Standing Ovation A month ago, the news reports painted a stirring picture of the folks at Viacom headquarters streaming out of their offices to be in the lobby when their ousted leader, Tom Freston, left the building for the last time. They gave him a memorable standing ovation. Were it not for fear these days that it might jeopardize careers, I know many folks would have been in the lobby applauding when Bill Johnson left the building last Friday, his final day at the FCC. Bill is what everyone wishes a career government employee would be. I worked with him from 1971 to 1976 crafting and trying to administer the first set of federal cable rules. Bill was the leader of that motley gang of attorneys I wrote about a few weeks ago marking the death of Sol Schildhause, then the chief of the newly formed Cable Bureau. No matter what the title, from then when he was simply the guy who organized and oversaw in one way or another the rest of us, until now when he has been Interim Chief, Acting Chief and just about any other name you can think of regarding Cable and Mass Media at the Commission, Bill was always the “guy to go to” when you needed some serious thought about what to do and how to do it. The cable industry didn’t always get what it wanted from Bill. Far from it. He was the “go to” guy for all contending parties, and most of the folks inside the agency as well, because he is extraordinarily bright, extremely well informed, very low key and thoughtful, and willing to listen. Bill was the institutional memory regarding cable television at the FCC. Bill and that memory walked out the door last Friday not because he wanted to. He was “shown the door” in part, rumor has it, because he questioned a mandated policy change at a high-level meeting, saying it needed additional substantive factual support. Apparently that didn’t go over well. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but shortly after that meeting, Bill got word he would be removed from his Mass Media Bureau position and reassigned to a minor post in a newly created Bureau related to “homeland security.” In other words, Bill had a choice to retire or take a position from which all his expertise and knowledge would serve very little. After more than 30 years at the Commission, he chose, understandably, to leave. This is one of the poorest management decisions I’ve seen at the Commission in a long time. The last one that comes to mind was when the FCC moved in to its new headquarters, and then-Chairman Reed Hundt decided to break up the Bureaus and place people in random offices on random floors. To be sure, it enhanced the control of the Chairman, since the people doing the work could not as easily spend time together chewing over the issues. They just wound up doing what they were told. But it certainly didn’t result in improved decision making. To the contrary, it destroyed cohesion and deprived new attorneys (and Commissioners) of the benefit of learning from their more experienced peers and long-time employees. This made political decisions easier to enforce but certainly did not promote effective or intelligent governance. Bill Johnson has personified the latter. We’re going to miss his intelligence at the FCC. The Commission, the staff, and everyone he dealt with should give him a standing ovation and lament his premature departure.

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