs, down from the peak 7,463 in 2000. Task No. 2 should be to preserve an open and non-discriminatory Internet.

The technology has changed from dial-up days, but the need for competition, with benefits to the consumers, hasn’t. The shift in technology to broadband means that the current regulatory world will have to shift away from some traditional measurements of usage and support so that broadband deployment becomes a top policy objective.

Qualification No. 2 is that the Chairman know how to accomplish those goals, along with the rest of an ambitious FCC policy agenda dealing with spectrum, media ownership and a host of other issues. The Chairmanship is an intensely detailed job, fraught with the crucial minutiae on which the telecom regulatory structure is built.

The FCC is the central point of the Communicationsville ecosystem, around which circle a number of power and influence centers ranging from the industry lobbyists from broadcasting and telecom to the increasingly influential public interest sector, of which PK is a proud member along with Free Press, Media Access Project, Consumers Union and others, and of course Congress. Knowing how to navigate that often-treacherous terrain also will be essential for someone coming to the Commission.

Could someone from outside of Washington do a good job? Certainly, although the learning curve will be steep. Despite the suspicions of Washington from outside, being from Washington shouldn’t disqualify someone from being chairman or a commissioner. Knowledge of the field and the environs coupled with a dedication to the Obama agenda and the public interest will go a long way. Commissioner Copps or Commissioner Adelstein might be in the mix, with Copps staffer Rick Chessen , former Chief of Staff Blair Levin or others meet the checklist.

On the other hand, simply looking at someone regardless of the criteria can be a deceptive exercise.

Who Should Not Lead the FCC

For example, Business Week recently ran a story on potential candidates for the Commission chair. In the story, the Great Mentioner (an invention of the late columnist Art Buchwald) mentioned Julia Johnson as one potential candidate. The article described Johnson as a Florida consultant who chairs Video Access Alliance, an advocacy and advisory group for independent, emerging, and minority networks and Internet content providers. Johnson is also on the board of MasTec (MTZ), a contractor that designs and builds telephone, broadband, electric, and other networks.”

On the surface, Johnson appears to be an appealing candidate. She is not from Washington, as some would prefer. She’s a former state regulator, having served on the Florida Public Service Commission. She’s also gives money to Democratic candidates (although Republican Congressman Tom Feeney also got a contribution from her). She’s African-American.

Beneath the surface, she’s exactly the type of person who should not be appointed to the FCC. Johnson runs something called the Video Access Alliance, which testifies before Congress and state legislatures on behalf of anti-consumer bills pushed by the telecom industry. The group is another element of the telecom industry effort to co-opt the minority community.

On March 30, 2006, Johnson testified before the House Commerce Committee to endorse the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006. The COPE bill was pushed by the telecom companies to streamline licensing of their video services while eliminating state and local regulation of cable. The bill got a strong push from minority House corporatists like Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and former Rep. Al Wynn (D-MD), despite the fact that the bill had no build-out requirements.

During that hearing, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), then the ranking member of the Telecom Subcommittee, got Johnson to admit she was paid by Verizon and AT&T. On August 10, 2006, Common Cause featured Johnson’s alliance in a report, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, Part II. Referring to Markey’s questioning of Johnson, the report noted, “Video Access Alliance has the dubious distinction of being exposed as a front group by a Member of Congress.”

Johnson’s Alliance also was front and center during a debate on the Florida version of the COPE bill last year, and was outed in the St. Petersburg Times in an article, “Consumer groups or covert lobbyists? — Groups with names that may mislead flock to telecom debate.” Consumer groups opposed the bill; Johnson’s alliance claimed victory when it passed.

Another candidate frequently mentioned is Richard Reingold, head of the Four Points Media Group, which owns seven stations. Reingold raised a lot of money from President-elect Obama, as have others in the industry like Comcast Exec. Vice President David Cohen.

The last active broadcaster to be appointed to the FCC was James Quello, who was station manager of TV station WJR in Detroit. Quello was appointed in 1974. The Senate held eight days of confirmation hearings over doubts that he would function solely as a spokesman for the broadcast industry. Quello served until 1997 on the Commission. He defended broadcasters at every turn, and assented to just about every other issue on the FCC meeting agenda by calling them “a good item.” To be fair, he was, however, an excellent interim chairman following the first Bush Administration and the arrival of Clinton appointee Reed Hundt.

Reingold has been a broadcast journalist, station manager and now station group owner. Perhaps one could trust the journalist in his background, possibly even the GM. However, there would be a serious perception issue to be resolved from his ownership status given the broadcast’s industry’s constant opposition to any other use of the spectrum. White spaces will still be out front as a spectrum issue, and others will certainly arise. Reingold would have to go a long way to show his independence from the broadcast industry to be a serious contender.

article originally published at http://www.publicknowledge.org/node/1872.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey