Joe Biden’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the FCC, Gigi Sohn, faced a string of questions — from past tweets about Fox News to her role in the streaming service Locast — as she faced a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
While most nominees to the FCC get through with relatively little turbulence, Sohn’s longtime work as a public interest advocate often put her at odds with the broadcast and telecom industry, particularly on issues like media consolidation and net neutrality.
But some on the right, including Tucker Carlson, also have seized on some of her past tweets to claim that she would use her position to try to stifle conservative voices.
In the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Sohn responded to queries over some of her past tweets, including one from last year in which she wrote, “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?” The tweet was cited by The Wall Street Journal editorial page as a reason to oppose her nomination.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) asked Sohn whether she is biased against Fox News.
“You are referring to my tweets that are now pretty famous,” she answered. “I understand they are concerning to some, and anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty direct. But they were made in my role as a public interest advocate. … Maybe the tone was a little sharper, maybe I should have dulled it a little bit, but again, it was part of my job as a public interest advocate.”
Blunt then asked Sohn whether she thought that Fox News was the “only news agency that is state-sponsored propaganda.”
Sohn responded, “My opinions as a public interest advocate will have no bearing on how I behave as a policymaker if I am confirmed.”
Her nomination has gotten boost from unexpected places: The heads of two other conservative outlets, Charles Herring of One America News Network and Chris Ruddy of Newsmax. Herring cited Sohn’s “strong belief and advocacy for diversity in the programming lineup, especially in news, regardless of conflicts with her personal views.”
Sohn cited that support after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked her about concerns that she would “use your power as a government regulator to censor more and to silence those with whom you disagree.”
“I believe that I have been characterized very unfairly as being anti-conservative speech,” she said. “I think my record says otherwise.” She said that the Fox News tweet was “in the context of a hearing where Big Tech was being blamed for misinformation, as they deserve.” She said that “if you are going to look at misinformation, you have to look at the entire ecosystem, and frankly not just at Fox News. I also have been critical of liberal stations as well. I am not a huge fan of big chyrons on cable news.”
For his part, Cruz said that he talked to Ruddy on Tuesday and was “comforted” by what he had to say about Sohn being an advocate for additional voices in media.
Sohn was the co-founder and longtime CEO of Public Knowledge, which at times opposed entertainment industry efforts to bolster copyright laws. She went on to serve as counselor to Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman during Barack Obama’s second term. If confirmed, she would be the first openly LGBTQ person to serve on the commission.
Industry lobbyists have tried to walk a fine line of raising doubts about Sohn’s nomination, yet not publicly opposing it.
National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith released a statement on Monday in which he said that while they are not opposing Sohn, they had “serious concerns” about her involvement as a director of Locast, a non-profit service that provided streams of broadcast station signals but has since suspended operations after networks sued for copyright infringement. A federal judge ruled in favor of the networks.
On Tuesday, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary intellectual property subcommittee, urged Biden to pull her nomination, calling her an “anti-copyright activist” who “worked against commonsense measures that would crack down on illegal piracy.”
Sohn told Blunt that Locast transmitted the signals by relying on a copyright exemption for nonprofits, even though the judge eventually said that it was not entitled to it.
She said that she would have “no hard feelings” toward the networks given what happened, and said that “it wouldn’t bias me in any way. I take very seriously allegations of bias, and I have been working very closely with the Office of Government Ethics to make sure that I have no conflicts and that I have no predetermined biases.”
The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday did advance the nomination of Jessica Rosenworcel to another term at the FCC. Rosenworcel was appointed chairwoman of the agency in October. But without Sohn filling a fifth slot on the commission, the agency will be deadlocked 2-2 between the parties. That would sideline some issues important to Democrats, like reinstating a new set of net neutrality rules.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are getting a flurry of letters on Sohn’s nomination.
Another group, the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, announced its opposition to Sohn’s nomination, arguing that her past actions “have supported large technology companies in ways that have hindered small, independent Latino-owned media companies and has jeopardized Latino content creators.”
Media entrepreneur Byron Allen, a member of the NAB board, urged her confirmation, writing in a statement that “she has worked nonstop to promote greater competition and more minority ownership in broadcasting.”
While Sohn could get confirmed with only Democratic votes, she did get some praise from a Republican. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), told her that “you have impressed me this morning” with her answers. Backing from even a few GOP members could give her a bit of breathing room in a narrow vote.
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