Today, we’re just talking about a problem. That problem is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently short a commissioner, and the Biden administration and Senate Democrats just can’t seem to get that seat filled despite having nominated an amazingly qualified person. Her name is Gigi Sohn. The inability to get Gigi confirmed at the FCC has left the commission deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans. That means the commission in charge of regulating all telecom in the United States, including how you get your internet service, is unable to get much done. And the Biden administration can’t accomplish some of its biggest policy priorities, like expanding rural broadband and restoring net neutrality. President Biden first nominated Gigi Sohn to the FCC over a year ago, but the full Senate vote to confirm her just hasn’t happened.
We’ve been digging into this story for a few months now, trying to figure out what’s going on here, and we found a simple but really frustrating answer.
“It’s corruption. I mean, we can call it a lot of things, but what we’re witnessing is just ordinary corruption,” Karl Bode told us. Karl is a veteran telecom reporter. I’ve known him forever, and he is one of many people we talked to for this story.
We’re doing something a little different with this episode of Decoder. You’re going to hear from a bunch of in-the-know people about what happened to Gigi Sohn’s FCC nomination and why it matters. This story has strange crisscross alliances, behemoth bad actors, shady politicking, and even some good old-fashioned family drama. But most of all, it reveals a lot about the huge problems plaguing politics and policy in the United States today. Karl again: “I’ve covered the telecom sector for I think 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite as shady as this.”
And just so you know, here’s a list of people and organizations we reached out to about this episode of Decoder who refused to speak to us on the record: Fox News, Comcast, the Fraternal Order of Police, former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Republican Senator Roy Blunt, the Biden administration, Verizon, the former Speaker of the Arizona House Republican Kirk Adams, former Democratic US Senator Heidi Heitkamp, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, and FCC nominee Gigi Sohn. It’s a wild one.
Okay, the fight over Gigi Sohn’s nomination to the FCC and why it matters. Here we go.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
This story ends up revealing corruption, but it starts with good old-fashioned confusion.
Karl Bode: It makes no sense that this has been such a protracted nomination process.
That’s Karl Bode again, talking about Gigi Sohn.
Karl Bode: The thing that’s funny to me is that if you talk to anybody in telecom policy on both sides of the aisle, she’s extremely popular. She’s well-qualified. We’ve seen people appointed to the FCC that have a tiny, tiny fraction of the experience.
I agree with Karl, and that’s why I started tracking this story. I have interviewed Gigi before, and she has even written for The Verge in the past — always about making internet service better and cheaper for regular people. So I have been baffled as to why someone like Gigi Sohn couldn’t get confirmed to the FCC.
Gigi was nominated to the FCC over a year ago, and throughout her career, she has been popular with just about everyone. She is known as an incredibly talented telecom regulator who has been willing to work across the aisle.
Gigi Sohn: Thank you, Chair Cantwell, Member Wicker, members of the Committee. I’m honored to be nominated by President Biden and to be considered by this committee for a seat on the Federal Communications Commission.
Here’s Gigi talking about her background at her first confirmation hearing in December 2021.
Gigi Sohn: The radio was always on in my family kitchen, where reports from the front lines of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other critical events of the sixties and seventies resonated. It was there that I learned the power of communications networks to inform public discourse and promote democratic values. My love of local broadcasting, and especially radio, led me to Boston University, where I studied Communications Law and Policy. After school and private practice, I started what has been an over-30-year career as a public interest lawyer advocating for policies that ensure that modern communications networks are available to everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live.
Gigi is a lawyer by training. She is currently a fellow at Georgetown Law and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. She co-founded and ran Public Knowledge, an organization that advocates for consumers in the telecom industry and I have talked with lots of people from Public Knowledge over the years. Given that the FCC is supposed to advocate for consumers, she seemed like a natural choice to be a commissioner. Plus, she has worked at the FCC before; she advised former chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration when the FCC adopted its strongest-ever net neutrality rules.
Makena Kelly: Here’s the thing, when you talk to people about Gigi, if you were talking to them — Republicans, Democrats — a year ago, maybe a little over a year ago, everyone loved her.
