from the dysfunction-junction dept
Telecom and media giants (News Corporation, AT&T, and Comcast, mostly) have spent big bucks to scuttle the FCC nomination of popular reformer Gigi Sohn. That’s involved seeding all kinds of bullshit claims in the press (with the GOP’s help) about how Sohn hates rural America, police, puppies, and freedom. Some of the most recent attacks have been grotesquely homophobic.
The goal was to keep the FCC without the voting majority to do much of anything deemed controversial by industry (like restoring net neutrality or imposing media consolidation limits). And because the U.S. is a corrupt shitshow, the gambit has been very successful. Sohn has ample experience and is widely popular across both sides of the aisle. She’s actually more qualified than several key recent FCC nominees of note.
It didn’t matter.
After several years of fighting, Sohn today announced she’d be withdrawing as a nominee, pointing directly at the telecom and media industry smear campaign as a major factor:
“It is a sad day for our country and our democracy when dominant industries, with assistance from unlimited dark money, get to choose their regulators. And with the help of their friends in the Senate, the powerful cable and media companies have done just that.”
Sohn’s been in Senate confirmation purgatory for the better part of the last two years thanks to blanket opposition from the GOP (which to a man almost always supports telecom monopolies despite its pretense about loving “antitrust reform”). But Sohn’s fate was also doomed by waffling by key Democratic Senators like Mark Kelly (AZ) , Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), and Joe Manchin (WV), who kept her from getting the 51 votes needed in a Senate confirmation vote (and at times parroted false industry claims).
Manchin finally this week came out in opposition to Sohn after a year of refusing to publicly state his position one way or the other. According to his statement, Manchin claims he opposed Sohn because he’s just super concerned about partisanship at the FCC:
There’s not much that’s coherent or factual here. Sohn’s entire career has been spent advocating for broadband affordability, and there’s really nothing she’s said or done at any hearing that could be construed as problematically partisan. Especially in the context of a modern Trumpist GOP that casually tosses around calls for civil war like they’re party snacks.
Sohn’s major crime appears to have been calling Fox News propaganda in a tweet (undeniably true) and retweeting calls for modest police reform.
It’s worth noting that Manchin voted in support of Trump FCC pick Ajit Pai, arguably one of the most captured and nakedly partisan telecom regulators I’ve seen in more than two-decades of covering the agency.
During Pai’s tenure his agency was caught making up DDOS attacks to try and downplay public anger at shitty policies, turned a blind eye while the broadband industry used fake and dead people to stuff the FCC comment process with illusory support for extremely unpopular policies, and rubber stamped industry mergers without even reading the supporting documents.
You’re to ignore that Comcast has been slowly accumulating Manchin staffers in a bid to influence his vote. Or that the aging coal baron has generally opposed meaningful accountability for numerous industries with very obvious monopolization, safety, and regulatory capture problems.
From my conversations with numerous DC insiders, Manchin has always opposed Sohn’s nomination, he just hasn’t been willing to publicly own it until now. Manchin was a primary reason Sohn’s Senate confirmation vote was scuttled last year, making Manchin the primary reason the FCC currently lacks the voting majority to do most of the things he’s pretending to care about now.
There was briefly some hope that the midterm victory by Rafael Warnock would change the math and make Manchin’s vote less relevant. With Manchin’s vote offset by Warnock, the hope was that Sohn could get the 51-vote-majority needed via support from Senators Mark Kelly (AZ) and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV). But both, like Manchin, proved repeatedly noncommittal and easily influenced by industry.
With Sohn understandably backing away from this corrupt shitshow, the FCC will remain in 2-2 partisan gridlock until Biden nominates somebody the telecom industry deems suitably feckless. At that point, any potential candidate will have virtually no time to do much of anything before the next presidential election, exactly as AT&T, Comcast, and News Corporation planned it.
There will be a lot of press chatter that misses the central point of Sohn’s experience. Namely that a completely manufactured joint propaganda campaign by the telecom lobby and GOP prevented a popular female reformer from being seated at a key regulatory agency because the United States is comically corrupt.
From Sohn’s statement:
Unfortunately, the American people are the real losers here. The FCC deadlock, now over two years long, will remain so for a long time. As someone who has advocated for my entire career for affordable, accessible broadband for every American, it is ironic that the 2-2 FCC will remain sidelined at the most consequential opportunity for broadband in our lifetimes. This means that your broadband will be more expensive for lack of competition, minority and underrepresented voices will be marginalized, and your private information will continue to be used and sold at the whim of your broadband provider. It means that the FCC will not have a majority to adopt strong rules which ensure that everyone has nondiscriminatory access to broadband, regardless of who they are or where they live, and that low income students will continue to be forced to do their school work sitting outside of Taco Bell because universal service funds can’t be used for broadband in their homes. And it means that many rural Americans will continue the long wait for broadband because the FCC can’t fix its Universal Service programs.
While the GOP and telecom industry operated in lockstep during the attack on Sohn, Democrats carry plenty of blame. A belated nomination, a repeated failure to whip votes, repeated decisions to bow to bad-faith industry attempts to hold duplicative hearings, and a comic inability to publicly support Sohn as she faced down a relentless smear campaign alone all contributed to her nomination’s demise.
Sohn’s withdrawn nomination is a new low point for very broken U.S. telecom and media policy. For four years, the agency was a mindless marionette for industry under the Trump FCC. And in the last two years, the FCC has been intentionally mired in partisan gridlock by that same industry. That’s six straight years of total regulatory capture, and another blistering example of normalized U.S. corruption.
Our myopic internet policy fixation on “Big Tech” will ensure this story doesn’t survive for more than a few days in the mainstream press. Still, this one’s going to leave a long lasting and ugly mark on U.S. internet policy and the public trust.
I expect the next FCC nominee will be appropriately feckless, as per industry’s wishes. And the agency will stumble forth behaving precisely as the telecom and media lobby wishes: lots of nebulous chatter about how terrible the digital divide is, but nobody with the political backbone to meaningfully stand up to the massive telecom monopolies directly responsible for the problem.
Filed Under: broadband, corruption, digital divide, fcc, gigi sohn, high speed internet, joe manchin, regulatory capture, telecom