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Meredith, We Hardly Knew Ye

Paul McLane is editor in chief/U.S.

I liked Meredith Attwell Baker as soon as I met her, briefly, at the NAB Show shortly after she came on as FCC commissioner. I found her warm, engaging and intelligent; and I liked what I perceived to be her moderate/conservative regulatory outlook. But she disappoints me with her decision to move so quickly into a job working for a company whose big merger she’d only recently voted on.

She’ll become senior VP of government affairs at NBCUniversal. (“VP of government affairs” means “lobbyist.”) Baker recently voted in favor of letting Comcast acquire majority control of NBCUniversal from General Electric Co. The Los Angeles Times quoted Free Press President/CEO Craig Aaron calling her job switch “just the latest — though perhaps most blatant — example of a so-called public servant cashing in at a company she is supposed to be regulating.”

Her move does make us want to re-read Baker’s recent speech in which she called for an overhaul in how the FCC reviews big communications mergers. If she didn’t tip her hand about her job plans then, she certainly was plain regarding her feelings about the commission’s way of handling deals like Comcast’s.

“I fear that the delay and uncertainty surrounding our current merger review process can have the unintended consequence of chilling consumer-enhancing investment,” she said. The FCC ought to establish “commonsense limits” on conditions it imposes: “The process is always at risk of devolving into how to get more ‘benefits’ from a given transaction: playing down the offered benefits and overstating predicted harms to compel more conditions.” She called it a “regulation-by-condition approach.”

The questions she raised in that speech at the Institute for Policy Innovation were valid ones. She strikes me as a thoughtful observer/critic of government policy, so maybe the new job is a better fit. I imagine she’ll advocate for the same positions from the industry side.

I have to agree though that her quick move to a prominent industry post is unsettling, or at best, unseemly, and raises the question of how effective regulators can be if they know (or suspect) that plum employment opportunities are waiting for them on the other side of their decision-making. Ah, but that’s Washington, ain’t it?

Baker Wants to Overhaul FCC Merger Reviews