That was Makena Kelly, a politics reporter on the Verge team. Telecom lawyer David Goodfriend said something similar.
David Goodfriend: Thousands of people have actually reached out to their members of Congress to say, “We need you to confirm Gigi Sohn.”
So did Craig Aaron, the co-CEO of Free Press, which advocates for competition in media and an open internet. Here is some of what he had to say about Gigi.
“She’s been a consistent advocate for what’s right time and time again, and she’s shown she can work with just about anybody across the political spectrum.”
Craig Aaron: She’s been a consistent advocate for what’s right time and time again, and she’s shown she can work with just about anybody across the political spectrum — public interest, corporate interest, you name it, to get good things done. That’s the kind of person you need at an agency like the FCC.
One more person expressed his support for Gigi. Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax — yes, conservative cable network Newsmax — is a vocal supporter of Gigi’s nomination.
Chris Ruddy: I’ve strongly supported her nomination. I’ve known her for some time. I think she’s a person of integrity. We probably disagree on a lot of issues. In fact, I know we disagree on any number of big issues. She would probably identify herself as liberal, maybe progressive, and I would say I’m conservative.
Am I going to agree with her on every issue? No, but I do think that the fact that every major big company, all the big conglomerates, don’t like her suggests that maybe she’s on a path that’s at least going to look out a little bit more for the consumer and the little guy and gal, so to speak.
You’ll hear more from Chris Ruddy later. Okay, if many people on both sides of the aisle love Gigi, why can’t she get confirmed to the FCC?
When we first started looking into this story earlier this year, it seemed like the Biden administration and its slim Democratic majority in the Senate just couldn’t get this done, because, at the time, it really couldn’t get much of anything done. A lot of the Democrats’ biggest policy priorities were stalling out. Then, around the summer, things changed.
News anchor: … where there appears to be a breakthrough on President Biden’s economic agenda.
News anchor: President Biden signed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act into law today.
A flurry of big legislation passed.
News anchor: You’ve got the CHIPS Act the President signed today, the PACT Act, which he’ll sign here tomorrow, and then by the end of the week, the Inflation Reduction Act.
The usual holdouts like Senators Manchin and Sinema got on board and the Dems were getting things done.
News anchor: The biggest US investment ever to help fight climate change passing the House, the Inflation Reduction Act now headed to the President’s desk.
There was still no movement on Gigi. It was around this time that we finally got to the bottom of why.
David Goodfriend: Gigi Sohn is a manifestation of a much bigger tug-of-war going on right now between a very small number of extremely powerful corporate interests and the public interest.
That’s David Goodfriend, the telecom lawyer again. David previously worked at the FCC, and he has also known Gigi for a long time.
David Goodfriend: There are really two companies that have been literally financing a campaign to stop the Senate from confirming Gigi Sohn, and those two companies are Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation and Comcast. Those two companies have paid for lobbyists to actively court swing votes in the Senate against Gigi Sohn.
We promised crisscrossed alliances and here they are. Rupert Murdoch, who controls Fox News and The Wall Street Journal parent company News Corp, is on the same side as the Roberts family and Comcast, which owns MSNBC. These are not your usual allies.
It’s bizarre that Comcast and the Fox News machine have teamed up to obstruct Gigi, and they’re doing it in two politically critical states.
David Goodfriend: Comcast hired a lobbyist in West Virginia who used to serve as chief of staff to Senator Manchin back when Senator Manchin was governor. Senator Manchin has not said one way or the other which way he intends to vote, and that’s because his former chief of staff was hired by Comcast to lobby him against Gigi.
The same thing happened in Arizona, home of centrist Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
David Goodfriend: Back in January, Comcast hired a lobbyist in Arizona named Kirk Adams of Consilium Consulting. And Adams filed a lobbying disclosure, which of course he’s required to do, and it lists on his very own disclosure that he expects to work on FCC nominations. He then quickly recanted that and replaced it with telecommunications policy.
