First Mover: Robert McDowell

The FCC commissioner is pro free-market media in public but a totalitarian at home


Age 49

Who FCC commissioner; post-election, back in minority as Republican member

FCC stuff can be pretty geeky. You’ve quoted everything from Shakespeare to Star Trek.

What we do touches the daily lives of every American but does so in a way that when lawyers and engineers get together and try to explain things to people, it’s not the most clear or poetic. Sometimes it’s important to make things that might otherwise be dull a little interesting. Both my parents were journalists, and there was a love of writing in the household.

Do you have a favorite Star Trek episode?

I am a classicist, so the original series. I watched that a lot in reruns when I was a kid. “Shore Leave” was a good one. And the episode where a fellow has a half-black and half-white face.

You quoted the “Prime Directive”…

That was about no harmful interference in the wireless space. That’s really the FCC’s prime directive when it comes to policy, to make sure there is no interference for users.

A lot of lobbyists and people come into your office. What does a good one do to get your attention?

Be honest with the facts and the law. Be succinct. Say what you want upfront. Give a good justification. Try to be consistent. The most common request we get is, “Please regulate my rival. My rival is running too fast. But don’t have those regulations apply to me.” And that’s naive and counterproductive.

Anybody do anything unusual to try and get your attention?

Free Press (a lobby group) did deliver waffles with a waffle chef once. There were cheerleaders during media ownership debates. You also never know who someone is going to hire to come in here. During the Sirius-XM merger, the broadcasters hired a couple of friends of mine thinking that would make a difference. It didn’t.

Which platform do you rely on most for your news?

I’m a news junkie. I look at trade press, Washington-centric press, in both online and print, maybe 60-40. And a good old-fashioned paper that’s delivered to my driveway. I wanted my kids to see a newspaper and tell their kids.

Do you regulate your kids’ media use?

I do. I’m a free-market kind of guy, with a libertarian drop of blood in my veins for public policy, but at home, it is a true totalitarian regime. We ration screen time. On school nights, there is no screen time unless it’s related to schoolwork. On weekends, we try not to have as many limits.

The FCC has spent most of its time on the Internet, wireless and broadband. Are print and broadcast dead or dying?

The answer is a clear, crisp “no.” The Internet is the most successful, deregulatory story of all time. It has blossomed quite beautifully without any help from the government. It would be harmful to the economy and our position in the world and give the wrong signal to international regulators that the UN should regulate the space. I have a concern that the commission is poised to place unnecessary regulation on the wireless sector. I have another concern that once the court strikes down the net neutrality order that the commission will apply monopoly phone regulations to the Internet. That would be a big mistake.

You grew up on a farm. Any lessons learned there for becoming an FCC commissioner?

Try to clean out the manure oncea day. It can seem like an endless task.