Gigi Sohn at hearing

Gigi Sohn faced what at times was tough questioning by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday on her nomination to fill a seat on the Federal Communications Commission. Sohn was grilled for her past criticism of conservative media, but she said that was taken out of context and spoke of her love for local media, particularly radio. Sohn also told Senators that a rollback of media ownership limits has gone too far, and a course reversal is needed.

“There’s almost no media ownership rules left, and I do think we need to consider whether some of those need to be restored,” Sohn said during the nearly three-hour hearing. The current quadrennial media ownership review offers an opening to policymakers, she said. “I wonder if there might be new ways to encourage minority media ownership through that quadrennial.”

Sohn also backed expansion of the FCC’s fledgling broadcast incubator program beyond radio to also include television. “I’d like to see the FCC create more opportunities for diverse viewpoints,” said Sohn. “We need more opportunities for voices that are not normally heard to actually be heard on broadcasting because that is still the place where people get local news.”

Her past criticism of media consolidation have put her at odds with many in broadcasting. But Sohn told lawmakers that her focus on the issue comes from a passion for it. Sohn said her “love of local broadcasting, and especially radio” led her to study communications law and policy in college. “Local broadcasting is vital to the lifeblood of every community. They alone among the communications platforms are dedicated to serving local communities with local emergency alerts, local news and so I think it’s critically important.”

Sohn also said she backed a proposal in the pending Build Back Better legislation to provide federal tax credits to local media outlets that hire local journalists. Sohn also said she supports revival of the minority tax certificate program, something currently pending in Congress.

‘I Have Been Characterized Unfairly’

The most heated moments during the hearing came during questioning about Sohn’s past statements, many on Twitter, some dating back to 2010. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) came armed with several of the most provocative on a large white board, such as one statement by Sohn that Fox News was “state-sponsored propaganda” for the Trump administration.

“I’ve got real concerns about your nomination,” said Cruz, who said he is worried the FCC will be used by progressives to limit the reach of conservative voices. “Your record suggests a deep antipathy to those with different views,” Cruz said.

Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said the criticism was more than nitpicking. “You are clearly indicating your bias against more conservative news sources and yet you are now up for confirmation of one of the most powerful positions in America on free speech. I think that disqualifies you completely,” he said.

Sohn believes she has been characterized “very unfairly as being anti-conservative speech” and that her posts reflect her “pretty direct” personality and were made as part of her role as a public interest advocate. “Maybe the tone was a little sharper, maybe I should have dulled it a little bit, but it was part of my job essentially,” she said. “My opinions as a public advocate will have no bearings on how I behave as a policymaker.”

Sohn Doesn’t Commit To Recuse On Broadcast Issues

The National Association of Broadcasters said this week that it is unsettled about Sohn’s pick based on her work as a director at Locast. The streaming service distributed local TV station signals online until a judge earlier this year ordered it be shut down for violating copyright law. NAB said it had “serious concerns” that the ethics agreement submitted by Sohn would not do enough to separate her from what it sees as a “clear and troubling conflict.”

Sohn explained she viewed Locast as a way to help more Americans gain access to local broadcasting and she felt it would have been good for local TV stations too. “I revere local broadcasting and if I’m confirmed I would like to sit down with them and explain what I did and get from them ideas how I can help local broadcasting be more competitive, more resilient, and more diverse,” said Sohn. She said just because Locast was sued out of business, it would not bias any broadcast items that came before her at the FCC. “Even if I had biases, I’d have to set those aside,” she said.

Sohn does have the support of conservative media outlets such as One America and Newsmax who credit her efforts with helping them gain access to cable systems. Sohn also has the backing of Byron Allen, who heads the nation’s largest minority-owned broadcast company.

At least one Republican senator said he was eased somewhat by Sohn’s answers during the hearing. But Sohn’s nomination may rest on which way swing Democrats Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) go, in light of doubts that she will win any Republican votes. During questioning Wednesday, Sinema did not appear to oppose Sohn’s nomination.

The Senate Commerce Committee has not scheduled a vote on Sohn’s nomination. On Wednesday it advanced the pending nomination of Jessica Rosenworcel to lead the agency with a bipartisan vote. Her nomination now goes to the full Senate for a vote. Even if Rosenworcel is seated, the FCC will continue to have a 2-2 deadlock until another Democratic seat is filled.