At times last week, it seemed as though Washington was playing host to a meeting of the Julius Genachowski fan club. Barack Obama's presumptive choice for FCC chairman has telegraphed his concern over content, media diversity and preserving an open Internet, hot-button issues that often divide the town into opposing camps.
But Genachowski (pronounced Jenna-KOW-skee), a Harvard classmate, friend and technology policy adviser to the President-elect, was getting good reviews from friends and potential ideological opponents alike. A significant driver of that upbeat response appeared to be a sense of anticipatory relief that a Genachowski FCC would be more collegial than the Kevin Martin-led commission.
One veteran lobbyist who asked not to be identified thought Genachowski would be “a breath of fresh air” and would concentrate on new-media issues, like broadband deployment, rather than “yesterday's issue of restricting traditional media ownership. That issue is over. We're selling, not buying.”
It's not wise to diss a new chairman, but even those speaking on background praised his intellect and temperament.
One element repeatedly surfaces in discussions with media lobbyists and some former top FCC officials: Genachowski's business experience. In addition to being a legal scholar who clerked for two Supreme Court justices, he is also a venture capitalist who was an executive with new-media companies, most notably Barry Diller's IAC. “He's been in the private sector and has had to raise money,” said one former top Republican FCC official. “He's got to know how bad things are for some of these businesses.”
“He's worked for Silicon Valley, and is somebody who understands that there needs to be investment and that decisions of the government can very profoundly affect companies and what they plan to do,” said a veteran cable lobbyist.
The economy is job one for Obama, so there is hope from those representing regulated media and opposed to new Internet regulations that priming the engines of commerce might be higher on the Democratic agenda than usual.
Says Randolph May, president of think tank The Free State Foundation and former FCC associate general counsel, “Obama has taken a position that would lead one to believe that he may one day impose network neutrality legislation. But I am optimistic that when Genachowski assumes his post and studies the issue closely and applies his intelligence and business experience, he won't do that. But that is different from being convinced.”
While Genachowski is expected to focus on broadband, given that issue's prominence in the Obama economic stimulus package, he is also associated with some strong criticisms of media content. Genachowski is a founding board member of Common Sense Media. While that group advocates parental control and technological solutions over government crackdowns on content, it has also released a study (actually a study of other studies) in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health that concluded media exposure is bad for kids' health—from making them fatter, to encouraging drug, alcohol and tobacco use, to hurting their grades.
Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, who has known Genachowski for the better part of two decades, said looking for the ideological tilt in Genachowski is the wrong way to view him. “I would assume he will be open-minded to both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches, depending on his best judgment on what is the best long-term solution for the people of the U.S.,” Steyer said.
But is Genachowski clearly concerned about issues like media violence and obesity? “Sure,” Steyer said, “and I think he will probably try to chart really thoughtful solutions to the potential harmful effects of media technology.
“But, and this is very important,” Steyer adds, “I think he is equally cognizant of the enormous educational opportunities that media entertainment and technology provide. He is equally respectful of the positive messages and images that media and entertainment and technology can bring to the broader public. I wouldn't fear him. I would respect him.”
Conservative talk-radio hosts could use the appointment to fuel fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine. Genachowski was an aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) when Schumer was in the House. Schumer's pro-Fairness Doctrine comments to Fox News in November provided new life to suspicions that once Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they would try to revive the doctrine. Scrapped in 1987 by the FCC, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to report both sides of controversial issues.
Until Genachowski can be vetted and approved, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps almost certainly will be named acting chairman. Copps signaled last week that it could be a “lively” time at the FCC's Media Bureau over the next few weeks.
One former acting FCC chairman, James Quello, the longest-serving Democratic FCC commissioner and still an influential industry consultant in his mid-90s, had some advice. “Genachowski is bright, practical, open-minded and has business experience,” Quello said, “but with the Internet seriously eating into broadcasters' revenues, we don't need government regulations and restrictions that would force media industries to seek government bailouts.”
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