The Selling of Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman and Folk Hero

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Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of January 23-27, 2017

On January 23, Ajit Pai thanked President Donald Trump for naming Pai the next Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Many believe Chairman Pai is qualified to run the agency, but there is concern in the public interest community that his appointment will mean the end of network neutrality. Conservative policy insiders, on the other hand, paint a different picture of Chairman Pai. In a Presidential transition marked by the President’s promise to “drain the swamp” and challenge the Washington establishment, some have tried to sell Washington insider Ajit Pai as something else.

Introducing a 21st Century Telecommunications Folk Hero
Two articles this week from former FCC officials offer an image of Chairman Pai as a ‘folksy’, ‘down-to-earth’ populist. Adonis Hoffman, a former chief of staff and senior legal adviser for FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, said:

Hailing from the heartland of America, Pai, the second-generation son of medical doctors, has a disarming, aw-shucks, demeanor that belies his Harvard education, elite legal pedigree and inside-Washington resume. His self-effacing style and encyclopedic grasp of popular culture contribute to a profile of warmth and affability. He's the guy most folks would want to watch a ballgame and have a few beers with. A relentless promoter of limited government...a reliable ally of traditional communications incumbents in the telecom and media sector, who have relied on his sparkling, but oh-so-sound, dissents.

There is no question Ajit Pai is an experienced, qualified communications expert. He graduated with honors from Harvard University in 1994 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1997, where he was an editor of the law review. Pai's 18 years of public service includes positions at the FCC, the Justice Department, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the private sector, Pai has lobbied on behalf of Verizon and other companies. Pai is the Washington establishment.

But former-FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth underplayed Pai’s Washington insider status, saying:

It would be easy to look at Chairman Pai’s resume filled with legal blue chip positions after a Harvard and Chicago education and to assume that he is part of a cloistered intellectual elite. He is not. He is from a humble background. He grew up in Parsons, Kansas. Few people have heard of Parsons, Kansas, unless they have the pleasure of hearing Chairman Pai speak. He speaks with a self-effacing manner on top of a Midwestern twang, sprinkled with frequent pop culture references, not for effect, but merely because that is how he thinks and speaks.

Hoffman points to Pai’s amiable nature as an important asset. “He is the guy who remembers birthdays, anniversaries and first names of everybody's kids, from the folks in the mailroom to the boardroom.”

In Pai's first speech as FCC Chairman, he played into this image, saying, "I love coming across the 14th Street Bridge in the morning and seeing our building. I love entering the parking lot and exchanging Amharic and Spanish greetings with my friends who manage the lot. I love entering the lobby and bantering with the security officers who do such a great job keeping us safe. I love coming up the elevator and chatting with you about everything from the weather to your families. I love walking into my office, pouring about a gallon of coffee into my infamous Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups mug, and starting my day."

These descriptions, while trying to render a clearer picture of Chairman Pai, end up creating a more puzzling mosaic. Clearly, Pai is an insider with a “long record of cooperation with congressional leaders” and “warm relations with Congress.” But Hoffman and Furchtgott-Roth are attempting to round out his image, presumably to match the anti-elitism rhetoric and distrust of government officials that contributed to Trump’s successful Presidential campaign. They want us to focus on Chairman Pai’s “common touch” and portray him as the “go-to guy for the protection of the basic interests of Main Street.”

Why Sell Chairman Pai This Way?
Anticipating the variety of telecommunications and media policy debates ahead, presenting Chairman Pai as both a populist outsider and a competent insider allows pundits to use the appropriate image whenever it seems best. Chairman Pai could be described as anti-establishment one day and a skilled insider another, a strategy that could be used to obfuscate already complicated tech policy issues.

An example of this might be the net neutrality debate which is an area, in particular, that could benefit from some image control. Three former FCC chairmen – both Republican and Democrats – have faced fierce public backlash while considering Open Internet protections. Chairman Pai and fellow FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said last month that they will “seek to revisit” the net neutrality rules “as soon as possible.” On January 27, Chairman Pai circulated a plan to close the door on some net neutrality transparency requirements.

