A Smear Campaign Defeated Gigi Sohn. We Can't Let It Happen Again
After enduring endless attacks, Gigi Sohn withdrew her nomination to the Federal Communications Commission.
This ends a two-year fight to put an accomplished public servant in the important fifth seat at the FCC. In the end, after nearly 500 days, multiple confirmation hearings and a relentless industry-orchestrated campaign against her, Sohn didn’t have enough votes in the Senate to move forward.
I’m furious — and determined to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
The dirty campaign to stop Gigi Sohn
They’re celebrating today at Comcast and Fox, where their lobbyists deserve most of the credit for concocting lies to derail Sohn’s nomination. They falsely portrayed her as radical and divisive, even though her years of experience tell a different story — about a highly regarded expert who has reached across political divides to support communications policies that help people.
Republicans who willfully spread those lies are thrilled, too. Their campaign of vile dog whistles, homophobic innuendo and false outrage worked. In fact, it was too easy.
But they’re not the only ones to blame: The failure of Democratic leaders to defend their nominee cost the agency — and the nation — a true public servant. Their missteps and unforced errors were many.
From the start, infighting in the Biden administration delayed the nomination of a new FCC chair and commissioner for months — meaning Sohn wasn’t nominated until late October 2021 and then got little time during debates around the infrastructure bills. Instead of moving on this nomination right away, when the Biden team had the most political capital — they did it when they had the least.
Then Senate leaders made Sohn endure an unprecedented three confirmation hearings, giving the right-wing noise machine numerous opportunities to badger her while extracting zero concessions from the other side. Despite her composure in the hot seat, this stage let Sohn’s opponents test out numerous lines of attack. Sen. Ted Cruz got endless opportunities to fulminate about her random retweets, while Sen. J.D. Vance cosplayed as a culture warrior from his new perch on the Commerce Committee.
While the GOP ganged up on her, most Democrats sat back, either using their time on the dais to ask questions about their home states or repeat industry-written talking points. (Notable and laudable exceptions who came to Sohn’s defense include Sens. Ed Markey and Tammy Baldwin.)
Unfortunately, the failure of more Democratic senators to advocate for their own nominee means that companies like Comcast and Fox will likely only double-down in the future on the kinds of deceitful and dirty tactics they deployed against Sohn. What other lessons could they draw from how easily senators folded in the face of easily fact-checked lies and slanders? And what potential FCC nominee would want to subject themselves to this kind of character assassination?
A leadership failure
Neither the White House nor Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer succeeded in getting the votes Sohn needed when she got through committee and to the verge of a floor vote last year. They didn’t put enough pressure on holdout senators or create any real political costs for the holdouts’ refusal to back the administration’s nominees. Worse still, President Biden and Vice President Harris actually feted ISP execs in the Rose Garden — even as those same companies were sabotaging Sohn.
Without real pressure from the top, rank-and-file Democrats invented excuses for why they couldn’t vote before the midterms — and, once those were over, immediately recycled the same rationalizations about the 2024 election. As much as I might wish the FCC were a top-tier election issue, exactly zero swing voters are going to the polls thinking about Gigi Sohn. Yet multiple senators acted like a vote for their own party’s nominee could sink their reelection chances.
Politicians who should know better all of a sudden took seriously the disingenuous pay-to-slay attacks by sock-puppet front groups (including one led by former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, now on the corporate payroll). I’m not sure what’s worse: If they just made these excuses to placate corporate donors, or if they actually believed them.
What does it say when Democratic senators — like Sens. Cortez-Masto, Kelly, Rosen and Tester, who all failed to publicly support Sohn — take the specious claims of a disreputable group like the Fraternal Order of Police more seriously than they do the support of 400 of the nation’s largest civil-rights, civil-liberties, labor and public-interest groups? What does it mean when they don’t just let the lies fester but actually promote them? It says a lot about who they’re willing to fight for — and who they won’t.
The next battle
This defeat has implications that go far beyond the FCC.
The Republicans and their Democratic enablers are setting out markers for who’s allowed to serve in government. They made clear that public servants will be pilloried while ex-corporate lobbyists sail through. Women and LGBTQIA+ folks — Sohn would have been the first lesbian to serve as an FCC commissioner — will be slandered. Tweeting about police violence can be disqualifying (in the Senate, retweets do equal endorsements). Questioning the propriety of Fox News — even as it’s being exposed for aiding and abetting election lies and insurrection — is unacceptable. A basic understanding of U.S. history and racism may be disqualifying.
Of course, this is bad news for the FCC, too.
One of the best things the Biden administration has done since 2021 is securing $65 billion for broadband expansion. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been making the most of the hand she was dealt, but a deadlocked FCC makes it harder to implement and maintain those programs and spend those funds in the best way possible. Net Neutrality and the restoration of Title II will remain in limbo without a fifth vote at the agency. As Sohn herself wrote in the statement announcing her withdrawal: “It means that the FCC will not have a majority to adopt strong rules which ensure that everyone has nondiscriminatory access to broadband, regardless of who they are or where they live.”
At a moment when media and tech are intertwined with every facet of our lives, our politics and the very state of our democracy, this vital agency cannot fully do its job. Which is just how the industry wants it.
The next test is already here. The Biden administration needs to come up with a new nominee to the FCC, and it may be tempted to nominate an industry-friendly choice — someone who can “get through” and avoid a larger political fight. We must oppose and reject any return to business as usual that furthers industry capture of the FCC.
Instead, we need to demand an independent candidate with public-interest bona fides and a clear commitment to racial justice and civil rights. They must show they’re willing to stand up to lies. They must be unequivocal in their support for restoring the FCC’s authority, and making sure that the internet is open, affordable, available and reliable for everyone. They must demonstrate a commitment to engaging the public, not just meeting with lobbyists.
This loss stings. Gigi Sohn deserved better. But we cannot let the industry pick their regulators ever again.
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