As Good As His Word

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There is a Washington cliché that elected officials say whatever is needed to get what they want, but that stereotype generally is not applied to appointed officials such as cabinet secretaries, administrators and their staffs because such political appointees are expected to adhere to an administration’s stated policy on an issue.

Such appointees are also expected to be true to their word. Which it is why it was surprising when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski went back on his word to provide me—and Government Video readers—with answers to questions concerning the trend of state cable franchising authorities making deals with cable operators that eliminate franchise fees for public, education and government (PEG) channels.

On July 10, Genachowski testified before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on “oversight” ofthe FCC.

Following the hearing, I approached the chairman as he was preparing to leave the hearing room and asked him to answer questions on the state cable-franchising situation, to which he said, “As long as you walk with me.”

As we walked I asked, “State cable franchise authorities have been granting cable operators franchises without requiring funding for PEG channels. Is that in the spirit of the Cable Act?”

Genachowski replied, “I’m not familiar with that specifically, but I encourage you to contact Greg (Guice, a member of his staff), and they’d be happy to help you with this.”

As we left the Rayburn House Office Building, I quickly followed up by asking, “If that trend continues, should PEG channels turn to sponsorships instead of the funding from the cable operators?”

Genachowski replied, “Let me tell you, I think we’d be happy to help you on your work on looking into this...these important issues, I suggest you contact Greg Guice, or Tammy Sun, they would be happy to help.”

I agreed to contact those staffers, and I provided Guice—who was present—with my contact information. He immediately sent me an e-mail saying all questions needed to go to Neil Grace, an FCC media contact. I then submitted the questions to Grace, who quickly replied that the FCC would not provide answers. “We won’t be able to accommodate an interview or provide comment. Thanks, Neil.”

So much for FCC staff being “happy to help.”

It becomes clear that there are some questions Genachowski has no intention of answering, and referring such questions to FCC staff is the chairman’s strategy for stonewalling reporters. Genachowski’s dodge may seem minor, but it is troubling. Why? Because not only did the chairman go back on his word to a reporter (okay, not the first time this has happened in Washington), but more importantly, by not providing comment to GV on this situation, constituents—in this case PEG channel operators—are left in the dark on what the country’s top telecom regulator believes about that issue.