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Memo 12.13.2021 5 minutes

Partisans as Gatekeepers

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FCC nominee Gigi Sohn cannot cherry-pick from her checkered record.

Here is public advocate Gigi Sohn tweeting in 2020: “For all my concerns about #Facebook, I believe that Fox News has had the most negative impact on our democracy. It’s state-sponsored propaganda, with few if any opposing viewpoints. Where’s the hearing about that?”

Here is Biden administration FCC nominee Gigi Sohn, in 2021, at her confirmation hearing: “My opinions as a public interest advocate will have no bearing on how I behave as a policymaker, if I’m confirmed…I said some things may be too sharp, but they will have absolutely no determination and how I would rule in a proceeding with any of those companies.”

What a difference a year makes! Of course, in that year, Gigi Sohn was nominated to serve as one of the five stewards of the Federal Communications Commission. And what you do if you’re up for such a post is try to persuade the Senate that you’re fit for the job. Or in Sohn’s case, you strain to convince them that your past beliefs, thoughts, words, and, yes, tweets didn’t reflect your real beliefs, thoughts, and words.

Except Sohn doesn’t quite have the recanting shuffle down pat. At her confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Dan Sullivan pressed the point: “You are going to be in charge of regulating news agencies like Fox News, and you’re calling them state-sponsored propaganda. How can you do that?”

Sullivan also drew attention to the fact that Sohn once suggested that the broadcasting license of conservative news network Sinclair be revoked. He captured the conundrum succinctly. “You are clearly indicating your bias against more conservative news sources,” he said, “And yet, you are now up for confirmation of one of the most powerful positions in America on free speech.”

Sohn’s reply left something to be desired. “That was as a public interest advocate, as part of my job. Those were my words. Those are my opinions,” she said, “but they will have no bearing on how I would act if I’m confirmed as an FCC commissioner.” Later, in the same hearing, “Maybe the tone was a little sharper, maybe I should have dulled it a little bit, but again, it was part of my job as a public interest advocate.”

Note that Sohn doesn’t disavow her “opinions.” She regrets her tone—but not the substance. Instead, she offers a troubling, almost-incomprehensible moment of double-speak, declaring, in effect: What I said and believe will have no bearing on how I do my job.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so frightening. Sohn’s lone defense—that she was a “public interest advocate” and said spicier things in that role than she would at the FCC—is no defense at all. Because it’s Sohn’s position as a “public interest advocate” that led the Biden administration to nominate her in the first place.

Indeed, in the White House’s own press release praising Sohn, they note her “thirty years” as a “leading public advocate” as her central qualification for the job. In other words, the Biden administration nominated Sohn on the basis of a track record that she now says will have no bearing on her work at the FCC.

Some good measure of Sohn’s hearing was spent choosing what from her past experience would apply in her future work. When Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema pressed Sohn on what she wrote last year in an academic paper advocating more onerous regulation, Sohn replied, “Frankly, what I might have said a year ago probably does not apply anymore…What I said in an academic paper frankly is just academic.”

So how do we ascertain Sohn’s real beliefs? Will what she said in the Senate last week “apply anymore” a year from now, when she would be poised to vote on consequential regulatory and policy questions? Or would she simply disavow her Senate testimony as no longer applicable and just do as she pleases?

The truth is that Sohn’s prior statements, writings, and extreme advocacy are incompatible with the role of an FCC commissioner. Someone who casually—and recently—declares Fox News “state-sponsored propaganda” and insinuates that licenses of broadcasters with which she disagrees politically ought to be revoked has no business steering the FCC’s power.

Her record and her no-regrets-no-apologies confirmation hearing have told the country all we need to know about this nominee—namely that she is unfit for the role of FCC commissioner. Her nomination should be withdrawn by the White House or denied by the Senate, a decision that would send a clear signal about the dangers of partisanship and doublespeak.

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