By: David Oxenford, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP
This post was written on November 9, 2016
Before the November 8 election, in some of the legal journals that circulate in Washington, there was much speculation as to potential appointees to various government positions after the election. For positions such as the chairman of the FCC, many of these publications listed familiar DC names as likely appointees if, as expected by most pundits, Hillary Clinton was elected president. On the Trump side of the leger, speculation was much vaguer, as few had any real insight into how his administration would implement the broad but, in many cases, imprecise policies that Mr. Trump expounded during the election. Given the results of the election, those speculations are sure to ramp up as everyone tries to guess what will happen with broadcast policy in a Trump administration.
At this point, we can only speculate as to what that election will mean for broadcast policy – particularly at the FCC. One would certainly expect a lessening of the regulatory burden on broadcasters – as lessening burdensome regulations on businesses was a clear plank of the Trump agenda. The make-up of the FCC will likely facilitate such changes, as Republicans will no longer be in the minority at the FCC. A third Republican will join Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly on the FCC. These two Republicans dissented on many issues of importance to broadcasters – including the recently concluded Quadrennial Review of the Ownership Rules. Thus, a third Republican vote could have changed the decisions on many issues.
At this point, it would be speculation as to who will be appointed Chairman, essentially controlling the agenda of the FCC. But, at times like these, speculation is what people in Washington do. One name that has central to a Trump FCC is Jeffrey Eisenach, a visiting scholar and Director, Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative “think tank” in Washington, who has been associated with the Trump transition teams planning for the possible transition of power. One of the existing Republican Commissioners will likely become Acting and potentially permanent Chair, and new names for FCC vacancies will likely arise in the near term.
Planning for a Republican administration may well change the thinking about how to proceed on many of the issues now on the table for broadcasters. The fight over the Ownership Rules, for instance, might be subject to reconsideration, asking the new Commission to reverse the decision that was handed down in August. That could replace the current strategy of an appeal to the Courts which, even if successful, would likely result in a remand to the FCC to adopt rules in line with the Court’s order. The appeal that the NAB has announced that it is pursuing could be abandoned if there was an indication that a new FCC would see things differently than the old one. Of course, the President-Elect Trump’s expressed hostility to big media companies is a wild card in this calculation. Other paperwork requirements, from EEO rules to public file obligations, could also be reviewed under a new administration.
FCC reform generally has been a signature issue of the Republican Congress, so such reform could advance under a government where Congress and the Administration are all under Republican control. Signature issues under such reform proposals have included more transparency in decision making, more rapid decision making, and requiring more economic analysis of the effects of any new regulation on those being regulated to make sure that the regulation is justified.
Question marks for broadcasters include antitrust policy, where candidate Trump has indicated some concern with businesses, including those in the media space, from getting bigger. Reform of libel laws (about which we wrote earlier this week) so that public figures have more avenues to pursue defamation actions, have also been advanced by the President-Elect.
Obviously, we are one day into a new reality, so this is still very much a developing story. We’ll be watching, and broadcasters need to be watching too.
David Oxenford is MAB’s Washington Legal Counsel and provides members with answers to their legal questions with the MAB Legal Hotline. Access information here. (Members only access).
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