Well, Comcast refused to comment, but I think the article in Ars Technica points out that this was pretty clearly an attempt by Comcast to swing Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s vote against Gigi Sohn. They’ve done it in Arizona, they’ve done it in West Virginia, and they’re hoping that they can stave off enough Democratic votes in the Senate to stop her from being confirmed.
This is where I should disclose that Comcast’s NBCUniversal division is a minority investor in The Verge’s parent company of Vox Media, which we disclose all the time. Anyway, while Comcast was busy lobbying politicians, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, which are both owned by Rupert Murdoch, were actively running negative stories about Gigi. Karl Bode told us about this too.
“None of these are supported by any facts that you can find if you spend 30 minutes objectively researching her record.”
Karl Bode: All of the Fox properties have been very active in pushing things, ideas — false ideas like Sohn hates the police, she’d be bad for rural America, she wants to censor conservatives, she’s bad for media diversity. None of these are supported by any facts that you can find if you spend 30 minutes objectively researching her record.
Here are just a couple Fox News segments about Gigi. You will hear one Fox anchor talking to Ted Cruz, and another Fox guest referencing the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party.
News anchor: What do you think of this woman, Gigi? The name sounds a little funky, and the glasses make me think twice, but she seems like she has a radical agenda. Now she’s in charge of this place?
Sen. Ted Cruz: Yeah. Look, she hates Fox News. She has been vocal and partisan a long time.
News guest: Looking up the word “hack” in the dictionary, Gigi Sohn’s photo should be right next to it. She wants to pull the broadcast license of this network. Gigi Sohn will turn the FCC into the CCP, and this is a bridge even Pyongyang wouldn’t go over.
Part of the argument on Fox News is that if Gigi is added to the FCC, she’ll somehow censor Fox. But there’s no evidence that she has any plans to do that at all. Even if she wanted to, it’s not like she could, because that is not a power the FCC has. In fact, the more likely outcome is the opposite: that she would encourage Fox to say whatever they want.
Katharine Trendacosta: I don’t even understand that argument because Gigi is pretty infamously in favor of free expression online, and the FCC has no control over that.
That is Katharine Trendacosta from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Katharine Trendacosta: That’s not really its job, especially when it comes to telecommunications. The FCC doesn’t tell phone companies that if you make a lewd phone call, they have to cut you off of phone service. That’s the same bucket that the internet is under, right? So, none of that is related to anything. The FCC is not involved in deciding what speech is or is not allowed on the internet, at least.
There is a long and complicated tangent we could go down here. Basically, the Supreme Court has held that since the public owns the airwaves in the United States, the government can regulate broadcast speech to make sure it’s in the public interest. That’s where you get the FCC doing things like indecency complaints, the seven dirty words, and fines for Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl. Traditional broadcast networks like ABC and CBS are using the public’s airwaves, and the government can tell them what’s allowed and what’s not. Cable networks like Fox and internet companies like Google and Facebook don’t broadcast on public airwaves, so there is really no legal basis for the FCC to regulate what happens there.
Katharine Trendacosta: TV and the radio — those are public airwaves that the FCC has granted people permission to use. And so they have certain rules about that, because anyone could listen and it’s a public space. However, as we all know, if you’re on cable, those rules don’t apply because that’s not a public airwave that has been licensed out. It’s basically that. It’s the difference between something that is a publicly owned airwave and something that is privately owned.
Despite that reality, Fox News is out there saying, “Watch out for a Democratic FCC commissioner. She’ll censor your speech.” And this smear campaign has extended across the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s media properties.
We did reach out to News Corp, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal, and in an email, News Corp chief communications officer Jim Kennedy denied a coordinated attack. He told us, “The Wall Street Journal and its editorial board speak for themselves. News Corp did not lobby for or against the nomination.”
There’s a lot of pearl-clutching over stray tweets.
Despite this denial of a coordinated attack against Gigi Sohn, The Wall Street Journal and Fox News are still attacking her.
Craig Aaron: There’s a lot of like, “oh my God,” pearl-clutching over stray tweets.
