The former FCC commissioner and longtime broadcast nemesis will step up her advocacy of public interest obligations on broadcasters as head of the Benton Foundation. But she is also ready to deal.
When Gloria Tristani quit the FCC in 2001 to run for the Senate in her home state of New Mexico, most Washington broadcast lobbyists and lawyers were happy to see her go. They considered her a high-handed and disengaged regulator with little understanding of their business.
Truth is, it wasn’t just her style they disliked. It was also her agenda. During her almost four years at the agency, she was on the opposite side of just about every issue. She fought against media consolidation, pushed for more aggressive indecency enforcement and chaired the FCC task force on V-chip technology. She also advocated making broadcasters air “public interest” programming that may not be good for business, but may be good for the public they are licensed to serve.
Tristani and her ideas were not gone for long. After failing to unseat Republican Pete Domenici in 2002, she returned to Washington as head of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, one of original groups to wage the public-interest battle against broadcasters. There, she helped piece together a deal with broadcasters that obliges them to air children’s educational programming on each of their DTV channels. That deal is pending FCC approval.
Tristani has now moved on to become president of the Benton Foundation, where she will have a higher profile and more resources at her command. “I see this as an opportunity to help Benton pursue its already good agenda on media issues,” she says.
If you don’t know the Benton Foundation, you should. Established by William Benton, founder of the Benton & Bowles ad agency and publisher of the EncyclopÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¦dia Britannica, it has a $10 million endowment and receives additional funding from the Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Time Warner Foundation, Educational Development Center and One World International.
And now it has a more powerful voice in Tristani. Bill Kennard, who was FCC chairman during her years as a commissioner, says she’s a “fighter” who believes “passionately in serving the public interest.”
Current FCC Commissioner Michael Copps also respects her. “I value her advice and counsel,” he says. “She knows how to make things happen.”
Earlier this week, Foundation Chairman Charles Benton staked out the foundation’s position on the DTV transition. In a letter to FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, he seconded the commissioner’s call for a DTV task force and said it should address the broadcasters’ programming obligations.
“I find it unfathomable that consumers are being asked to make this investment without knowing that the programming they find central to their lives—local news and public affairs, election coverage, disability access and emergency services, etc.—will be found on digital TV signals,” Benton wrote.
Tristani hopes to advance the agenda by rallying public support. “That’s what we’re going to aim for, public pressure, public recognition,” she says. “Survey after survey shows that your average local broadcast television station is devoting less and less time to any kind of coverage of issues of public concern.”
She doesn’t see her job as necessarily confrontational. She says she is merely calling on broadcasters to fulfill their end of the deal. “They’re getting the exclusive use of very valuable public spectrum,” she says. “They’re supposed to be doing something meaningful in return.”
Indeed, one broadcast representative told me that Tristani was surprisingly easy to deal with on the children’s compromise and credits her with being a leader in bringing all the parties together. It may be, said another critic from her FCC days, that she is better suited working outside the commission than inside.
“We’re always ready to talk,” Tristani says.