McAdams On: The Hon. Mignon Clyburn
May 2, 2013
Mignon Clyburn has been a
supportive foot soldier under the tenure of Julius Genachowski as Federal
Communications Commission chairman. Where she has distinguished herself is in
the defense of minority interests, and moreover, those of citizens. Within four
months of her appointment, she chided one of the most powerful companies in the
“I was surprised, as many people were, to see that Verizon elected to raise its
early termination fees for certain ‘advanced devices,’” she
regarding an inquiry into the issue. “Late Friday, Verizon Wireless
responded to the bureau’s queries. The company’s answers, however, are
unsatisfying and, in some cases, troubling. In particular, I am concerned about
what appears to be a shifting and tenuous rationale for ETFs.”
Clyburn’s speaking style is unadorned, not barnstorming like her colleague
Robert McDowell, nor professorial like her former colleague Michael Copps, the
public-interest guardian whose mantle she has inherited.
She blessed the National Broadband Plan, released in March of 2010, but also
warned of its potential pitfalls:
respect to the spectrum currently occupied by television broadcasters, I want
to note a few words of caution,” she
said. “While the plan acknowledges the current public interest mandates and
goals of broadcast spectrum, it does not contain a rigorous analysis of the
practical implications of its proposed actions on the public interest. This is
a serious concern given that the broadcast spectrum is the lone spectrum
through which our nation’s public interest goals are effectuated.
“Likewise, the plan does not study the impact that a spectrum sell-off would
have on women and minority-owned broadcast television stations. It is certainly
possible, if not likely, that the stations most amenable to accept the buyout
would be those few owners. It is no mystery how poorly these groups are
represented among the media ownership ranks; a plan that would further decimate
the prospects for women and minority owners is untenable.
“In my view, we may be doing the country a disservice if our actions left
Americans relying on over-the-air television with only the major networks at
the expense of smaller stations serving niche audiences who rely on them for
their news and information.”
Clyburn, daughter of Rep.
Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), was tapped from the South Carolina Public Service
Commission, which regulates water, utility and transportation rates in the
state. Before that, she was a newspaperwoman. She was confirmed to the
commission two months after Genachowski, sharing the Democratic majority with
him and Copps. She is now the first woman to serve in any capacity as chair
of the commission in its 78-year history.
“I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to lead the Federal Communications Commission
as interim chairwoman during this transition period, and I thank President
Obama for this incredible and historic honor,” she said of her appointment as
interim chair. She will serve until nominee Tom Wheeler is confirmed by the
Much has already been said of Wheeler, including his positional screeds against
the broadcast industry. That he is as enthusiastic about dismantling
broadcasting as his predecessor is no big surprise, given he was, at turns,
head of the cable and the wireless lobbies. That no one in D.C. bats an eye
over a lobbyist being put in charge of the agency that regulated his constituents
speaks only to the city’s inurement to conflict of interest, if not outright
corruption. That is not to take a shot at Mr. Wheeler, whom I have never met—it’s
merely the construct. I would be just as appalled if former NAB chief Eddie
Fritts were appointed chairman of the FCC.
It’s as if D.C. has become a royal family bent on marrying itself.
It will be interesting now to see how much Clyburn brings to bear her own interest
in preserving minority broadcasting during her time as chair and after, when
Wheeler takes over the eighth floor. And it also will be interesting to see if
he maintains the apocryphal rhetoric that has come to characterize the
commission, or if he can, at the very least, bring the procedural transparency
once promised by the outgoing administration, and the type of intellectual
rigor and detailed planning now lacking with the National Broadband Plan—like how
much it’s going to cost and who is going to pay for it.
In the meantime, we wish the Hon. Commissioner Clyburn the very, very best.