That’s Craig Aaron again.
Craig Aaron: What you see is a lot of quotes taken out of context, a lot of essentially front groups, like organizations that take a lot of money from big telecom and big cable interests, coming out with push polls.
A push poll is a poll with very suggestive questions that basically trick people into agreeing with anything you want.
Craig Aaron: Like, “Oh, I think the police are very concerned because Gigi once said something about encryption,” or questioning her stance on rural America and parsing quotes out of context. And suddenly, you see it in an ad, and then it’s on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and then it pops up over here. And then all of a sudden, a lot of people who literally live to take company money to smear people on their behalf, start raising their hand and trying out and saying, “Oh, I could also say mean things about this candidate.” And you start to get this noise floor that then reaches policymakers and decisionmakers.
Craig mentioned a Wall Street Journal op-ed, but there have been several Journal opinion pieces, including one by the editorial board with headlines like, “A Media Censor for the FCC?” “Hyperpartisan Gigi Sohn Doesn’t Belong at the FCC,” and my favorite, “Gigi Sohn and the Police: Democratic senators are at risk if they vote for Biden’s progressive FCC nominee.”
The police thing is something else, by the way. The Fraternal Order of Police published a press release about a poll it commissioned, claiming that, “When shown messaging about Gigi Sohn’s past actions such as, ‘Gigi Sohn has publicly supported defunding the police,’” — they mean liking tweets — “61 percent of registered voters indicate that they are less likely to support Ms. Sohn’s nomination.” We asked for more information about the specific questions on this poll, but the Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment.
Another thing that has added fuel to the “Gigi is anti-police” fire is that she is also on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF. You have already heard from Katharine Trendacosta of EFF. The EFF opposes tech companies turning user information over to the police, and well, the police don’t like that very much.
What Senate Republicans have really grabbed onto are the tweets Craig mentioned. In 2020, Gigi tweeted, “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?” Gigi was asked about that one at her first confirmation hearing by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican.
Sen. Roy Blunt: I’ve got a list of comments here about Fox News. Are you biased against them?
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m pretty direct.“
Gigi Sohn: You are referring to my tweets that are now pretty famous. I understand they’re concerning to some, and anyone who knows me knows I’m pretty direct. But they were made in my role as a public interest advocate. They were made in the context — and I think context is very important — context of hearings, hearings and media reports. You know, maybe the tone was a little sharper. Maybe I should have dulled it a little bit. But again, it was part of my job, essentially, as a public interest advocate.
Sen. Roy Blunt: And do you think they’re the only news agency that is state-sponsored propaganda? That’s your quote, by the way.
Gigi Sohn: Yeah, I know it’s my quote, yeah. Just to complete my thought. My opinions as a public interest advocate will have no bearing on how I behave as a policymaker if I’m confirmed.
Another shady actor joining Comcast and the Murdochs on the anti-Gigi team was the American Accountability Foundation. The AAF is a whole other tangent we could go on. Jane Mayer did great reporting on them in The New Yorker, but basically, they’re a totally mysterious dark money group. No one knows where their funding comes from, but their sole explicit purpose is to smear and obstruct Biden nominees.
They come up with wild narratives, especially about lesser-known nominees, and push them until they catch on with conservatives. You might have seen that Majorie Taylor Greene made the baseless accusation that then-Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson had been lenient on sex offenders during her time as a US district court judge and even called her “pro-pedophile.” It was the AAF that started peddling that story. And Gigi has been on their hit list too — she’s on the front page of AAF’s smear website BidenNoms.com.
While all this external shadiness was going on to make noise about Gigi’s nomination, a bunch of procedural stuff was happening inside the Senate chambers. Lots of boxes need to be checked for a nominee to be confirmed to the FCC. First, the president nominates someone. President Biden took office in January 2021, and he moved quickly on some progressive nominations, like the appointment of Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission. But he didn’t move on the open FCC slot. So by the time he first nominated Gigi in October of 2021, the telecom-driven propaganda machine had had plenty of time to gear up, bracing itself to obstruct the confirmation.
