McAdams On: The Hon. Mignon Clyburn

WASHINGTON – 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 country.

“I was surprised, as many people were, to see that Verizon elected to raise its early termination fees for certain ‘advanced devices,’” she said 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:

“With 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 Senate.

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.