Clyburn, Baker Answer Questions During Nomination Hearing

Mignon Clyburn got her first national public vetting Wednesday (July 15) as she and Meredith Attwell Baker answered questions from Senators during their nomination hearing to fill the two remaining unfilled FCC commission chairs.

Clyburn is a South Carolina utility regulator, while Baker is a familiar face at Hill hearings as former head of the NTIA and its DTV-to-analog converter box coupon program.

Clyburn said she would be consumer- and public-interest focused. She gave a shout out for high-speed and affordable broadband, said the opposed the fairness doctrine "in any way shape or form," supported Internet openness, and was wary of media consolidation.

Baker also disavowed the doctrine and talked about the importance of broadband, including incentives to business. She said she would be wary of new network neutrality regulations in a marketplace that seemed to be working. She said she supported an open Internet, but that reasonable network management was necessary so that operators could block access to illegal content like porn and pirated copyright works. She said the current system of swift enforcement of openness violations was working and the way to proceed.

Clyburn agreed that when she was talking about openness, it applied to legal content. She said that network operators should have "reasonable tools" to control what goes over their networks. She said that whether network neutrality regs were needed would depend on whether the market was competitive. If so, there might be no need, but if not, it warranted consideration.

In what might not bode well for fans of newspaper-broadcast crossownership, both Baker and Clyburn said they had concerns about concentration of control of broadcast ownership, though Baker did point to a changing marketplace of increasing competition.

"I do think that broadcasting and newspapers are still a very stable, traditional medium for people in an area to receive their information. So, I think if they are owned by one source, that does become troublesome." But she followed that quickly with the observation that, "we have a new media landscape where there is a wide variety of news sources, more than ever before, for people to receive that information."

Clyburn said that she was "very wary of media consolidation" and vowed to take a "close look at it," saying a variety of voices was "most important."

In response to questions from Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who has long criticized News Corp's TV station WWOR for not having enough New Jersey news, a characterization News Corp. takes issue with, both said they would look into it if confirmed. The station's license renewal has yet to be approved by the commission.

In her opening statement, Clyburn said the FCC should never lose sight of the public interest it was sworn to protect.

She pledged to work with the committee to make sure the commission is fair, open and transparent, and that it promotes competition as well as technological innovation.

Clyburn said she was well aware of formidable economic challenges, but said the communications sector, "if harnessed," can lead economic growth.

She said all Americans should have access to communications tools, including universal, high-speed affordable broadband.

For her part, Baker spoke about the national broadband plan, saying the future of education, health care, energy and public safety depended on that. She said the FCC needed to make sure the FCC provided incentive to business to build out that broadband future.

She talked about a more flexible and transparent spectrum policy, saying that the spectrum management bill the committee has introduced would be an important element in that effort.

Both nominees were roundly praised by Democrats and Republicans alike. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), who is known for tough questions in hearings, had none, saying he supported both nominees and expected the full Senate to follow suit.

He did use his time to criticize the "long, tortured trail" of the FCC in recent years -- battles that were discouraging, items deferred that should be dealt with. He said he was hoping for a new era, which would include the government weighing in on network neutrality, either at the FCC or in Congress.

Neither were asked to weigh in on the issue of indecency enforcement. But before exiting the hearing early for other business, Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) let it be known he was thinking about the issue of media content and the FCC's role.

In his opening statement, Rockefeller said he cared very much about the issue of television content. He pointed out that the FCC was "still going on the assumption that adult time begins at 10 p.m. because all kids are asleep."

That was a reference to the fact that the FCC only regulates indecency content between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. "Having several kids and grandkids, it is my general impression that is when kids begin doing their homework, so what is on TV at that point makes a lot of difference and the FCC has a lot to do with that."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.