The Senate Commerce Committee held Gigi’s first confirmation hearing in December 2021; you have already heard some clips from it. At these hearings, different senators on a committee interview the nominee, and then the committee votes on the nominee. If they vote yes, the nomination goes to the Senate floor, where a majority of all US senators have to vote “yes” to get the nominee confirmed. Likely because of all of the lobbying in opposition to Gigi, the committee failed to advance her nomination to the floor for a confirmation vote, and her nomination expired. So then Biden had to renominate Gigi in January of this year, and she had a second confirmation hearing in February. As you might have imagined, the Republicans came out swinging in this one.
Sen. Dan Sullivan: I don’t even know where to begin here. I too am very disturbed with, Miss Sohn, with your tweets.
Sen. Mike Lee: If you’re trying to force the hand of the agency of the law-making body of the federal government, by doing that which only Congress can do, how is that constitutional?
Sen. Dan Sullivan: Damn. That’s way out there. Do you think most Republicans are racists and white supremacists?
Sen. Ted Cruz: And I’ve got to say, Ms. Sohn, the timing of the settlement stinks.
Sen. Dan Sullivan: I don’t see how you can be unbiased. It seems to me you have conflicts everywhere, and that makes your impartiality, not to mention your judgment — I think you have very big issues with judgment given your previous tweets.
Eventually, despite all this, Gigi won the committee’s vote, and her nomination went to the Senate floor. But there still hasn’t been a floor vote to confirm her to the FCC even though she was nominated over a year ago.
So, why didn’t the Biden administration push for a floor vote that would’ve led to Gigi’s confirmation? They chose not to — at least not publicly.
Makena Kelly actually asked Senator Schumer about this earlier this month.
Makena Kelly: What is happening with Gigi Sohn? Should we expect her to be confirmed?
Sen. Chuck Schumer: What’s happening?
Makena Kelly: Nothing.
Sen. Chuck Schumer: Well, right now, the administration is working on getting the votes for her. They’re not there yet, but they’re pushing hard to get the votes.
Here’s Karl Bode.
Karl Bode: From what I understand, there were some concerns that the nomination of Gigi Sohn early on would’ve conflicted with their efforts to pass the infrastructure bill. I think they were concerned that any controversy around the nomination of a progressive reformer might cause some additional ripples in efforts to get the votes lined up for infrastructure. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, but from what I understand that was the thinking of some of the advisers that went into the delay.
So it sounds like passing that flurry of legislation was prioritized over Gigi’s nomination, but we’re not really sure. There was some noise that a vote might happen before the Senate’s Fourth of July recess, but now it’s November, and the midterms are in just a few days.
Karl Bode: Comcast was really active in states where Democrats were vulnerable in the midterms.
Karl told us that Comcast and other members of Gigi’s opposition have specifically targeted Democrats in red or purple states who are worried about getting reelected, spooking those vulnerable Democrats from supporting Gigi. That’s how Republicans and big telecom ground things to a halt, and there was some help from Democrats along the way.
“I don’t care how far you have to dig, it’s not based on anything close to fact.“
Karl Bode: I’ve seen like — Heidi Heitkamp, she’s a former Democratic senator who I think is running a little PAC that I think the telecom industry is feeding, spreading the idea that Sohn is really bad for rural America. It’s bipartisan. I think it’s a little heavier on the right-wing side since they pretty much have a unified blockade against her nomination, but it is bipartisan. The whole Heidi Heitkamp project is basically suggesting that she’s terrible for rural America, which again, I don’t care how far you have to dig, it’s not based on anything close to fact.
Here’s the thing though. Yes, the opposition to Gigi comes from both sides, but so does the support.
Gigi has long worked with right-wing news networks that compete with Fox News to make cable systems like Comcast more competitive. She worked with Charles Herring, the president of right-wing One America News Network (OAN), to get his other channel WealthTV onto big cable systems by filing complaints against them. And she worked with Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy to oppose the merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media Group, which would have consolidated broadcasting to 73 percent of US households. These are competition concerns, not speech regulations.
