Washington’s Hidden Persuaders

All roads lead to Washington.

The nation’s capital has never been more critical to the media, entertainment and telecommunications industries. Nearly every sector is facing new legislation or regulation that will have dramatic impact on the bottom line and on the ability to keep up with competition. At once, Congress, the FCC and the courts are moving to conclude within the next year or so battles over such issues as media ownership, Internet access, campaign-finance reform, phone companies’ video service, the transition to digital television, home recording rights and broadcast indecency.

Compounding the uncertainty in Washington is partisan rancor that makes compromise difficult, if not downright impossible. Compromise will be even tougher to achieve as the Democrat and Republican machines gear up next year for the 2008 presidential election.

B&C has compiled a list of the most powerful decision-makers who are shaping media policy and setting the tone for telecommunications debate in Washington.

Readers may notice a paucity of women, a sobering glimpse of reality to be sure but also not reflective of the women in leadership roles working with the people listed. Many Washington power brokers have chosen women as their senior aides, a sign that females may soon wield more power in the industry. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, for instance, chose Lisa Sutherland as the panel’s staff director and Christine Kurth as his chief telecom aide. At the House Commerce Committee, Johanna Mikes Shelton serves as top telecom aide to ranking Democrat John Dingell. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin’s media legal adviser is Catherine Bohigian.

Also left off the list are the most obvious choices: agency chiefs like Martin and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Majoras as well as trade-association heads like Eddie Fritts and Kyle McSlarrow of, respectively, the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the perennial power brokers.

Less often in the spotlight, the 10 players below are nevertheless putting a unique, sometimes hidden stamp on the outcome of today’s debates.

Richard Russell, Senior Director for Technology and Telecommunications, National Economic Council

Without a hint of embarrassment, White House telecom point man Richard Russell credits his love for communications and technology policy to “having grown up on The Jetsons.” Today, Russell is putting his boyish enthusiasm for futuristic technology to use in his position at the National Economic Council.

His post makes him President Bush’s in-house advisor on the biggest telecom issues: digital television, rollout of high-speed Internet, delivery of video over telephone lines. Russell has largely avoided details in debates over DTV and broadband deployment, such as when exactly TV stations must go all-digital and how much local regulation phone companies should face as they roll out video. Instead, his priority is making sure fights over those details don’t bog down the White House’s main priority: spreading the new technologies as quickly as possible. He’ll be required to weigh in when Congress and the FCC need help brokering compromises between the warring factions.

Russell also is an associate director with the administration’s Office of Science and Technology. Prior to joining the White House in 2001, he worked for six years as a senior staffer for the House Science Committee and has a background in technology and environmental policy.

Says NCTA President McSlarrow, “Richard brings intellectual firepower and a sense for sound public policy to his role of moving the interagency policy process forward in a very productive way.”

Richard Wiley, Partner, Wiley Rein & Fielding

Dick Wiley was chairman of the FCC from 1974 to 1977 but remains the most prominent telecommunications lawyer and lobbyist in Washington. Eight FCC chairmen have come and gone since he left the agency, but none have the ability to influence telecommunications policy like the Illinois native.

Not long after leaving the FCC helm, Wiley was asked to head the agency’s Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service, where he helped design America’s digital-television standard.

Through the law firm he founded with Nixon administration aides Bert Rein and Fred Fielding, he has salted the White House, the FCC and congressional staff with acolytes who once worked at their firm.

Alums of Wiley Rein & Fielding typically go to senior government posts and often return to the firm as partners, assuring clients access to Capitol Hill, the FCC and the Oval Office. Current FCC Chairman Martin was an associate at Wiley’s firm, and new FCC Media Bureau Chief Donna Gregg was a partner. Past FCC Commissioner Sherrie Marshall also worked there, as did former National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Nancy Victory and lobbyist Alex Vogel, another name on the B&C power list.

The beneficiaries of Wiley’s deep connections in Washington include a blue-chip list of clients. Among them: CBS and parent company Viacom; radio giant Clear Channel; station groups Belo, Emmis, Gannett and Gray Television; and the Newspaper Association of America.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Chairman, Senate Commerce Committee

Growing up in Southern California in the 1930s, Ted Stevens was one of the locals hitting the waves at San Onofre Beach. Today, his old surfboard hangs in his Capitol Hill office with a sign reading, “This proves a surfing bum can find a job if he tries.”

Stevens has held that job for 36 years, representing Alaska in the Senate. He has some new duties, however, having taken over as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, the panel charged with overseeing media regulation and telecommunications laws, in January.

