When President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler as the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he praised him as the "Bo Jackson of telecom" -- because he has been an all-star in two industries.
During the early 1980s, Wheeler headed the National Cable and Telecommunications Association -- the main cable TV lobby -- and from 1992-2004, he was the chief lobbyist for the mobile phone industry.
But to be fair, Wheeler is really a triple threat. He's also a major-league fundraiser who bundled more than $700,000 for Obama's two presidential campaigns.
As a consummate industry insider and elite rainmaker, it's really no surprise that Wheeler is getting this job. More surprising perhaps is that so many people with public interest bona fides seem to think he's such a good choice.
The remarkably similar arguments that Wheeler's supporters make to skeptics like me can be summarized as follows:
- I know Tom Wheeler.
- He isn't Julius Genachowski. (OK, so that is a bonus.)
- He's "personally liberal" (whatever that means).
- He won't need another job after this one.
- He's already rich.
I mean, can you even think of a time when putting a rich industry insider in charge of a crucial government agency has not worked out for the public interest?
I don't know Tom Wheeler. So I have to base my evaluation of his candidacy on things in the public record, like the fact that he headed not one but two trade associations for the major industries the FCC regulates. Or what he wrote on his blog.
We also can now see his financial disclosures, which the Office of Government Ethics made public late last week. Those documents do confirm one thing: Wheeler is definitely rich.
There's barely a company under the FCC's jurisdiction that Wheeler isn't invested in. In fact, if he's confirmed for the job, he will have to divest from 78 different companies -- from Akamai to Walt Disney. His holdings include at least $500,000 in stock in both AT&T and Verizon.
He also sits on the board of Earthlink and the news aggregator Smart Brief (with a stake of at least $5 million in the latter).
No single factor automatically disqualifies him from the job. But as they pile up, so should the questions about Wheeler.
Is he going to look out for what's best for the little guy -- or just serve his old cronies?
(The biggest companies, by the way, all seem thrilled that he got the nod.)
And do we want someone who owns so much of the media to be in charge of regulating it?
While it's good to know that Wheeler, if confirmed, will have to divest from all of these companies, that's not enough. As the New York Times recently suggested, the Senate should demand to know exactly whose money Wheeler bundled for the Obama campaign.
How many of the checks he collected were from the very same executives and lobbyists who will be visiting him regularly at the FCC?
The Senate shouldn't just rubber-stamp this appointment. Senators should grill Wheeler and get him on the record about how he's going to approach the most important issues before the FCC, from Net Neutrality and media ownership to broadband competition, spectrum allocation and consumer protection.
I want to believe Wheeler can transform himself into the leader the FCC so desperately needs. I want to trust those who say the 30 or 40 years he spent advocating for the biggest media and technology companies won't cloud his judgment.
I really hope his advocates are right. But I need more evidence to believe that Wheeler has what it takes to stand up to the industry giants he's cozied up to all these years.
Please prove me wrong.
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