Why Is Media Justice Such a Hard Fight? See: Meredith Atwell Baker

The revolving door between policymakers and the companies they regulate has rarely swung so brazenly as it has for the outgoing FCC commissioner.

By Jamilah King May 19, 2011

It’s been over a week since Republican FCC Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker announced that she’s jumping ship to take a high-profile job as a top lobbyist with NBC Universal, just months after working to approve a massive merger between the industry’s biggest content provider and arguably its largest distribution platform. The move was just the latest example of policymakers taking jobs with the companies they are supposed to be regulating, but its brazenness revealed how steep of a hill organizers have had to climb in trying to protect equal access to media platforms for communities of color in recent years.

Baker announced that she’s leaving the commission when her term expires at the end of June to take a position as senior vice president of governmental affairs at NBC Universal, which was acquired by Comcast in January.

The announcement has sparked widespread anger in the progressive media reform community, with media watchdog Free Press suggesting that the regulatory agency itself has merged with one of the industry’s biggest companies. "The immediate story is what Baker’s move says about the ethnical rot in our governing class," Ryan Chittum wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review. "And the ease with which they move back and forth between regulating companies and working for them, even after the Obama administration toughened rules on lobbying after leaving the government."

Baker’s departure comes at a critical moment for the FCC. For the past several years, the commission’s been under intense scrutiny over whether and how to regulate the country’s quickly expanding communications infrastructure. President Obama has continually stressed the importance of technological advancement in everything from education to immigration reform. And how the country chooses to manage its communications has already had a vital impact on communities of color; as the country’s social and economic services move online, users of color are doing all that they can to keep up.

But while Baker’s departure may be bold, it’s not surprising. "The truth is that [this] happens all the time, we just have a very short memory," says Jonathan Askin, a policy strategist who’s worked in both the public and private sectors and currently teaches telecommunications law at Brooklyn Law School.

Here’s a primer on why what’s unfolding at the FCC is a big deal.

What Does the FCC Do?

The Federal Communications Commission is the independent regulatory agency charged with overseeing the country’s communications infrastructure. That’s included everything from the development of radio and American film in the 1910’s and 20’s to the introduction of consumer cable television in the 1970’s. More recently, it’s had its hands full with deciding if and how to regulate the Internet. 

In December, the commission released its lukewarm and long-awaited net neutrality rules, which are meant to keep the Web free from industry intervention. Media justice advocates have worked intensely in recent years to protect the Web as an equal-access platform for community media, political organizers and individual artists trying to compete for space alongside corporate media behemoths. Colorlines’ publisher, the Applied Research Center, has been part of a coalition representing communities of color in that fight.

The bipartisan commission is staffed by a total of five lawmakers, including a commissioner who’s appointed by the president. The current roster includes Democrats Mignon Clyburn, Michael Copps and Chair Julius Genachowski. On the Republican side are Commissioners Robert McDowell and, of course, Baker.

Votes for and against telcom policy almost always fall along party lines. Democrats tend to argue that more stringent regulation is better for consumers, who must be protected from profit-driven telecom companies. Republicans generally argue the opposite, and say that the more freedom you give companies, the more likely they are to compete with one another, drive down consumer prices, and create jobs. Though the Internet is still relatively new, the Republican argument hasn’t exactly turned out to be true.

Why Is Baker’s Departure So Important?

Baker certainly isn’t the first person to skirt the line between lawmaker and lobbyist. The Center for Responsive Politics notes that over a third of the 120 lawmakers who left Congress after the last election took lobbying jobs. An editorial in the New York Times reminds the world that Former FCC Chair Kevin Martin joined the lobbying firm Patton Boggs after stepping down in 2009. Martin led the commission under former President George W. Bush through what was arguably one of the more vehemently anti-regulatory periods of its recent history. And Askin cites the case of Dennis Patrick, a former Reagan-era FCC Chair who aggressively deregulated the agency before stepping down in 1989 and soon after began selling spectrum to telecommunications companies.

But for many industry watchdogs, Baker’s departure from the commission represents all that is wrong with government: a revolving door in which the same people who create–or reject–the rules go on to work for the companies charged with following them. Baker’s departure appears to be more brazen than most. She played a key role in the commission’s eventual approval of a controversial and deeply consequential merger between Comcast and NBC Universal–not only voting to approve the $30 billion deal, but later loudly criticizing the fact that it took the commission nearly a year to approve it.

What’s Next for the FCC?

In the immediate job, Baker will remain on the FCC until June. The commission must also prepare for the departure of Democrat Michael Copps, who’s voiced strong support for more industry regulation and was strongly in favor of net neutrality rules. Askin believes that both departures could work in Chair Genachowski’s favor, because he will likely face less internal opposition from both sides of the regulate-or-don’t regulate spectrum.

Yet there’s a much bigger question of how to avoid blurring the line between lobbying and lawmaking. "I would love to see a movement to make one of those spots [on the FCC] clearly the position of a consumer advocate," Askin says, noting that the position could be similar to head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Rather than having to hope that the commissioners will care about consumers, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were one commissioner designated as the spokesperson for the consumer," he says. "You tap academia, think tanks–not industry."