The internal skirmishes between the new and old guards of conservative political power continue, this time colliding over the future of a Democratically controlled Federal Communications Commission. Though Republican lawmakers have spent months opposing Biden’s efforts to fill two open FCC seats with Democrats, at least one of those nominees is getting a nod of confidence from right-wing upstarts One America News Network and Newsmax.
In a statement released earlier this month, One America News Network President Charles Herring officially endorsed the confirmation of President Joe Biden’s most recent FCC nominee, Gigi Sohn.
“Unfortunately, many times business owners find themselves in the position where they need to advocate for reasonable, light handed regulations,” Herring said. OAN’s president went on to describe the current cable programming landscape as a “quasi-monopoly,” and encouraged others to endorse Sohn. “She is one of the most knowledgeable persons I know on FCC issues,” Herring added.
Not long after that, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy threw in his own support for both of Biden’s FCC picks in a statement sent to Axios. “While I don’t always agree with the nominees on many policy matters, Newsmax fully supports the Commission’s mandate to promote diversity, localism and competition in the marketplace,” Ruddy said.
This all stands in stark contrast to the more traditional right-wing establishment, which has fought tooth and nail to delay and derail Biden’s nominations from the start. So far, Republican lawmakers have appeared particularly hostile to Sohn, with Lindsey Graham recently saying he would do, “everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee.”
Others, like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, have argued Sohn’s appointment could lead to increased censorship of conservative views on airwaves. “She [Sohn] favours deploying the agency’s regulatory power to shackle broadband providers and silence conservative voices,” The Journal’s Editorial Board wrote. “Ms. Sohn’s strident partisanship should disqualify her from serving as an officer of an independent agency with so much power to control the public airwaves.”
All this right-wing divergence comes down to the reality that Newsmax and OAN have far more to gain with Sohn at the FCC than more traditional conservatives backed by telecom interests thanks to the regulator’s record of favouring independent programmers. Though that’s generally been considered a “liberal” position, it nonetheless benefits right-wing upstarts trying to take on traditionally entrenched media as well. Notably, Sohn opposed a massive proposed merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, a deal that Newsmax and OAN also opposed. That merger ultimately failed, and Sinclair was forced to pay the FCC $US48 ($67) million in fines to close investigations looking into ways it had tried to deceive the agency.
Let’s back up for a moment. The FCC has operated in a sort of holding pattern for the first 10 months of Biden’s presidency. Despite Democrats owning a slight majority in all three branches of government, the FCC has been stuck in a 2 Republican, 2 Democrat deadlock, rendering any attempts at advancing even moderately liberal policy proposals mostly dead on arrival. Making matters worse for Democrats, FCC acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel is only eligible to continue serving without being re-confirmed on the FCC until January 2022. In other words, there’s a non-zero chance Republicans could control a majority in the FCC next year despite serving under a Democratic president. Isn’t bureaucracy lovely!
Though Biden officially made his nomination picks in late October they still need senate confirmations, during which Sohn is expected to face more opposition than Rosenworcel. Sohn is the co-founder of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and served in the FCC during the Obama presidency under then-chairman Tom Wheeler. She was selected in 2013 to serve as Wheeler’s counselor where she developed a reputation as a strong net neutrality supporter and Title II common-carrier regulation of ISPs.
Previous reports suggest the Biden Administration had considered tapping Sohn for the lead role but backed off due to mounting opposition from the telecom industry which worried a Sohn-led FCC would introduce broadband pricing regulations. Sohn was also a board member of a now-shuttered nonprofit streaming service called Locast, a fact broadband industry groups have taken particular issue with as a potential conflict of interest.
It’s still unclear whether Newsmax and OAN’s public displays of support for Biden’s picks will translate into Republican confirmation votes. If even a few decide to vote in the nominees’ favour, Democrats will control a majority in the FCC and can start pressing the gas on some of its more ambitious regulatory initiatives. If no Republicans cast votes in support the deadlock could continue, possibly stretching into 2022.