“I am specifically trying not to be specific”

"I am specifically trying not to be specific"

Those of us who held out hope that Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s nominee to chair the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), would provide guidance as to where Mr. Wheeler intends to steer the FCC were disappointed.

In what has become the norm for such proceedings, Mr. Wheeler followed the advised script of providing non-answers. By avoiding controversy, by “specifically trying not to be specific” as he put it, he ended up providing only cold comfort — if that — for those who hope the Commission will put serving consumers, rather than the telecommunications industry, at the top of its agenda.

The FCC makes policies that impact everything from what we hear on the radio, to the prices we pay for cellular service, to the apps that run on our tablets. Sadly however, the afternoon-long session produced few clues on how a Chairman Wheeler will approach tough questions about those subjects or the continued growth of media monopolies.

Senators peppered Wheeler on a variety of topics, from political ad disclosure to regulatory policy in an era of technological change. And while no one expected Wheeler to reveal exactly how he would vote on specific rules or policies before the commission, the nominee took the now all-too common approach in confirmation hearings. He bobbed, weaved, and ducked his way around even general answers.

On reforming the Universal Service Fund that provides connectivity for schools, libraries, rural areas, and low income households, Wheeler promised to look at the issue “holistically.” He told Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, that potential reforms had to be “looked at in light of the realities” without elaborating on just what realities he had in mind.

Wheeler faced several questions about the upcoming spectrum auction that will transfer control of large chunks of airwaves to cellular providers who plan to operate next generation mobile broadband networks. In each case, he promised to study the issue. Twice he likened the technical spectrum auction rules to solving a Rubik’s Cube — feel free to make your own interpretation of what that means.. (HT: Hibah Hussain)

On other highly technical, but hugely important, consumer issues like retransmission consent, Wheeler said he would — wait for it — study the issue. (All of this is a head scratcher given that Wheeler certainly knows the issues from his years as an industry lobbyist.)

What was arguably the day’s lowest point came courtesy of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, who warned that he’s prepared to block the nomination unless Wheeler agrees with him — in writing — that the FCC lacks authority to force disclosure of the funders of political ads. (There’s more to be said about that In a future post, BTW!)

Thankfully, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, asked some substantive questions about how relaxing media cross-ownership restrictions would squelch diverse and local voices (and potentially hand control of the Tribune Company newspapers to Rupert Murdoch). She tried to pin Wheeler down but got only assurances that he cares about diversity and localism and promises that he will study the issue.

Wheeler appropriately summed up the hearing when he declared that “I am specifically trying not to be specific.”

All along, Common Cause has maintained that every nominee deserves a fair hearing and tough questioning. so the public can get specific answers. Against that standard, Wheeler’s responses left quite a bit to be desired and demonstrated that the Senate’s exercise of its “advise and consent” powers can on occasion feel somewhat weak and pro forma.

Here’s what former FCC Commissioner and Special Adviser to the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative Michael Copps had to say: “Specifically, the FCC needs to be specific by saying a resounding “no” to more media monopolization.”

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