Obama nominates former PBS board member Tom Wheeler to head FCC

By Andrew Lapin

President Obama has nominated cable and wireless lobbyist Tom Wheeler, a former member of the PBS Board, to chair the Federal Communications Commission.

Wheeler has held top posts at two major industry groups representing telecommunications interests in Washington, D.C. He was  president of the National Cable Television Association, a cable TV lobbying group, between 1979-84, and c.e.o.  of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association — today referred to simply as CTIA — between 1992-2004.  He also served as a lay leader on the PBS Board in the mid-2000s.

He was a top fundraiser for Obama’s re-election campaign, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the campaign’s finance records.

The appointment comes more than a month after Julius Genachowski announced that he would be stepping down as FCC chair.  The Wall Street Journal first reported on Wheeler’s appointment April 30. During the leadership transition, current FCC Commissioner Migon Clyburn is to act as interim chief, the Journal reported.

Public TV strategist John Lawson, who served as president of the Association of Public Television Stations during Wheeler’s time on the PBS board, had high praise for Wheeler and his support for public broadcasting.

“Tom Wheeler is a terrific nominee to chair the FCC. He’s got the experience, the maturity and the credibility to really lead that agency and support the development of communications and technologies that help grow the economy,” Lawson told Current. “He is passionate about the role of public media in our society.”

Lawson, who is now principal of digital media consulting firm Convergence Services, added that when he served as director of national affairs at APTS, “I recall Tom Wheeler joining us during a particularly critical moment in a fight for CPB reauthorization and helping us stuff envelopes to mobilize our grassroots base at the stations.” However, Lawson noted that Wheeler has a “tough love” for public television: “He has always believed we could be stronger than we are if we could unify around a strategy and embrace the entrepreneurial opportunities available to us.”

APTS President Pat Butler released a statement May 1 in support of Wheeler’s nomination.

“Tom is well known to all of us in the media world as a man of tremendous intelligence, integrity, experience and expertise, and assuming his confirmation by the Senate, we look forward to working with him on the major public policy challenges facing the Commission and the industry,” Butler said. “Public television congratulates Tom and commends the President for this very wise and well-deserved nomination.”

Craig Aaron, president of media advocacy group Free Press, was less enthusiastic about the appointment. He said in a statement that the FCC “needs a strong leader — someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest. On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person, having headed not one but two major trade associations.”

However, Aaron remained optimistic, adding, “We hope that he will embrace the FCC’s mission and fight for policies that foster genuine competition, promote diversity and amplify local voices.”

Though Wheeler received votes of support for the FCC position earlier this month from a handful of former government officials, his rumored appointment was also opposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over FCC nominations. Given Wheeler’s ties to the telecommunications industry, Rockefeller questioned whether the nomination is appropriate. In an interview last month, Rockefeller said, “He’s been lobbying for some of the things he’d be making decisions on.”

Sen. Rockefeller had endorsed FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for the job in a letter co-signed by 37 Senate Democrats. Rosenworcel had served as Rockefeller’s senior communications counsel for the Senate commerce committee prior to joining the FCC.

Pubcasters will be watching the FCC in the coming months for its approach to the upcoming spectrum auctions, which are still scheduled to take place in 2014.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
This article has been updated to include a statement from APTS.
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