He has ambitious plans for passing TV-related legislation this year—including bills to end the DTV transition and enact telecommunications reform. So far, however, Stevens has disclosed few specifics of his legislation. Why? He prefers to build consensus among lawmakers and industry leaders before showing his hand on controversial legislation, a practice that keeps potential opponents off-guard, often until it’s too late to mount effective opposition.

Stevens recalls fondly the now out-of-fashion collegiality of his early days on Capitol Hill. His rejection of the rabid partisanship that mars much of the debate in Congress today is best exemplified by his decision to name the Commerce Committee’s ranking Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii as committee “co-chairman.”

That evenhandedness “rankles some of my Republican colleagues,” Stevens says, “but that’s just the way it is.”

Michael Copps, Senior FCC Commissioner (Democrat)

Aside from the chairmen themselves, Michael Copps is the most influential FCC commissioner in more than a decade. Not since Jim Quello went to war against Reed Hundt’s campaign for children’s-programming quotas in the early ’90s has an individual commissioner so persistently bedeviled the agency chairman.

Copps gave then-Chairman Michael Powell fits during the past four years by vehemently objecting to his plans for media-ownership deregulation and insisting on greater enforcement of restrictions on broadcast indecency.

A onetime legislative aide to now-retired Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Copps is a master political strategist who knows how to build grassroots campaigns and to line up support to push his agenda. With a new chairman on board, he insists the rabble-rousing of the past four years won’t be necessary. He has a much better relationship with Chairman Martin than with Powell.

Copps’ current FCC term expires at the end of this month, but, as much as the Bush White House might like to see him ride into the sunset, his support among Capitol Hill Democrats is so strong that his renomination seems certain.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, credits Copps with rejuvenating public-interest advocates’ influence at the FCC. “His leadership mobilized millions of Americans against media consolidation,” Chester says. “He’s an exception to the rule that the FCC’s revolving door always leads to a job as a highly paid flack for media and telecommunications companies.”

Alex Vogel, Partner, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti

Republicans were outraged when CBS aired its now discredited story attacking President Bush’s National Guard service. Not Alex Vogel. His new lobbying firm won its first major media client when it was hired by CBS parent Viacom to repair the damage.

The former chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) left Capitol Hill and teamed up with former White House technology policy chief Bruce Mehlman in May 2004 to form a lobbying shop with impeccable GOP connections.

Vogel has been deputy counsel to the Republican National Committee and worked as a campaign lawyer for Bush-Cheney 2000 during the election recount. His access to the White House and senior Republican lawmakers will be critical to his clients as they seek last-minute tweaks to DTV, indecency and other media-related legislation heading to votes on the Senate and House floors.

“He knows the scene on Capitol Hill,” says Dick Wiley, founder of Wiley Rein & Fielding, where Vogel practiced election law early in his career. “He has keen political instincts, is a good lawyer and a good politician.”

Recognizing the value of Vogel’s ties, Viacom hired his firm late last year after a string of bungles soured company relations with Republicans. After the Janet Jackson/Super Bowl incident, Viacom’s reputation in the GOP ranks finally hit bottom with the mishandled National Guard story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

But Vogel won’t always be burnishing the image of TV clients. He’ll also be lobbying against them on digital television: Nextel and Cisco have hired his shop to make sure nothing delays the return and auction of broadcasters’ old analog channels, a swath of frequencies perfect for the new Wi-Max gadgets both companies plan to sell.

Donna Gregg, FCC Media Bureau Chief

As a partner at two of Washington’s biggest media law firms, Donna Gregg represented the industry’s blue-chip clients, including Viacom, TV-station groups Belo and Emmis, and the Lifetime and Discovery cable channels.

In her new job as FCC Media Bureau chief, she’ll be the most senior agency staffer helping the commission set a host of major rules that will govern those same former clients for the next decade. Topping her agenda: new media-ownership rules, regulation of cable Internet access and completion of the DTV transition.

Gregg spent 11 years at Wiley Rein & Fielding before leaving in 2002 to become general counsel of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At Wiley Rein, one young associate under her tutelage was Kevin Martin. Although they went their separate ways, the new FCC chief remained an admirer of her legal skills and tapped her to run the Media Bureau.

She began her legal career in 1974 as a staff attorney in the FCC’s old Cable Television Bureau, where she spent a year and half. For 16 years, she worked at Washington firm Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, rising to partner. She also has been a lecturer in telecommunications law at Duke University, where she received her law degree.

“Donna has a wealth of experience in media issues,” Martin says, “We are fortunate to have her back at the commission.”