Combating Pai’s public perception, Larry Downes said, “Pai has consistently supported the basic principles of net neutrality...what is true is that Pai objected strongly to the bizarre process that waylaid the agency” including the “legally fraught decision” in early 2015 to enact the net neutrality rules while “transforming broadband Internet access services into public utilities.” Downes wants us to believes that the media, the boogie man of the Trump Administration, is smearing Chairman Pai as the enemy of net neutrality. He paints a picture of Chairman Pai as a supporter of net neutrality and strong political cooperator. In contrast, Free Press’ Craig Aaron says Pai is “an inveterate opponent of net neutrality” and “an effective obstructionist.”

By breaking up the issue of net neutrality into 1) supporting the principle, but 2) opposing its implementation -- and relying on statements that have become hard to counter (e.g., “I believe in an open Internet”) -- the public doesn’t know which end is up. Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler warned of this in his farewell message, claiming that supporting net neutrality must require "truth in packaging", meaning that if a piece of legislation or regulation is deserving of being called "net neutrality", it must be comprehensive, continuing, and consistent. Claiming one supports net neutrality without supporting those key provisions would be "false advertising." Presenting Pai as a folksy, net-neutrality supporter could be as detrimental to real net neutrality as, say, the presentation of a reality TV star being a savvy businessman was to the graduates of Trump University.

The dual image of Pai could also be a sign of conservative policymakers hoping to bridge a GOP split politically between market-driven, deregulatory conservatives and the more grassroots, populist group that showed up in the recent election. With Pai’s image as an established insider (or an outsider despite an insider’s career), it could have the effect of giving Pai political cover to bend and shift on issues, such as broadband access.

In September, then-Commissioner Pai outlined his “Digital Empowerment Agenda” — a four-point plan he says will help spur investment in Internet networks and close the digital divide between those with access (cities and suburbs) and those without access (generally, rural). The approach seeks to expand access to mobile broadband and reduce regulatory barriers to broadband deployment -- I wrote about it in “Setting the (Post-Election) Broadband Agenda”. For one kind of conservative, Pai’s agenda could be presented as typical establishment industrial policy. But other conservatives could champion Pai’s plan as a deregulatory, rural-focused infrastructure initiative. While the Agenda's primary goal is to spur broadband investment, will it be supported by those on the right, who may see it as a federal government giveaway of potential tax dollars and a "big government" attack on state and local regulatory autonomy? This is where a flexible political image comes in handy. Of course what’s lost in the battle of perception is whether or not the plan would be effective: Will it make broadband service more affordable where it is available? Will it really result in in deployment of affordable, robust broadband in currently unserved and underserved areas?

Our current political environment is divided between urban and rural, and also, in particular, between “ordinary folks” and the “Washington elite.” If Pai can play both ends against the middle, it’s a powerful and controlling strategy. Hoffman and Furchtgott-Roth, by selling Chairman Pai as “folksy”, yet experienced and cozy with Congress, are trying to have their Pai and eat it, too. Readers should ask: What -- or who -- determines if someone like Ajit Pai is a “folk hero”, or a representative of the Washington establishment? As with our President and his cabinet appointments, it would be wise to give a critical eye to the image being presented -- real net neutrality would be a terrible thing to see lost to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconChairman Thune Outlines Senate Commerce Committee Tech Agenda for 115th Congress (Senate Commerce Committee)
coffee iconA GOP Regulatory Game Changer (Wall Street Journal)
coffee iconFelony Charges for Journalists Arrested at Inauguration Protests Raise Fears for Press Freedom (New York Times)
coffee iconNews Media, Target of Trump’s Declaration of War, Expresses Alarm (New York Times)

Events Calendar for Jan 30 - Feb 3, 2017
Jan 31 -- FCC Open Meeting
Feb 1 -- How America Lost its Secrets, New America
Feb 2 -- 2017 Telecom Priorities for Congress and the FCC, ITIF

ICYMI from Benton
benton logoNo Time To Waste, Michael Copps
benton logoChairman Wheeler’s Farewell Message (in Two Parts), Kevin Taglang

By Robbie McBeath.