Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist
Comcast and the FCC just got a tad too cozy
Instead of looking out for what is best for democracy and the nation, writes editorial page editor Ryan Blethen, the FCC has become little more than a handmaiden for the mega-corporations that control America's media.
Times editorial page editor
The incestuous relationship between Congress and lobbyists is well documented. A congressman or senator loses re-election or retires then moves over to K Street for a well-paying lobbying gig.
The revolving door between those making law and those paid to influence law is disturbing. Yet it has become common practice in Washington, D.C. The bounds of this cozy arrangement were stretched last week and raised the eyebrows of even the most cynical D.C. watchers when Meredith Attwell Baker announced she was leaving the Federal Communications Commission to head up lobbying at NBC Universal.
Why does Baker's move raise the level of bile more than the garden-variety congressman not wanting to go back to Bald Knob, Ark.? As one of five FCC commissioners, Baker voted to approve Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal four short months ago — a bad deal that further consolidates U.S. media.
So much for ethics and public service, it's time to get paid.
Unseemly does not begin to describe Baker's actions. Even the most jaundiced critic of the FCC should be taken aback by the Republican commissioner's new job and the blink of time between her vote and her announcement. Factor in the time consumed by the hiring process, which apparently began last month, and it's even worse.
It is actions like Baker's that turn people against government. Even supporters of megamergers have to worry about this. The integration of regulators and industry envelopes both parties.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Baker have done nothing to tamp down the legitimate concerns about NBC Universal's new lobby boss. Baker skipped a congressional hearing Friday she was previously going to attend. Genachowski and the MIA Baker are not saying what matters she has recused herself from since first being contacted by Comcast.
Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, had a tweet that best summed up Baker's move: "Perhaps Comcast's next move will be to just merge with the FCC. Then again, how would anybody tell the difference?"
Sadly, Aaron's tweet is close to the truth. In recent memory, the FCC has consistently approved mergers that are bad for consumers and the public good. The commission also has not been able to find the backbone to push through meaningful rules and regulations for the Internet, media ownership and broadcast licensing.
Instead of looking out for what is best for democracy and the nation, the FCC has become little more than a handmaiden for the mega-corporations that control America's media.
Baker is not the first commissioner to get cozy with the industry being regulated. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell is now the head of the largest cable lobby, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
Regulation detractors will point to the rules that govern a former commissioner when they become a lobbyist, or President Obama's executive order that puts restrictions around former policymakers and regulators becoming lobbyists.
The truth is that those rules will not matter. So what if Baker cannot directly lobby the FCC? She will be the boss at NBC Universal's lobby shop. Any pressure or message coming from NBC Universal's lobbyist will have started with Baker. Any lobbying will begin and end with her. It does not matter if she has a minion doing her bidding. The result is the same.
Baker should step down immediately from the FCC instead of waiting until her departure date in June. Genachowski should release details of what she has been working on since Comcast began courting her.
The damage has been done but at least Genachowski can demonstrate that his commission is taking the situation seriously. The public deserves a clean accounting of what happened.
Ryan Blethen's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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