Glover Park Group

Most lobbying firms like to play both sides of the partisan fence to draw as much business as possible. Not the Glover Park Group. Since founding the firm in 2001, former Clinton aides Michael Feldman and Carter Eskew have kept their shop staunchly Democratic. The strategy has landed them some of the most high-profile accounts in liberals’ campaign to regain the White House and block conservative judges.

Miramax hired the firm last summer to promote Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The firm also produced TV ads for a group opposing Senate Republicans’ threat to eliminate filibusters for judicial nominees and will likely play a role in the 2008 presidential campaign, especially if Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) makes a White House run.

News Corp. hired the firm to lobby against Nielsen’s new local people meters by claiming they undercount minority audiences. Thanks to ties to Sen. Clinton, Glover Park has had a big impact on New York City politics, too. The Dolan family, which controls Cablevision, hired Glover Park to orchestrate opposition to a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side.

Eskew worked for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and was appointed early in the 2000 primary season to be chief strategist for VP Al Gore’s campaign. “He’s one of the most talented guys in Washington,” says Republican consultant Mark McKinnon. “He has a great ability to synthesize complex strategic challenges into simple messages.”

Feldman served in the Clinton administration for both terms. He started as Gore’s deputy director of legislative affairs and became his traveling chief of staff in 1997.

Mark McKinnon, Vice Chairman, Public Strategies

For campaign ad man Mark McKinnon, winning elections isn’t exactly fun.

Reflecting on the contested 2000 campaign in which he helped George Bush capture the White House, McKinnon says he felt afterwards as if he had survived a train wreck: “I was exhausted. I was depressed. I can’t imagine going though all that and losing.”

McKinnon launched his career as a Democratic campaign consultant, then dropped out of politics to work for corporate clients. But the Austin, Texas, image consultant was lured back into politics by his close friend George W. Bush, this time as a Republican strategist.

McKinnon, who occasionally joins the president in mountain-biking trips, oversaw advertising for his election campaign again in 2004 and will likely shape the image of the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2008.

He mounted a brutally effective ad campaign against John Kerry in 2004, which included the “Windsurfing” spot portraying the Democratic candidate as a rich dilettante.

McKinnon calls predictions of his 2008 role “wildly premature speculation,” but he recently talked with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about helping the maverick Republican’s second presidential bid. He may also get behind Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Florida Gov. Jeb Bush if either jumps into the race.

McKinnon looks for creative teams who not only have talent but with whom he senses chemistry. “In this business, there are a lot of alpha dogs. We need people dedicated to the cause, not to themselves and their résumés.”

Rep. Joe Barton, Chairman, House Commerce Committee

Joe Barton (R-Texas) is in a hurry. He is taking the lead in legislation to accelerate the digital transition for local broadcasters to Dec. 31, 2008. A draft he prepared for the House is the template for separate Senate bills sponsored by Sens. Stevens and McCain.

When Barton took over chairmanship of the Commerce Committee from Billy Tauzin in 2004, he hadn’t been a player on media issues since battles over broadcasters’ cable-carriage rights 10 years earlier. Back then, he became a hero to the cable industry by opposing the 1992 Cable Act, which burdened operators with carriage of every TV station in the country.

Ironically, despite his continuing opposition to must-carry obligations, Barton added digital carriage obligations on cable in order to gain support of the pro-broadcaster faction on the Commerce Committee.

Before taking over the full committee, Barton chaired the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee when current NCTA chief McSlarrow was Deputy Energy Secretary. “I’ve worked with Chairman Barton for a number of years on complicated and often contentious legislation,” says McSlarrow, “and he is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful and effective legislators in the Congress.”

Rep. John Dingell, Ranking Democrat, House Commerce Committee

First elected in 1955, John Dingell (D-Mich.) has served longer than anyone currently in the 435-member House.

The cantankerous 80-year-old is the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee and was chairman of the panel for 13 years before the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Despite losing the chairmanship 11 years ago, Dingell still maintains great sway over Commerce Committee legislation.

For instance, the need for his support forced Chairman Barton to incorporate into his DTV bill a provision that would expand broadcasters’ cable-carriage rights even though Barton personally would like to see must-carry rules eliminated.

When it comes to telecom policy, Dingell says lawmakers are typically divided by personal philosophies rather than along party lines: "Because communications enables us to share information and build connections in our families, our neighborhoods, and across our country, communications policy here in Congress has traditionally bridged the partisan divide," he said. "If we got bogged down over non-substantive partisan bickering we would not be able to meet our common goal of ensuring that our nation's telecommunications laws keep pace with cutting-edge technologies."