So when Gigi was first nominated, Ruddy offered his support for her nomination. You heard from him at the top. Chris runs Newsmax, one of the most conservative news outlets in the country. Here’s more from our conversation with him.
Chris Ruddy: I can tell you a few years back, I opposed the merger of Sinclair television stations with Tribune, which would’ve created a massive television network that reached 80 percent and had control over the market of 80 percent of US television homes.
That statistic is actually closer to 73 percent.
Chris Ruddy: I opposed it and she opposed it. And so I think where we find common interest is that I tend to support even Democrats that support the issues that I care about.
There’s been a lot of commentary about Gigi in particular that says she is in support of speech regulations. It seems like you’re more worried about competition issues. Are you at all worried about her speech or her tweets, I suppose?
“I don’t think that she’s ever called for closing down any conservative or any other media that I’m aware of.”
Chris Ruddy: I’m actually worried about speech issues, but I don’t think that she’s ever called for closing down any conservative or any other media that I’m aware of. You know, the criticism of Gigi is that she once said during the [Facebook] hearings after the election, I think in a tweet, she suggested there should be hearings about Fox News. Okay. And I think that she said it was “Trump TV” or something. Well, conservatives have said similar things about CNN and called CNN the “Clinton News Network” or “state-run TV” at one point, I remember. So, you know, it’s political rhetoric.
She never, ever called for deplatforming. I know that when I had the issue after the election, people were calling for Newsmax to be de-platformed, we strongly, vigorously had to defend ourselves and she was sympathetic — even thought she didn’t agree with us — to our viewpoint that we should have the right to broadcast and exist on the internet, cable, and OTT streaming platforms.
Where do you think the opposition to Gigi’s confirmation comes from?
Chris Ruddy: Well, I think a lot of it is that she’s been a fairly progressive activist, so that’s given an easy target for Fox in this very highly polarized world. She’s also been a very strong supporter of net neutrality. Now, I don’t personally like the idea that the government should regulate the internet, but I do believe that it should be an open platform, and I do like the basic concept behind net neutrality, which is that no company can squelch or limit other players on the internet in their access to broadband.
And we’ve seen it happen on the internet where Newsmax is being limited or algorithms have been used against us by places like Facebook and Twitter and other places. So it’s very concerning to me that some major broadband provider could start squelching access to the Newsmax stream. Now, we’re not aware of that happening, but I think protections need to be in place. So I’m basically in favor of a concept that’s similar to net neutrality, but it became such a highly polarized issue, net neutrality —
Chris Ruddy: I think conservatives actually should support it, but liberals were the ones to sort of back the idea. Again, not the full regulatory concept behind it, but a robust idea that everybody should have access to the internet and it should be like a utility.
The other player here is Fox News, which really opposes Sohn’s nomination. Do you think that they’re pushing against her because they don’t want you to compete with them on Comcast and other cable networks?
Chris Ruddy: The cable industry’s a bit of a racket, and the big broadcast companies are part of the racket and they benefit from it. The people that get screwed are the consumers, the cable customers. And so the way the racket works is if you own a lot of television stations that a local cable company needs — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox affiliates — they basically have you over a barrel because if they don’t give you your channel, people are going to go to another cable system, right?
So now they put a gun to your head and they say, “We want huge fees for the local network affiliate. We have five other channels we want you to put on your basic channel guide, and we want you to pay us for those channels.” And there should be a requirement at the FCC that big broadcast companies can’t demand that local cable operators take their package of channels and put them on. And what’s happened is it’s driven up consumer costs, which affects me and everyone else that’s buying cable. But also if I’m an independent cable operator, I can’t get cable carriage, or it’s very difficult because so much of the bandwidth and the channel guide is taken up by all of these conglomerate broadcast television companies.
So Fox has really milked the system and they’ve been a big beneficiary, and they just want to keep that system going. As a side benefit, they also reduce the potential of Newsmax.
Everybody’s so afraid of Fox. They will seek to destroy you personally if you go against them. So a lot of people just are quiet about it.
