There may be no better way to get a handle on how Donald John Trump will govern than to see who he appoints to replace Tom Wheeler as chairman of the FCC. Will he appoint a chairman that will eschew new regulations and cut down existing ones? Or will he choose someone who will make good on Candidate Trump's oft-stated desire to bring "mainstream media" to heel?
The FCC’s A Good Place To Size Up Trump
As of this posting, it’s been about 63 hours since Donald Trump declared victory over Hillary Clinton, and since that time he has comported himself fairly well, in the way we have come to expect our presidents-elect to behave.
He hit all the right notes in his acceptance speech, praising Clinton, promising to heal divisions and thanking supporters. And he was respectful in a long bury-the-hatchet meeting with President Obama yesterday.
His conduct has raised hope that the Trump of the campaign will not be the same as the Trump in the White House, that he may “shake things up” in Washington, but may not burn things down.
That hope was reflected in the stock markets. Rather than crashing as many had guessed they would in the wake of a Trump victory, they rebounded.
But, then again, it’s only been about 63 hours.
By Monday morning, Trump could revert to the vindictive, bullying iconoclast he was on the campaign trail.
It occurs to me that one good way to get a handle on how the real Trump will govern will be to see whom he appoints to replace Tom Wheeler as chairman of the FCC.
Twice in recent weeks I have written about his antipathy toward the media marked by his provocative attacks on reporters and his threats to use his presidential power at get even with CNN, Comcast, The Washington Post and The New York Times for perceived mistreatment.
Most of those in the Washington communications establishment with whom I have spoken this week were choosing to believe that Trump will be a more or less conventional, pro-business Republican president, that his threats were political theater and that he will appoint a chairman who will eschew new regulations and cut down existing ones. Think Mark Fowler.
Some even thought he might benefit broadcasting by appointing a chairman who would do away or significantly relax local and national ownership limits.
Those hopes have been buoyed by the appointment of Jeff Eisenach to oversee the Trump transition at the FCC. He is a conservative economist who has been a vocal critic of the regulatory excesses of Wheeler.
He is fairly well known and respected among communications policy wonks. As an economist for hire, Eisenach has done work for the NAB. In 2011, he co-authored a study supporting the NAB’s call for relaxation of ownership restrictions.
By denying the broadcasters the benefits of scale, the study concludes, the rules have had deleterious effects on them, “lowering economic returns…, depressing investment below the economically optimal level, significantly reducing the output of news programming and threatening to shrink the size of the industry. “
Two years earlier, Eisenach produced another study for NAB on the merits of retransmission consent.Just as Congress intended, it says, retrans enables broadcasters to get the compensation they deserve from the MVPDs. “This compensation ultimately benefits consumers by enriching the quantity, diversity, and quality of available programming, including local broadcast signals.”
Eisenach might leverage his position on the transition team to become the chairman as Wheeler did, but I don’t know that he wants to. He may make more money writing studies for corporations and trade groups than he would as FCC chairman. He declined my interview request.
Broadcasters’ pick for the job would be Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the commission. He is bright, articulate and he sees TV broadcasting as a medium to be nurtured and strengthened. Wheeler sees it as one to be stripped of spectrum as it goes the way of LPs and VCRs.
Pai argued in favor of relaxing the ownership rules and, of all the commissioners, he has been most encouraging of broadcasters in their ATSC 3.0 ambitions.
Pai will likely become the interim chairman when Wheeler quits prior to the inauguration. (Wheeler doesn’t have to. He could serve out his term as a plain commissioner, but that’s not customary and it certainly wouldn’t be much fun for him.)
But if Trump is as dangerous as some think he is, if he wants to make good on his threats to go after BIG MEDIA, you will not see the likes of Eisenach or Pai getting the permanent appointment.
You’ll see a person with the desire to bring “mainstream media” to heel or, perhaps, a compliant loyalist willing to take his marching orders from the White House.
Actually, you could see two such appointments. Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel’s chances for another term as a commissioner melted away with Clinton’s loss. So, Trump gets to fill a second seat, although it will have to go to a nominal Democrat or independent.
The FCC is an independent agency, not part of the executive branch, meaning that the While House is not supposed to meddle in its deliberations or processes.
But that wall has been breached before. Wheeler tarnished his legacy by abandoning his own net neutrality plan to adopt a more regulatory one being pushed by the White House.
And Trump could just blow the wall away. There are no tough-minded lawmakers like John Dingell protecting the prerogatives and independence of the FCC anymore.
In the weeks and months ahead, Trump’s intentions will become clearer not only by what he says, but by each person he nominates. Among the most telling will be who he selects to oversee the media.