The Underestimated Mignon Clyburn
Before Mignon Clyburn joined the Federal Communications Commission last July, she hadn’t spent more than two weeks in a row outside of her native South Carolina. But that didn't stop some in Washington from thinking they had her figured out.
Because she is the daughter of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and a long-time public utilities commissioner in the state capital of Columbia, lobbyists and a few public interest advocates speculated she’d favor the Bell companies on policy decisions. They said she had a steep learning curve and suspected her seat at the FCC was a political stepping stone.
Clyburn, 47, admits she has a lot to learn on the complexities of telecommunications and high-tech policy. But so far, she’s proven her critics wrong on one crucial vote on net neutrality. And above everything, she wants people to know that she’s not to be underestimated.
“What troubled me coming to D.C. were the assumptions about who I was and what I was going to do,” Clyburn said during an interview Tuesday at her office. “That was unfair.”
There is much at stake and her true test will be on details of the net neutrality proposal and on the issues she will champion during her tenure. She’s a crucial third Democratic vote in a five-member agency that’s at the center of vexing regulatory decisions that will set the course on how consumers use the Web. Regulations could also tilt fortunes for Internet carriers and companies creating content. Telecommunications and cable service providers have fought against new policies like net neutrality, an issue supported by President Obama, that would prevent them from blocking or slowing any legal content or services on their Internet networks. A fresh face at the agency with little experience in communications policy, Clyburn’s still somewhat of a wild card.
Beyond the assumptions about her policy leanings, what has caught Mignon off guard has been an aggressive lobbying offensive leading up to the vote on proposed net neutrality rules earlier in the month.
She received dozens of hateful messages from “a wide brush” of people concerned with the telecom policy, many questioning her competence. She received “borderline soft threats” by some people whom she declined to identify, “trying to imply a particular direction would wreak havoc of all kinds back at home and here.”
She wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of those threats. Though raised in a politically powerful family, she wasn’t prepared for such tactics on the first major policy issue before the new commission and just months into her new job.
Instead of recoiling, the steel of the petite Southerner emerged. “That’s when you see a different side of Mignon that isn’t tempered,” she said.
In her speech at the FCC meeting last Oct. 22 to vote on Chairman Julius Genachowski’s proposal for Internet access rules, she said she wanted to make clear her decisions would be based on "data and reasoned conversation."
“Unfortunately, some parties seem to prefer radioactive rhetoric and unseemly and unbecoming tactics. Such an approach may yield headlines, but will not yield positive results with me,” she said in her speech.
In the end all five commissioners voted to at least pursue a long rule-making process to come up with a net neutrality policy that would prevent them from also giving preference to their Internet services over their competitors. The carriers say they need flexiblity to manage traffic congestion to prevent service from slowing to a crawl. The two Republican commissioners, Robert M. McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker have said they will agree to pursuing the regulatory process but don’t agree that there is a need for regulation.
Yet the true weight of any final rules will lie in crucial details. To what degree will wireless service providers be treated differently? How will the FCC define traffic management that prevents anticompetitive practices? How will the agency treat managed services, such as dedicated and secure bandwidth for telemedicine or video services? And will the rules extend beyond carriers to include content companies such as Google?
It’s unclear how Clyburn will vote on those narrow pieces of the policy. She's expressed strong support for Genachowski, but telecom industry executives are searching for clues to her thinking on specific slices of the controversial debate.
Clyburn notes that she’s long sided with the underdog. As a publisher of a small newspaper, she’s experienced the challenges of breaking into an industry dominated by powerful and better-funded media firms.
Right out of the University of South Carolina, where she studied business and finance, Clyburn took over her family’s Charleston newspaper. For 14 years, she ran The Coastal Times, a tiny weekly publication dedicated to covering minority communities.
For part of that time she was a one-person operation. That meant reporting on city council meetings, shooting her own photos, laying out the pages and delivering the paper to doorsteps around town in her 1992 GMC Jimmy.
Clyburn logged more than 300,000 miles on the Jimmy, which still sits in the driveway of her Charleston home. But up against much bigger newspapers with better operations and funding, her paper didn’t survive.
“When I sit here and look at the big picture and big policy issues, I don’t lose sight of the fact that we need to take into account all kinds of voices and concerns, especially those that aren’t as loud as the others,” Clyburn said.
Her first meeting at the FCC was with public interest and civil rights groups and advocates for people with disabilities. She said she’s long fought for underserved communities, particularly in rural areas. She sees “fair rules of the road” as key for entrepreneurs and underserved communities to get access to the Web.
As for her approach to the job, she said she’ll stay true to her Southern roots.
“Instead of hollering, I’ll listen,” she said. “And that’s the best way to be heard by me too.”
November 4, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Broadband , Consumers , Digital Divide , Mobile , Net Neutrality
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