Sorry to say, there are people in public life who, were hubris a lubricant, could forgo ambulation and just glide on down the road. Reed Hundt, the former chairman of the FCC, is one such person.
Hundt is back in the news these days because policies he clandestinely pursued while chairman are now thought by some (including Hundt himself) to be coming to fruition at the hands of his former FCC aides and confidantes, one of whom, Julius Genachowski, is now chairman.
This, and more, was revealed in a speech Hundt gave last month at Columbia University. The subject of his address was the national broadband plan, then set to be released by the FCC just a week later, and what he characterized as a "confession or admission" of the role he played, years earlier, in using his office as chairman to systematically elevate broadband, at the expense of broadcasting, as the "common medium."
To quote the great man himself: "The choice to favor the Internet over broadcasting was initially made in first-draft form by some of the people who are now running the FCC."
One can only imagine how happy this revelation must have made the current FCC chairman since, if we're to believe Hundt, not only was Genachowski a co-conspirator, so to speak, he's just a tagalong - the horse to Hundt's Lady Godiva.
Lest you think for even a minute that the gentleman feels remorse about any of this, be advised: He doesn't. Quite the contrary, Hundt is pleased as punch with the way he handled things, amused even, and he wants you to see it the same way. Rather like a schoolboy pulling a prank on the headmaster, Hundt sees his scheming not only as smart and justifiable but as positively cute in the way it confounded all but those few in the know.
How else to explain his characterization of his efforts to suppress broadcasting - by delaying, for instance, its transition to HDTV - as "a little naughty?" Or his boast, regarding the ability of people to use the telephone network, for free, to connect to the Internet, as a case of the government "stealing the value from the telephone network and giving it to society?"
Not everyone sees the humor. One who is particularly unamused is Gordon Smith, formerly Senator Smith, and now head of the National Association of Broadcasters. As reported in Broadcasting & Cable, Smith had this to say when asked what he thought of Hundt's speech: "Frankly, I was rather offended, as a former member of the Senate Commerce Committee, that his secret musings were never shared with the elected representatives of the American people."
Actually, Hundt's Columbia performance isn't the first time he's spoken (what shall we call it?) "candidly." Years earlier there was the book, You Say You Want a Revolution, that he wrote not long after leaving the FCC.
Sandwiched between characterizations of some of his fellow commissioners as the "Gang of Three," and innumerable accounts of the commercial rabble with whom he was obliged to spend time, Hundt wrote some things that are of a piece with his Columbia speech.
One of these describes a meeting he had in 1995 with Bill Gates. Hundt writes:
We had come to appeal to Gates' self-interest. As everyone on the West Coast knew, computing was heading directly toward communications.... With Gates as commander-in-chief, the entrepreneurs could win a lobbying war even against the powerful broadcasters....
I wanted Gates to go after the spectrum, because the auction was such a pure and sensible goal. Later, depending on how the meeting went, we would ask for his help in connecting every classroom to the information highway....
If those who bought the spectrum at an open auction could ignore the networks' deal with Congress and abandon high-definition television, they could transmit digital information to PCs....
Gates rocked in his chair. His eyes magnified by his glasses, he stared at me, and asked urgently, 'Does anyone else know about this?'
Elsewhere in the book, Hundt describes his attendance at a meeting hosted by the Gores (Tipper and Al), also in 1995, on the topic of Families and the Media:
Then the President and Vice President each said they would support the children's television initiative. I had become part of the Administration's political agenda - perhaps the first time in history that FCC issues were in the center ring of the political circus. Al singled me out in the crowd. I stood up. The auditorium applauded. The event made the national news. It was intoxicating; it was much more important to be there in Nashville than at, say, an NAB convention.
Many people would agree that the Internet already is, or will become, the "common medium." And in an age when Saul Alinsky is held up as a role model, and the ends justify the means, views and acts like Hundt's will almost certainly escape widespread censure. But there's this one small problem with the government picking the winners and losers: What happens if they're wrong?
Of course we know that governmental estimates and projections are never wrong. But imagine that sometime in the future it happens. Wouldn't that be something? Because, you know, in that case the government would not only have distorted the marketplace, it might have created problems it hadn't even considered.
As it happens, there's a claim in Hundt's book that hints of this very problem. In the same chapter in which he wrote of his meeting with Bill Gates, Hundt claimed that "big-screen televisions would cost so much that less than one percent of Americans would buy them."
Imagine our surprise, then, when we check now with people at the Consumer Electronics Association and are told that, in 2010, almost half (about 47 percent) of all TV sets sold are big screen. Could this mean, Hundt's furtive schemes notwithstanding, that the Internet won't be the only common medium? Go figure.
Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by contributions from media and telecom companies.