Don’t Mistake Her Kindness For Weakness
FCC Commissioner Clyburn favors a smile and an open mind— except when it comes to people taking aim at consumers’ rights and network neutrality
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/1/2010 3:39:00 PM
Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says she hopes to be remembered for putting consumers first and for her willingness to listen. But she will also certainly be remembered as the FCC's first African-American woman, a distinction she calls bittersweet given that it did not come until 2009.
Clyburn, whom FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has praised for doing a “stellar job,” says she did not actively campaign for her post—but did not shy away from it either. The job came after almost a dozen years as a public-utility regulator in her home state of South Carolina, and with the help of friends and political contacts. Those would include her father, James, who is the House Majority Whip.
Clyburn’s open-door, open-mind philosophy stems, in part, from the civil rights struggles against closed doors that helped shape and frame her world view. And while she has brought a winning smile and Southern charm to the post, she cautions not to mistake that for weakness.
The commissioner is anything but neutral on network neutrality, and says that while the FCC has to look at indecency issues on a case-by-case basis, parents can change the channel if they don’t like what they see. As to broadcasting’s future in an increasingly broadband-centric world, she says she doesn’t believe the FCC should be favoring one technology over another.
Clyburn talked to B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton about that and much more in her first extensive interview since taking the post last summer.
What do you think the government should do to help out the media business in these tough times?
One of the things I am excited about is the FCC and other entities looking at the media landscape and the challenges it faces. I am very, very much concerned about media ownership issues, the types of delivery and the types of voices that are heard.
So, I share concerns, and having conversations and putting everything on the table as it relates to delivery and the media landscape is important to me. You hear conversations around foundation-type support, especially for print. Those conversations need to be had.
The wireless industry is interested in broadcaster spectrum. What is your view of local broadcasting’s role in the future?
As we have witnessed, the communications landscape dramatically changed as a result of technological advances, and local broadcasters have had to adapt to these changes. One example is the use of the Internet by broadcasters to provide additional information to consumers through their own Web presence. Some broadcasters also are using the Internet as an additional outlet for distributing their programming. I believe it is important that our policies do not favor one technology over another. We should be mindful that spectrum is used efficiently, and we must carefully consider whether proposed changes in policy are technologically neutral and do not favor one business model over another.
The FCC’s fleeting-indecency policy has been challenged on a number of fronts. Should the FCC be in the business of regulating what content broadcasters can put on the air?
I am a proponent of the First Amendment, and I believe that parents and families should have options for understanding more fully their programming choices and the options available to them for limiting the programming viewed by their families.
I also believe that families should not hesitate to change the channel or turn off the media device if they do not approve of the programming. I think parents should not hesitate to let a programmer and the advertisers supporting that program know when they disapprove of the programming offered. However, we have a duty at the commission to fully consider the complaints filed about programming that may be indecent. Because the facts for each case are distinctive, the commission must carefully consider the facts at hand for each complaint filed.
You are the first African-American woman to be a commissioner. Should we be past pointing that out, or does that shape or inform how you do your job?
I guess I wish for a day that does not have to be said, in a way. But I am very proud, both of the opportunity and the challenge. It may surprise some persons, but when I was first being mentioned, I kept saying to my family and friends I could not believe I am the first. It’s 2009? So, from that aspect it was kind of bittersweet for me. We always say my parents met in jail. My father was just coming out of jail [arrested after a civil rights protest]. He was very hungry and [my mother] handed him half a sandwich.
My very being, my existence, and every aspect of my life is a result of the struggles of the civil rights movement, and the struggles and challenges this country faces as it relates to relations with all of its people. I am here because of that, and that affects and shapes me. My outlook is forever enhanced by it. And because of that, I have, almost to a fault, the willingness and ability and desire to listen to all people.
I want this office to be a place where, regardless of your portfolio, regardless of your title, regardless of what others say your influences are, you can come and be heard. That is important to me. That is defi nitely a part of my DNA. My door is an open one to all.
What should the FCC be doing to encourage more minority ownership?
I think [through] the types of open dialog we are having. We have the quadrennial [media-ownership rule] coming up, so we are having a conversation and dialog as it relates to media ownership and concentration. We are always engaged on the congressional level and [with] opportunities that might present themselves. You hear conversations about the tax certifi cate policy, which is not in force right now. But [whatever] we can do within the confi nes of today’s market and whatever legal constraints we may or may not have, whatever conversations we can have to promote a diversity of voices, I am willing to have.
You have talked about boosting diversity through the broadband plan. Some minority groups have complained that network neutrality rules could discourage investment and widen the digital divide. You don’t agree?
I am a supporter of the principles of network neutrality. I believe this open architecture has the potential to be the great equalizer in all communities. It can bridge all types of gaps, including the media-ownership gap. It is just a powerful tool that I am excited about. I am not dismissive, however, of some of the concerns, and am engaging in conversations with some of the groups that may or may not be as enthusiastic as I am about embracing and codifying network neutrality principles.
Your backing of network neutrality as being a potential benefit to minorities got backhanded praise in a headline that said: “New FCC Commissioner Clyburn Not the Pushover Some Expected.” Should we have expected you to be a pushover?
I have been told that sometimes people take kindness for weakness. And maybe I will get in trouble for saying that. But I have a pretty decent smile, and I am relatively friendly most days. And when I’m not, I stay home. I usually have a very decent disposition. I don’t know if that is the non-Washington way. I certainly know that is the pro-South Carolina way. We are very friendly people. But I think more so is that I am not from these parts, as we would say in Carolina. I am very much outside the Beltway. I am not bragging on it; it’s just a fact.
And I think that when people see a certain demeanor, they may misinterpret that as being a pushover. The more people get to know me, we won’t have those types of headlines.
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