Don't Let the Smear Machine Stop the Gears of a Fully Functional FCC
The New Yorker recently published a piece about the work of the American Accountability Foundation (A.A.F.) — a dark-money group aiming to sabotage the Biden administration’s agenda by torpedoing the confirmation of nominees to fill critical roles across the government.
The group brags about having stopped the confirmation of nominees like Saule Omarova, Biden’s pick to be comptroller of the currency, and Sarah Bloom Raskin, who the president nominated to serve as the vice-chair for supervision of the Federal Reserve Board. Possibly their most famous target was now-Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Also on their list? Gigi Sohn, Biden’s nominee for the fifth and tie-breaking seat at the Federal Communications Commission. As of this writing, she’s featured on the homepage of A.A.F.’s website targeting Biden nominees.
A coordinated right-wing smear campaign
Biden first nominated Sohn — a longtime public servant with deep expertise on communications issues — to fill the seat on Oct. 26, 2021. Since then, nearly 250 organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum — including former FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Gloria Tristani; leading civil-rights, community-media, media-justice, workers-rights and consumer-advocacy groups; and a number of companies and trade associations — have sent letters to the Senate and publicly called for Sohn’s swift confirmation. She also has the support of more than 110,000 activists.
Despite her popular support, Sohn has faced an ugly and coordinated right-wing media smear campaign, which has been on full display in the Op-Ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and on Fox News, which are both owned by Rupert Murdoch. This campaign has also played out in the Senate, where Sohn faced not one but two confirmation hearings, which is unusual for the confirmation of an FCC commissioner. And at every turn a number of Republican senators have obstructed progress on Sohn’s confirmation.
These attacks are being made in bad faith. The sole purpose is to prevent the FCC from running at full capacity and implementing the agenda that over 81 million people voted for in the 2020 election.
Some of Sohn’s loudest critics have admitted as much:
In an Op-Ed from November 2020, published at the height of the confirmation fight over now-FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington, The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board said this:
“If Senate Republicans don’t confirm Mr. Simington in the lame duck, Democrats would have a 2-1 commission majority to start the Biden Presidency so they could immediately get to work. … Confirming Mr. Simington would tie the commission 2-2 in January and slow these plans.”
Simington was confirmed on Dec. 8 of that year, and the deadlock the Journal advocated for has been in place since January 2021.
But the Journal isn’t the only one that had this outcome in mind. According to Mayer’s reporting in The New Yorker, A.A.F.’s founder and executive director, Tom Jones, told Fox News last April that his group wants to “take a big handful of sand and throw it in the gears of the Biden Administration.”
The cost of this delay
Regardless of who funds A.A.F. — and it’s almost impossible to know who does — the ones who benefit the most from this delay are white-owned and -controlled internet service providers and broadcasters.
This is preventing the FCC from adopting policies that would ensure that broadband access is affordable, accessible and reliable for all. It’s allowing runaway media consolidation to continue.
And this is especially harming those who suffer the most when the government doesn’t work: low-income families, Black and Brown people and people in rural areas. For instance, due in part to media consolidation, people of color often don’t see our stories in our own words in the media. When people of color do appear in the media, we are often portrayed in stereotypical and racist ways.
People in many rural communities across the country can’t access high-speed internet because private companies don’t want to spend the money to invest in infrastructure and have fought tooth and nail to stop communities from building their own. Sohn supports communities’ right to build their own networks; if she’s confirmed to the FCC, the agency can do more to improve our nation’s broadband maps to ensure that federal investments in infrastructure go where they’re needed the most. The agency would also be able to ensure that our communications infrastructure is resilient and able to withstand disasters caused by the climate crisis.
It’s not just about the physical infrastructure; it’s also about being able to afford to connect to the service. In the early days of the pandemic, we saw little kids sitting in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants to do their schoolwork because they didn’t have access to high-speed internet at home. And people were unable to attend eviction hearings on Zoom, putting them at risk of becoming unhoused. Thanks to Trump FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — who gutted the agency’s authority to regulate broadband — the agency could do little more than politely ask ISPs to keep people connected to service. Many providers cut people off anyway. If Sohn is confirmed, the FCC can reclaim that authority.
Right now, the agency tasked with ensuring the public’s ability to communicate is unable to operate at its full capacity. This is a profound liability in a time of multiple crises, when connecting with one another is essential.
The Senate must confirm Gigi Sohn without further delay. The FCC has a lot of work to do, and a dwindling number of days to do so. Senate Democrats cannot allow these democracy-subverting tactics to succeed.