Talking telecom with Mr. Chip

When Congressman Edward Markey speaks, the entertainment industry pays attention.

The Massachusetts Democrat is his party’s ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Markey was a driving force behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He’s a longtime children’s television advocate and is considered the father of the V-chip.

I phoned Markey recently at his Capitol Hill office in the Rayburn House Building. We spoke about issues concerning public policy and corporate responsibility.

An unreconstructed liberal, Markey holds strong opinions about business behavior. So, I asked, are corporate and social responsibility mutually exclusive?

“I certainly hope not,” Markey answered, adding that he aims to find policies in which the interests of companies and consumers merge. “That often takes some creativity and often some persuasion, but I think achieving it not only possible but indispensable,” he said.

I pointed the congressman to a magazine analysis of the 100 best corporate citizens for 2005. No entertainment firms cracked the top 20. Markey passed on the opportunity to deliver a reprimand. “As a whole,” he said, “I would note that the creative community itself is very generous and civic-minded.”

He cited the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s cancer awareness work as one example of many.

Do entertainment industry and other CEOs deserve the high salaries and perks they often receive? Markey said that’s up to the company shareholders, not the government, to decide.

I asked the representative how media companies should navigate the shifting relationship between the First Amendment, the free market and legislating propriety.

“The place to draw the line is where we have always drawn it,” Markey said, indicating the 16 protected hours on broadcast television that begin at 6 a.m.

“The free market of culture is not unduly harmed, because pay cable or satellite services can still air (more adult) material,” he said. “Moreover, even the free over-the-air broadcast stations can do so if they air it after 10 p.m.”

Markey’s been in office since 1976. We reminisced about the Reagan-Bush era battle to pass the Children’s Television Act. During the Clinton years, the Federal Communications Commission quantified the weekly hours that a channel must devote to educational and informational programming for kids: three.

PBS, for one, exceeds that obligation. I asked Markey the perennial political question: Will that service survive? Yes, he said.

Markey’s comments led me to discuss what I believe is the misuse, or overuse, of the term “fiduciary responsibility.” In my view, corporations sometimes use the words as a shield to hide behind when announcing difficult decisions, particularly ones that harm employees. It’s dishonest, and it undermines the notion of loyalty.

Markey heard me out. He replied that the phrase ought to be interpreted broadly.

“Some companies, citing fiduciary responsibility, might take a narrow view and limit employee resources and compensation,” he said. “That may boost numbers for a quarter or two in the short run, but I would argue it is quite counterproductive to the long-term corporate prospects of that enterprise, as it demoralizes workers and often encourages them to seek employment elsewhere.”

Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.

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