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Editorial: Public Servant

While everyone was looking for an answer last week from FCC chairman Julius Genachowski on when he will be leaving his post—he dodges those questions with the skill of an Olympic skiier avoiding gates—FCC commissioner Robert McDowell stole some of the chairman’s spotlight with the announcement that he will leave the FCC sometime in the next few weeks.

One of the things that has always struck this page about McDowell, and we are not alone in this observation, is the class and intellect he brings to his disagreement with the current Democratic majority on issues like media ownership or network neutrality or a host of other things.

Yes, we know, more than 90% of FCC decisions are unanimous, as McDowell has often pointed out. But even though the commission is a model of comity compared to Congress these days, they do disagree on some basic regulatory philosophies.

That said, when McDowell says media ownership rules should be loosened, or the FCC lacks authority to impose net neutrality rules, you do not get the sense that he is parroting a lobby group talking point or looking to line up a job after his stint on the commission. Instead, he clearly believes those things are right or wrong based on core beliefs about the role of government and intellectual rigor in applying the law as he reads and understands it.

For broadcasters, McDowell has been a consistent advocate of getting rid of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban and other deregulatory moves that would reflect a real-world appraisal of a competitive marketplace overrun with alternative distribution platforms. And it was McDowell who pushed the FCC to strike the fairness doctrine from the record. That was the doctrine that required broadcasters to seek out opposing viewpoints on controversial topics or face FCC sanction. It had not been enforced for years, but congressional types unhappy with being criticized in the media—admittedly viciously at times, but it goes with the territory—had periodically invoked the doctrine with an eye toward its return.

McDowell has always been unfailingly gracious to this publication, even when tactfully declining to spill the beans. He once honored a commitment even when it meant missing a last-minute emergency meeting of the commissioners over a headlinelevel issue. We wish principled and generous government officials did not stick out quite so prominently, but they do, and McDowell has shined particularly brightly.

But don’t take our word for it. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called McDowell “an extraordinary colleague, creative, wise and a great partner on the commission,” who has “always improved the quality of [the FCC’s] work.” That is a good point to emphasize. Whether you agreed with them or not, McDowell’s points were worth considering and they added to, rather than distracted from, the debate.

And this from Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who had to fight back tears at McDowell’s announced exit. “His background and ideals have been invaluable to the commission, and his keen insights and deep intellect have helped me grow as a regulator. He is both a trusted ally and at times a worthy adversary, but to sum it all, commissioner McDowell stands for America, her citizens, her entrepreneurs and her innovators.”

McDowell has run twice for the Virginia General Assembly. We would urge him to aim higher—he is the kind of principled public servant the country needs. But he has kids to put through college, and the private sector beckons. In any event, we thank him for his public service. He set the bar high.