Don't Mistake Her Kindness For Weakness

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn favors a smile and an open mind- except when it comes to people taking aim at consumers' rights and network neutrality.  She opens up for her first extensive interview since being named to the commission, with B&C Washington Editor John Eggerton.
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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 Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton about that and much
more in her first extensive interview since taking the post last summer.

Tell us about your background in newspaper and TV.
For about 14 years, I was chief cook and bottle washer of a weekly newspaper in Charleston, S.C., that focused primarily on an African-American audience and issues. I did that after coming out of the school of business and economics at the University of South Carolina.
My father, a year prior to my graduation, expressed concern and frustration about the news coverage and news delivery in the area, particularly as it related to communities of color. He felt that there was a need for a balanced voice, a voice that would report the news and not engage in any type of inflammatory or negative discourse. So, that was the reason The Coastal Times was founded. He thought enough of me to ask me a few months prior to my graduation-I thought I was going into banking and finance-to consider fulfilling that mission of supplying more balance to the landscape. I did that for 14 years prior to my service on the Public Service Commission of South Carolina.

And you did some TV as well?
For almost a year, I had a monthly public affairs show on what had been the UPN affiliate in Charleston. The people who ran the station were mature radio guys-you don't use the O-L-D word-and I had spent a lot of time on radio shows because of my activities in the community.

So with that experience to draw from, 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.  I don't know, if I were to go back home after the end of my term, if I would pick up that weekly newspaper again in the form it had been in because of all the challenges it faces.

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.  I think those conversations are taking place in large part because everyone recognizes that to have a viable and diverse media landscape across disciplines is important for the health and education of our nation.

If it could help smaller broadcasters and newspapers having trouble, shouldn't allowing them to combine in smaller markets be on the table as well?
I have concerns about media consolidation, but I also have an economics background, so I understand when people talk about scale economies. I know the synergies that could [be] put forth. I have an open mind as it relates to different kinds of business models. But by the same token-and that "but" does not negate what I said before-we still need to have conversations, and I am still mindful and concerned about concentration if there is a challenge in having a variety of voices being heard in certain markets.

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.  But I am very proud of the path that has been laid out for me. Benjamin Hooks was the first African-American [commissioner], and I got a chance to spend some time with him about a month and a half ago. I follow in some proud footsteps and I consider it an honor, an opportunity and a challenge.

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 definitely a part of my DNA. My
door is an open one to all.

The FCC was recently criticized, including by the NAACP, in a letter to the chairman about the lack of action on diversity issues.
I appreciate the underlying concerns of the groups who issued the letter to the chairman. I am confident, however, that the current commission will not allow these issues to languish as they have in years past. Indeed, we are actively engaged on many of the proposals discussed in the letter.

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 certificate policy, which is not in force
right now.

But
[whatever] we can do within the confines 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.  So, I am not closed-minded. I am listening and speaking to those groups. And if there are any protections and enhancements that we need to consider, I am definitely open to that. As you noted, I am very excited about the openness and potential of this platform, and will do all in my power to encourage such a course.

Is it your economic background that leads you to conclude that people may not be paying attention to the opportunities for minority entrepreneurship from an open Internet?
I had an entrepreneurial upbringing that in some ways could be considered traditional and in some nontraditional. I grew up in my grandmother's beauty shop that in its heyday was packed with more than a dozen...we say "employees" very loosely in a beauty shop. [They were] persons who rented booths from her. And my grandfather had a shop next door and, before I was born, a series of restaurants.
And if we were blessed to have them at this point, if they were to be launched at this point, [business] could be enhanced by this open platform, in terms of advertising that might not be as expensive as in a traditional space or as affirming [about] what services they could offer. That is why I am so excited.
I am from a state that has many challenges, economic and health-wise, and in education. We had a hearing a couple of months ago in a very rural community in South Carolina. One of the things that I remember about this community when I was home a little more often is that it lacked a lot of things related to personnel infrastructure, particularly [programs for] persons who had foreign-language background.
So, you had a community that had challenges anyway because of its rural nature. And now it is compounded with challenges because you can't attract different kinds of specialty teachers. A broad platform, an open platform, a nondiscriminatory platform could bridge that gap with the click of a mouse. You could have access to foreign-language teachers and specialty educators who [the community] could not afford to pay on an ongoing basis.
We come from the "stroke belt" in South Carolina. Telemedicine could help persons better their outcomes medically. And economically, the sky is the limit in terms of any kind of entrepreneurial pursuits. In a relatively inexpensive fashion, you can promote yourself and promote your wares and connect to the world, which you could not do in some of those traditional circles.

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.

The First Lady recently announced the childhood obesity task force. What should the FCC's role be on that issue?
I watched her and had an opportunity to see her later than evening. I was both moved and, from a personal standpoint, felt I had been empowered.
From my platform [as an FCC commissioner] in terms of our focus, tele-health would be a great enhancer when it comes to delivering those types of messages. It is a bit different in terms of the delivery mechanism, but a couple of years ago we awarded a grant for South Carolina that dealt with prenatal outcomes and helping with high-risk pregnancy.
The possibility of our being partners and being a delivery system by way of grants as it relates to something as important and significant as childhood obesity is where we could possibly come in. One thing that struck me about President Obama was his charge to all of us in government to work together as collaboratively as possible. There is a recognition that we have finite resources and a whole host of challenges, including our nation's challenge with weight and eating right.
All of those manifest themselves in some devastating ways to our children. So, [as for] targeting resources to programs that work and can be exported as they relate to childhood obesity abatement, I think we potentially have a role in encouraging from the bully pulpit and making those delivery systems work better.

That sounds like you favor promoting health and diet over restricting advertising.
When people talk about whether we should be tougher cops as it relates to that, I tell people that the toughest or the most effective means to make change on what appears on our airwaves [comes from] you, the individual. If you complain, if you walk away from it, if you don't support it, it will go away.
There are people who want us to flex our muscles, but the biggest driver in this is the public. If they complain or don't support [something], then there will be changes.

Have you been briefed on the broadband plan?
I am going through a series of briefings as we speak.

Do you think the chairman's goal of 100 megabits per second for 100 million households is achievable?
I am excited about the prospects of the availability and affordability of high-speed Internet access to all parts of this nation. Speed is a concern, don't get me wrong. But I think at the end of the day, when you talk about the plan and its delivery, my particular focus is the adoption side of the equation. I think having persons in Ravenel, S.C., on par with the rest of America when it relates to speed and access is important. The numbers are important, but I am focused more so on adoption and encouraging communities to have conversations about how it is relevant to their lives. I think if the demand side of the equation is enhanced, the speeds will come.

How did you get this job? Did you actively campaign for it?
I don't think there was any one thing. I was a state commissioner for 11 years and was active at NARUC [the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners]. I have one or two political connections [Her father is James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House Majority Whip. -Ed.], and I have a desire and passion to serve. I think it was a combination of all of those things. It was my turn.
My name was one of the ones that my NARUC colleagues put forth. Did I seek it out? I definitely did not run away from it. I ran toward it.

When you leave this job, what would you like to have been your major accomplishment?
If at the end of the day, people would say that in every statement she made, they could see a consumer enhancement of benefit, then my term was well spent.

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