Executive Vice President and Global Head of Government Affairs, News Corp
Current residence: Washington
- JD, Northwestern University School of Law, 1981
- BA, Wellesley College, 1978
Selected work history
- Partner, Skadden Arps, 1993-2013
- Executive Vice President, Northpoint Technologies, 2001-2003
- Senior Counsel, Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, 1987-1993
One of the most powerful people in communications and media law, Toni Bush has been involved with lawmaking and regulation around most of the big technologies of the last 35 years–cable, satellite, wireless, and now online advertising. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you consider a landmark career moment? What lessons have you learned over the course of your career?
I’m a lawyer by training. I started out at a law firm, and my focus was on communications and media law. I represented radio and television stations, cell-phone companies, and other things.
I think a seminal moment for me was when I left private practice and went to work on the Senate Commerce Committee. While I was there, we worked on some pretty significant pieces of legislation. We worked on the Cable Act of 1992, which took five years to pass. This was during the Bush administration; the Democrats were controlling the Senate. Bush vetoed the bill and we successfully overrode the veto. It was the only successful override during his tenure. That was really a seminal moment for me, having the opportunity to work on a large piece of legislation that had a tremendous impact. We regulated the cable industry and created the mechanism for broadcasters to be paid by cable operators. It required vertically integrated cable operators to make their content available to competing distributors. So, for example, at the time DirecTV and EchoStar were just trying to get started, but they weren’t getting access to significant cable content like HBO. The Act required competition in that marketplace. It really changed the landscape—the media, cable television, satellite landscape—in a lot of ways.
I also had the opportunity to work on the last public-broadcasting authorization bill that’s ever been passed by Congress. That was also pretty contentious. It restructured how the funding for public television and radio stations are allocated for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Who would you consider to be an important career mentor or role model?
There have been a lot of people throughout my career. I was hired by Senator [Ernest] Hollings when he was chair of the Commerce Committee, and then Senator [Daniel] Inouye was chair of the Communications Subcommittee. I worked closely with both of them.
I came from a law firm, where I headed up communications, law practice, and schedulers, and I came into this role running government affairs at News Corp. One of the things that I found was very helpful was talking to my colleagues at other companies—people like Gina Adams at FedEx or Fred Humphries at Microsoft, Jake Jones—[who had] had been at this job a lot longer than I had. Having them to draw on and to talk to just about even basic things, about setting up my office, as things that I should be looking out for—they played an important role for me.
What are some of the things that have driven your career, and what interested you about communications law specifically?
I was actually interested in communications law when I was a young lawyer, when I worked at Kirkland & Ellis. I just thought it would be an interesting place to be. I was interested in, obviously, the television and radio business. Then once I got into it, I also realized that there was a lot of work that we were doing at the cutting edge of technology. One of the things that was really rewarding to me throughout my career is having the opportunity to work on new technologies, to think about what the legislative, regulatory environment should be for new technologies.
When satellite television first started, when cellular phones first started, as you move forward with different technologies, as wireless became big, there was a conscious decision by regulators and legislators not to heavily regulate it, in contrast to the heavy regulation on the telephone industry and the cable industry. My career has enabled me to be involved in developments that touch all of our lives. We all carry around their phones with us all the time.
What do you see as the most important policy issues for you and for the industry at this moment and moving forward?
I think the most important policy issues, and what we spent a lot of time looking at at News Corp, have been the relationships between tech platforms—Google, Facebook, Amazon—and businesses that are dependent upon them for a distribution of our content or products.
At News Corp, we own HarperCollins, we own The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post. For us, there’s a lot of debate going on right now about rebalancing the relationships between the newspaper industry and the tech platforms, not just domestically, but also globally. … For a long time, we had a very competitive advertising marketplace. … Over time, Google and Facebook have come to dominate that advertising marketplace. Content creators are not making money in the advertising space. We now know that Google and Facebook really are advertising companies, because that’s where they get more than 90 percent of their revenue. It is really important that we figure out the right balance for that. I think it’s not an accident that you have antitrust authorities around the world looking at these issues, because the key here is to have a competitive marketplace.
I actually kind of hearken back to the cable industry, where you had vertical integration—cable companies that also owned content. They weren’t making that content available to other competitors. Congress stepped in and said, “If you are a distributor and you own content, you can’t discriminate against other distributors; you have to make that content available.” Now, they didn’t have to give it to them for free, but you had to sell. That was sort of one kind of dominance. Now, we see a different kind of dominance, where if you’re a newspaper or magazine and you want to get access to people, you have to be on Google and Facebook.
When most of the antitrust laws were written, nobody could have ever anticipated a world like this with Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
I think that what we have seen is the very act of regulators and legislators starting to look at these issues is causing changes in the behavior of these companies. For example, Google announced earlier this summer that they were going to have this billion dollars that they were going to use to pay for content. Unfortunately, it’s a billion dollars over three years, and it’s global. So that means it’s not really much money for all the newspapers in the world.
How has the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests affected you personally and professionally?
First, let me talk about it from a personal perspective. It was quite horrifying to watch. But at the same time, I do think it reflected a reality for African Americans that we’ve lived with for a long time that hadn’t been apparent to the world. You hear these stories about African Americans having conversations with their sons about how to behave if you encounter the police. And it’s true. We have those conversations, I have had those conversations with both of my children. I have a son and a daughter now both in their 20s. When they were in high school and started driving, and they’re going out by themselves, you have a conversation with them about, “If you were stopped by the police, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong, you have to be very respectful, and as soon as possible you have to call one of your parents.”
I think at News Corp, and I think at companies in general, it has promoted a lot of introspective thinking about what they’re doing. Fortunately, certainly at the senior management levels at News Corp, there is probably more diversity than at a lot of other companies. I think that diversity—the importance of it sort of comes from the top. I think it’s even more important in a news organization than probably anywhere else because of the importance of the role that newspapers and magazines play in our society. But I think that across all companies, there has now been an introspection and looking at, “What are our hiring practices? What is our retention? What is the environment, like creating the opportunity for people to have more conversations about this?”
Are there things that News Corp is doing, or that you’re involved in personally, that approach the industry in that way?
Even before George Floyd, Dow Jones had started a relationship with Morgan State University, which is a historically Black college outside of Baltimore, working with their journalism program to really work on creating a pipeline for more diverse candidates to come into the journalism world. But now there’s been a broader look at how we can address this on a broader level. I also chair the Newspaper Association. … We have over 2,000 members. There are some other things that the Newspaper Association has been talking about that we have been talking about at News Corp, which are nonminority newspapers partnering with minority newspapers and working on training, other things that can be done.
How has the pandemic impacted your role, and what steps have you taken to adapt?
A lot is in costs, a lot of Zoom calls. One of the things that we’ve been talking about in News Corp is that we all have a lot of social capital built up within our company with the people we know, the people we’ve been working with, the relationships you have on the Hill. Those are kind of easy to maintain because you still stay in touch, you do Zoom calls. It’s developing relationships with new staffers that come on—that, I think, is where the challenge is with new employees. That’s something we spent a lot of time talking about. As you’re onboarding new people, how do you interact better with them?
What I found is that you really have to make more of an effort to reach out to people, to schedule calls when you don’t have a specific issue. I tried to schedule calls just to touch base and check in so that I’m not only talking to people when there’s a specific issue that I need to talk about, both externally and internally.
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