Wheeler Gets Some Democratic Pushback at Hill Hearing

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler took some heat from both sides of the aisle in a sometimes tense and contentious almost-three-hour FCC oversight hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee on some hot-button issues including the FCC's set-top proposal and the chairman's lack of enthusiasm for an inquiry into political ad disclosure rules.

Democrat John Yarmuth of Kentucky, who has pushed the FCC to revisit its definition of those disclosures including via legislation, was not happy.

He said he was not satisfied with Wheeler's response to his letter on the subject, which he suggested was more like a "thanks for your input" response and said he doubted the chairman would think the answer was sufficient.

He said he wasn't expecting the FCC to immediately start enhancing its disclosure requirements but expected more than this.

He did not ask Wheeler why the chairman had not opened an inquiry, using his time to simply express his displeasure and asked that the FCC take action and that FCC staffers be made available so he could discuss with them their theory of the "editorial control" of an ad that triggered disclosure.

He said the FCC has signaled that it is relying on a historic interpretation of editorial control in requiring disclosure of a PAC's officers but not the underlying funders, saying as a former editor he knows who has the real control behind such groups, which he labeled, archly, Americans for Puppies and Kittens and other similar appellations.

He called the "editorial control" definition a "useless standard" and one that perpetuated the deception of the American public.

On the set-top proposal, Wheeler was pressed by Democrats Yvette Clarke of New York and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina on what the impact of the proposal would be on diverse content providers, suggesting it could be adverse. In fact, Butterfield went so far as to suggest that, at least to some of the diversity groups he cited, it could mean a new form of digital red-lining.

Clarke said she had commissioned a Congressional Research Service study on what the impact of the set-top proposal would be on diverse programmers and communities and asked Wheeler whether he would be willing to delay action on the proposal until such a study was completed.

Wheeler said he was willing to work with the committee but did not commit to any delay, saying he did not know how long such a delay would be.

Even Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) got a little snappy with Wheeler as she was trying to defend him against Republican commissioner assertions that they were denied the ability to talk about items before them while the chairman was blogging and summarizing, they argued inaccurately, those items for outside stakeholders, the press and the public.

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.