FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the commission's top diversity executive would be concentrating on broadband and would not be dealing with FCC broadcast license issues. He also said he would make him available for congressional questioning (adding, just as he would any other staffer).
That came after the five FCC commissioners, on the Hill for a House Communications Subcommittee oversight hearing, were held over during an hour-plus break Thursday so the FCC chairman and two other commissioners could weigh in further on the issue of diversity, specifically the criticism from conservatives of the chairman's naming of Mark Lloyd as the FCC's chief diversity officer. There was a mix of praise, caveat and caution in their answers.
Lloyd came under fire from conservative bloggers and commentators, and some Republican legislators, over his writings as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he was co-author of a June 2007 paper, "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio."
As a result, Free Press and dozens of other groups had sent a letter to committee members Wednesday defending Lloyd. Some Republicans said they hadn't planned on bringing up the issue, but did given the letter.
Armed with Lloyd's 2007 report, Republican Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) was the sole questioner left after the lunch break.
As a former broadcaster, Walden said he took personal offense at Lloyd's writings that "commercial broadcasters want to be public trustees but without responsibility," and said he was further troubled by a paper he penned that suggests that Lloyd does not support the fairness doctrine, but instead the same outcome via different means. "I don't recall the FCC having that strongly opinionated a person in a position as important as that," he said.
"There is a lot of talk about czars. I hope we don't have a government speech czar that is going to drive a whole different mechanism through rulemakings and challenging licensees." Walden said he just wanted to know what Lloyd would be doing and whether the committee would get to vet those issues with Lloyd.
Genachowski was quick to defend both broadcasters and the hiring of Lloyd. He said that the agency needed a "broad range of people with different backgrounds" and a "vibrant exchange of ideas internally."
But he also wanted to assuage any concerns about where that vibrant exchange would and would not lead. "To the extent that there is a concern the commission would engage in any censorship of anyone in the media on the basis of political views and opinions, the answer is, "we won't," he said, adding: "It won't happen." As for the FCC not being aware of the economic conditions and challenges broadcasters face, a concern Walden expressed in a private meeting with the commissioner, he said the commission would take that into account. "The commission needs to understand
what's going on with broadcasters."
The chairman also gave a shout-out to broadcasters and their public service. "I know so many broadcasters take that seriously and provide very valuable service to the community.
Americans value local news and information, emergency alerts, traffic, weather..."
Genachowski said earlier in the hearing that he did not support reimposing the doctrine by either the front or back door, and reiterated it yet again. But he responded to Walden by drawing the distinction between that and promoting diversity.
He said that there is a bipartisan that media diversity is an important objective of FCC policy, as it has been since it was made part of the core principles back in 1934, as it has been supported by the Supreme Court. "The idea of having diversity as an objective of the FCC and having a staff focused on it seems to be a natural extension."
Walden was still not mollified given some of the "outrageous things" he said Lloyd has said in the past. "That is not going to bring balance to that diversity position you created."
The chairman responded that policy is made by the chairman and commissioners and that "staff has many different ideas all over the map."
Walden said he understood that, but also knew from experience--he is a former radio station group owner--that staff can have great power. "Having been a licensee, we don't talk to the commissioners, we talk to the staff. They have extraordinary power in any agency to tilt the rules, to interpret them, to interact with the public. This just seems to be a very biased person."
In the caveat department, the chairman said that Lloyd "is not working on fairness doctrine issues or censorship issues. He is working on opportunity issues, primarily now around broadband adoption.
"So, he is not going to be working on broadcast licensing issues, none of those things" pressed Walden. "He is not working on those issues," Genachowski confirmed.
Also weighing in was Commissioner Michael Copps, who has been highly critical of what he sees as an attempt by critics to paint diversity initiatives as a stealth campaign to muzzle the media. He said the committee should take the chairman up on getting to know Lloyd better. He praised Lloyd's work at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, saying he was of "inestimable help with the DTV transition in helping mobilize nontraditional stakeholders in getting the word out on DTV. He has a very distinguished record."
Copps said the commissioners would be making the decisions, but he welcomes a wealth of ideas and the resulting intellectual ferment. " I don't think everybody is going to go in lockstep. We will rely on the judgment of the people at the top of organization to make intelligent decisions about where we are going."
"I, for one, am pleased that he is at the FCC," he said.
Commissioner McDowell followed up with a note of caution. While he said he had had a "very nice" meeting with Lloyd and the FCC's general counsel last week about what his mission would be, and it was as the chairman had outlined.
But he also said he shared Walden's concern with "the substance of his writings." I would hope that does not become the substance of commission policy," he said. "I will be very vigilant in defending the First Amendment and the rights of broadcasters and those who speak over the airwaves."
McDowell said he thought the chairman had the perogative as FCC CEO to hire the people he wants to. But he also agreed with Walden that FCC staffers "can have great influence without us knowing sometimes." He said maybe that should be part of the FCC reform that he has been pushing for.
"I think we have answered this question," said Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA). Boucher had hoped to wrap up the hearing before the break.