“Everybody’s so afraid of Fox.”
Have you talked to anyone in the Biden administration or Senator Schumer about Gigi’s nomination and where it stands? Have you pushed for it?
Chris Ruddy: I wouldn’t discuss who I personally have chatted with or what particular agency. I can tell you that I have talked to both Democrats and Republicans. But we still support Gigi Sohn for the FCC commissioner.
So Ruddy and Newsmax continue to support Gigi Sohn’s nomination, but something weird is going on at their big competitor, another far-right news channel, OAN.
OAN president Charles Herring released a statement supporting Gigi in December of 2021, laying out reasons very similar to Chris Ruddy. But then his dad, OAN CEO Robert Herring, rebuked his son for endorsing her on the OAN airwaves. Here are some bits from that broadcast, but let me set them up for you. First, an OAN anchor calls Gigi “an enemy of the First Amendment,” then reporter Pearson Sharp interviews Robert Herring. Here is some of that conversation.
Pearson Sharp: Sohn is one of the most extreme leftists anywhere in Washington. In fact, she’s not just a radical leftist, she’s a Marxist who has absolutely no regard for free speech or the Constitution. Gigi is an enemy of the free press. Where do you stand on her nomination? Do you or does One America News support Gigi Sohn’s nomination?
Robert Herring: Well, this is why I had to come on. My son came out and supported her, but the company itself is not supporting him. At that point, I had to come out and explain that there’s no way this company would ever support her, and no way I’ll ever let it happen. How my son decided he wanted to, I don’t know, I think that because we worked with her for — not really worked with her, but we’ve known her since about 2003 or 2004, and she’s never done anything for us. My son’s out there saying that the company [supports her], but there’s no way. She shouldn’t be anywhere near the FCC, as far as I’m concerned.
Pearson Sharp: Now I know that you personally reached out to Fox News to offer your support, didn’t you?
Robert Herring: I did. I called a couple of people over there that are very high and told them, “I’m sorry,” and that we’ll try and straighten it out, and that we should never have backed her.
That’s a lot of groveling to Fox News. I mean, wow.
So we’ve talked about who has opposed Gigi and how, but why? Why has big telecom gone to such lengths to oppose Gigi’s nomination? David Goodfriend explained to us.
David Goodfriend: Rupert Murdoch and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts are determined not to let the Senate confirm Gigi. Why is that? It all comes down to their business. Comcast is in the broadband business and they don’t want the government telling them what to do, so they don’t like net neutrality. In fact, they’ve really campaigned against net neutrality. The Obama administration put in place the strongest rules ever to preserve an open internet, and Comcast went to war. The manifestation of that war is their determination not to have Gigi Sohn confirmed in the Senate.
Rupert Murdoch wants to buy more properties, he doesn’t like a lot of attention to which broadcast stations he owns or which streaming services he owns, and yet Gigi Sohn has been very clear that she thinks there should be limits on the amount of concentration of media ownership. These two billionaires have decided that they’re trying to stop Gigi Sohn.
Karl said something similar, mentioning that telecom wants to prevent the FCC from getting an active and engaged commissioner like the FTC got with Lina Khan.
Karl Bode: I think there’s a real aversion amongst these telecom giants. They really don’t want a progressive reformer in there who’s willing to shake things up in any degree. They enjoyed pretty much a captured FCC for four years under Trump, and now they’ve enjoyed an FCC for another two years that basically lacks the voting majority to do anything remotely controversial or anything that the public has demanded that their representatives do. It’s corruption. I mean, we can call it a lot of things, but what we’re witnessing is just ordinary corruption. It gets justified and dressed up as something more intellectually complicated, but it is just corruption.
Verge policy reporter Makena Kelly reiterated this as well.
Biden has made it clear that he wants to restore net neutrality, and you can’t do that unless there’s three Democratic commissioners at the FCC.
Makena Kelly: What they really care about the most — why you keep it two to two — is because Biden has made it clear that he wants to restore net neutrality, and you can’t do that unless there’s three Democratic commissioners at the agency.
