Senate Republicans are planning a strong fight against President Biden’s nomination of consumer advocate Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission. “I will do everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote in a Twitter thread yesterday.
Sohn has a longtime career in government policy, having co-founded consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge in 2001. In 2013, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler chose Sohn to serve as a counselor, and the FCC proceeded to adopt Title II common-carrier and net neutrality regulations for Internet service providers—rules that were later overturned during the Trump administration. Since leaving the FCC, Sohn has continued to push for strict regulations to protect telecom consumers.
“For over thirty years, Gigi has worked to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open, and protective of user privacy,” the White House said in its announcement of Sohn’s nomination on October 26.
Sohn’s support of consumer protection regulations was obviously going to put her at odds with Senate Republicans, but conservatives are also claiming she’ll use the FCC to censor them. Somewhat surprisingly, the argument that Sohn will censor conservatives relies partly on one instance in which she agreed with Ajit Pai, as we’ll explain later in this article.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune criticized Sohn, telling Politico that “she’s going to be a heavy hand in regulation, very heavy in net neutrality.” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the Commerce Committee that will evaluate the nomination, said that Sohn’s nomination is “more problematic” than the re-nomination of Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and that Sohn’s past statements and positions “could prove to be of concern to members of the committee.”
The Thune and Wicker remarks were pretty tame, but Graham ratcheted up the rhetoric by suggesting in his Twitter thread that Sohn is “unqualified” or a “hack.”
“While I have been deferential to all presidents when it comes to picking their team, I have also pushed back on unqualified nominees and hacks,” he wrote. “Gigi Sohn is a complete political ideologue who has disdain for conservatives. She would be a complete nightmare for the country when it comes to regulating the public airwaves.”
WSJ claims Sohn would be “media censor”
The only evidence provided by Graham was a link to a Wall Street Journal editorial, so let’s take a look at what the Wall Street Journal editorial board had to say about Sohn. The WSJ correctly pointed out that Sohn has called for the FCC to regulate Internet service providers more strictly by restoring net neutrality rules and imposing new limits on zero-rating and data caps, though the WSJ also credulously repeated the shaky claim that Wheeler’s net neutrality rules “caused broadband investment to decline.” But the Journal’s primary argument against Sohn, the one highlighted in both the editorial’s headline and sub-headline, is that Sohn will be a “media censor” who “wants more government control of the airwaves.”
It’s undeniable that Sohn wants the FCC to more aggressively protect broadband consumers, but the Journal didn’t provide conclusive evidence that Sohn would also try to use the FCC to censor conservatives. The WSJ editorial claimed that Sohn “hinted at deploying the agency’s regulatory power to censor conservative media and revive a version of its mooted fairness doctrine” and that “Sohn seems to believe that the state is endorsing conservative speech by allowing cable companies to carry it.” The WSJ’s evidence that Sohn would use the FCC to censor conservative media is a tweet about Fox News in which she suggested a congressional hearing but did not suggest any FCC action or even mention the FCC.
“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?” Sohn wrote in the October 2020 tweet, making a reference to a Senate hearing on Facebook held that day.
WSJ faults Sohn for agreeing with Ajit Pai
The WSJ editorial board also contended that Sohn “suggested using the FCC’s power over broadcast licenses to censor conservative outlets.” The editorial’s evidence for this claim is that in 2018, Sohn reacted positively to Tribune Media Company terminating its merger agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was trying to buy Tribune.
The Journal wrote:
After Tribune Broadcasting abandoned its merger with the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2018, she declared “Today is a good day for every American who believes that diversity of voices in the media is better for our democracy” and urged the FCC to “look at whether Sinclair is qualified to be a broadcast licensee at all.”
A key detail the Journal editorial did not mention is that the merger was opposed unanimously by the FCC’s then-Republican majority led by Chairman Pai, who found that Sinclair’s merger plan was likely illegal. All of the FCC commissioners including Pai and two other Republicans voted to refer the merger to an administrative law judge, a procedural move that essentially killed the deal.