The Senate Commerce Committee nomination hearing yesterday for Gigi Sohn, the President’s pick for the open Democratic seat at the FCC, was stormy compared to the relatively calm hearing for Jessica Rosenworcel last month. Rosenworcel is a known quantity to the Hill, having been an attorney for the committee before becoming an FCC Commissioner in 2012. Contrast that with Sohn, a 30-year public interest attorney who was an advisor for former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler and previously led the non-profit advocacy group Public Knowledge.
Alan Davidson, nominated to head the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, testified as well. But most of the attention was on Sohn, whose confirmation to the FCC would help secure a Democratic majority at the agency.
Sohn described herself to lawmakers as an advocate “for policies that ensure that modern communications networks are available to everybody, regardless of who they are or where they live.” If confirmed, Sohn said her first priority would be pragmatism, the willingness to “reach out and sit down with people who disagree with my position to try and find common ground.”
This point was key as GOP lawmakers grilled Sohn concerning her views about Net Neutrality and Fox News, for example. Several conservative lawmakers called Sohn a “hyper-partisan activist.” Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said, “It seems like the way to get a job in this administration is to disparage Republicans.” He cited a tweet in which Sohn called Fox News “state-sponsored propaganda. How can you do that and be an honest broker? You’ve questioned whether Sinclair is qualified to be an FCC licensee at all. You are clearly biased.” Sullivan said he believes Sohn’s views “disqualifies” her for the job.
Sohn replied her tweets were specific to a hearing concerning Big Tech and she was doing her job as a public interest advocate. Sohn said she signed an agreement with the Office of Ethics, and “if there’s any question of bias, I will consult them.”
Ted Cruz (R-TX), said he has “real concerns” about Sohn’s nomination, noting the “growing calls of the left to have more censorship. The FCC has enormous power.” Cruz said Sohn is “unabashedly a person of the left, which is fine, if you support free speech. Yet your record suggests a deep antipathy towards those of different views.”
Sohn said: “I have long worked with those whose views I disagree with. I’ve been characterized unfairly as being opposed to conservative speech.”
Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked Sohn about improving the FCC’s broadband maps. Sohn said if confirmed, it would be a “high priority for me to get those done quickly.”
Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) appreciated Sohn’s supportive comments about protecting localism and competition in journalism, saying “local broadcasting is vital to every community” and, “I’m a faithful radio listener since I spend a lot of time in the car.”
Sohn said she’d like to bring more diverse viewpoints to the Commission. One way to do that is to expand the broadcast incubator program. Originally aimed at expanding access for minorities to enter radio ownership, Sohn would like to expand it to television, she noted.
Many of the questions for Davidson centered on how NTIA would approach distribution of the $65 billion in broadband deployment money contained in the infrastructure bill recently signed into law. He agreed with Sohn and lawmakers that getting the FCC’s broadband location maps updated takes priority. “We need those maps so we can proceed with funding at NTIA,” Davidson said.
“We have a twin imperative to get money out quickly and carefully,” he told lawmakers. NTIA would partner with states to do that and be transparent in how it distributes the funds, he pledged. Several lawmakers questioned Davidson about ensuring that unserved areas get broadband funds first. He replied the law is specific about the monetary priorities and pledged that, if confirmed, NTIA will fund unserved areas first.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief