On Tuesday the Senate will consider President Obama's nominee to chair the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC makes decisions that influence everything from what you hear on the radio to the price you pay for your cell phone to the apps you can run on your tablet. It's crucial that we have a public-interest champion at the helm of this organization. Obama's nominee, Tom Wheeler, has a lengthy telecommunications resum̩ that includes nearly two decades as a top lobbyist for the cell phone and cable television industries. If confirmed, Wheeler would preside over the telecom sector in an era of massive change, and his policy decisions will affect consumers for generations to come.
Wheeler's strong industry ties have prompted concern in some quarters that he would favor the big companies over consumers as chairman of the FCC. There is no doubt that Wheeler's extensive experience familiarized him with the players and their policies. But before rubber-stamping Wheeler's confirmation, the Senate should consider the history of cozy relations between the FCC and the industry that it governs and how this has affected consumers over the years.
Take Meredith Atwell Baker, former commissioner turned lobbyist for NBC-Comcast. In 2011, while a commissioner at the FCC, Atwell Baker championed the merger between NBC/Universal, one of the world's largest media companies, and Comcast Corporation, the world's largest cable operator. Atwell Baker even pressed for the FCC to defy convention and approve the merger with no public interest commitments attached. Just four months after the merger was approved, Atwell Baker left the FCC to serve as senior vice president for government affairs, essentially a highly paid lobbying position, at NBC/Universal-Comcast..
Or consider the case of Eddie Lazarus, former chief of staff to Chairman Julius Genachowski, who now works as executive vice president and general counsel to the Tribune Company, which owns numerous media outlets across the country. During Lazarus's time at the FCC (2009-2011), the agency granted the Tribune a permanent waiver of the cross-ownership ban in Chicago, blessing further media monopolization. Now the company is seeking permanent waivers in other Tribune markets (to help Rupert Murdoch snatch up the papers, no doubt). Lazarus is imminently qualified, but a casual observer could be excused for wondering if his lucrative position at the Tribune Company was granted on the basis of skill and expertise or if the Tribune simply purchased influence.
These two recent examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The revolving door at the FCC has been spinning since its inception and has had a formative influence on the agency (this is the subject of an upcoming Common Cause report). In light of this history, the Senate should ask the tough questions so that we know whether Tom Wheeler stands with the industry or with consumers. We need the clear commitments to the public interest policy positions championed by President Obama in his first presidential campaign. These include common-sense positions like standing up to creeping media monopolization, promoting diversity on the airwaves, and keeping the Internet free of censorship.
It's not too late to tell your senator that you want to know where Tom Wheeler stands.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy