Two days after FCC Republicans voted to relax nearly all major restrictions on television ownership, the Senate Commerce Committee hauled agency commissioners to Capitol Hill to explain themselves.
Several Democratic lawmakers during the June 4 hearing were ticked off at one regulator in particular. North Dakota's Byron Dorgan complained that the commissioner "took a swipe at Congress." California's Barbara Boxer was "very frosted" by the regulator's retort to FCC critics. West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller charged that the target of their ire had labeled them "elitist."
The victim of this verbal flogging? Republican Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who two days earlier had blamed opposition to media-ownership relaxation on "irrational" fear that "hypothetical media monopolies" will exercise "Vulcan mind control over the American people."
Abernathy was barely shaken by the lambasting and firmly defended deregulation as the lawmakers repeatedly accused her of everything from insulting California citizens to kowtowing to lobbyists.
She is the least likely candidate for such a rude grilling. During her two-year stint on the commission, she has ardently avoided public confrontation even as her colleagues sniped at each other over policy disagreements. She regularly forsakes dissent with official commission orders, choosing instead to keep her disagreements within the confines of the commissioners' confidential deliberations.
Abernathy's style has gained her a reputation as a reliable vote for agency Chairman Michael Powell, but she insists she has an aim beyond serving as a loyal lieutenant. "A large percentage of the time the chairman and I are in agreement," she explains, insisting that, when an issue is heading a different direction than she wants, the conciliatory approach can move colleagues closer to her position than public disagreement would. Still, she says, "you never get exactly what you want."
Her former boss, ex-FCC Commissioner James Quello praised Abernathy's decision to keep disagreements behind the scenes.
"She's not a flame-thrower," Quello says, putting a plug for her to be the next commission chief. "Her negotiating ability I think could make the administration look good. She would be an ideal candidate for the first woman chairman of the FCC."
Abernathy has already achieved one FCC first. Although she graduated from Catholic University law school before its Institute for Communications Law Studies was founded, her confirmation as the school's first commissioner was a validation for her fellow alumni at the FCC that their alma mater is recognized as a top source of communications lawyers.
Abernathy got her big break in communications law when COMSAT hired her in 1988. The satellite-communicationsindustry's rapid growth and the increasing importance of federal policy created a terrific opportunity for a young lawyer. Her private-sector gigs since then have remained within telecommunications, mostly with providers of new wireless and broadband services. Because they generally didn't have entrenched bureaucracies and rigid promotion rules, she points out, her high-tech employers "tended to give more opportunities" to women.
Experience as both a corporate and a commission attorney prepared her for her post guiding telecommunications policy. "I can put myself in the mindset of industry and think how they might react," she says. "I think that's helpful when predicting how effective a regulation might be."
She is unrepentant on her straightforward defense of media deregulation. The hostility to deregulation is more "emotional" than based in fact, she insists. Instead of FCC limits on the properties one owner can control, she predicts, diversity of entertainment and news options will be ensured in the future by new technologies and multiple platforms.