Makena also gave us another example of the kind of problems that arise when the FCC is at a stalemate and largely unable to take action against big telecom.
Makena Kelly: The Biden administration struck a deal with a bunch of telecoms — Comcast, Verizon, AT&T — to basically either lower their lowest broadband plans or make them cheaper so low-income families would have better access to the internet, and that had nothing to do with the FCC, really. It’s the Affordable Connectivity Program that was passed through Congress, of course, but it was just deals that they struck with these companies. It was just a private market solution.
One of the things that really struck me about those deals is that immediately thereafter, Verizon increased its rates. So they got money from the government and then they increased their rates for their other subscribers. It seems like that’s the sort of thing a functional FCC would be in charge of, but at two to two, it seems like they can’t really do much of anything.
AT&T gave us this statement: “We have long supported an open internet, and any suggestion otherwise is wrong. We have not taken a position on Gigi Sohn’s nomination, have not asked any third-party organization to take a position, and have not funded any campaigns against her nomination.”
With the FCC in its current state, big telecom isn’t really being regulated — and that is by big telecom’s design, as we’ve heard. But there are other consequences of this weakened FCC.
One is that the FCC isn’t at full strength to improve access to the internet in rural and underprivileged areas. This was particularly problematic during the pandemic when people depended on reliable internet at home for just about everything. Craig Aaron from Free Press also emphasized how the need to close the digital divide became even more urgent when the pandemic hit.
Craig Aaron: The Federal Communications Commission is the place that sets the rules for how these companies are going to operate — whether they can rip you off, what your choices are going to be, is there going to be real competition. The FCC has a big role to play. It actually has a lot of power over shaping the kind of internet we’re going to have. Is it just going to be Facebook? Is it just going to be dominated by a few players? Or are we actually going to get back to talking about big open pipes that make anything possible? That is the promise, the original promise of the internet.
In fact, the current chair of the FCC herself, Jessica Rosenworcel, talked to us about this on The Vergecast during the pandemic.
Jessica Rosenworcel: I think we need a nationwide plan for addressing the digital divide. As a nation, we need a policy that addresses how we’re going to connect all of us and what are the plans we want in place to make sure it happens.
So what’s going to happen to Gigi Sohn’s confirmation into the FCC? There are three possible outcomes here. The most likely scenario is the vote will happen in the lame duck period between November and January, when new senators have been elected but haven’t yet taken office. Several other FCC commissioners — Simington, Carr, Tate, and Edelstein — were confirmed during the lame duck period, so it’s very possible this will happen.
Another outcome is that a floor vote on Gigi happens next year with a new Senate.
The third possible outcome is that Gigi never gets a vote, the Biden administration gives up and puts forth a new nominee who’s more amenable to big telecom. Karl Bode told us he’s worried that might happen, but David Goodfriend offered us a silver lining.
David Goodfriend: Well, in some ways, it’s a very sad commentary on the outsized influence of a few multi-billion-dollar companies on our politics and our public policy. But on the other hand, I’ve really felt inspired by the amount of support that Gigi is getting, because it’s very rare that you see such a diverse coalition on anything right now.
I mean, think about it. Newsmax, one of the most conservative news outlets in the United States, supports her. The Communications Workers of America, a labor union, supports her. And thousands and thousands of individual Americans have gone out of their way to tell their senators, “We support her. We like her.” When’s the last time you found an issue like that in today’s Washington? It’s rare. So it’s inspiring to see how much support there really is for her, and I think she’ll be confirmed, because she’s shown that she has the mettle for it.
Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen with Gigi’s nomination. Obviously, it’s too late to get it done before the midterms — they’re just a few days away. But I do know that if no one fills the seat at the FCC at all, there will be no meaningful change to net neutrality, no push to close the digital divide, no emphasis on creating more competition for broadband access. There will just be a lot of nothing.
I also know that Americans pay more money for slower broadband than just about every other country in the world because we have utterly failed to regulate our ISPs, and that is a big problem.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast from The Verge about big ideas and other problems.