Keeping the FCC in check

Jan 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina is this year’s man to watch in Washington on media issues.
The irascible Democrat, known for his quick wit, sharp tongue and heavily accented Charleston brogue, reassumed control of the influential Senate Commerce Committee last summer when power in the upper chamber shifted to his party. He’s been in this spot before, having headed the panel from 1987 to 1994.
Some of his positions are certain to create problems for the television industry.
The lawmaker is a longtime critic of media consolidation and, true to form, quickly expressed opposition to the proposed EchoStar-DirecTV merger. He wants to maintain the existing TV ownership restrictions-including the 35 percent broadcast ownership cap-to promote diversity of opinion. Since the early ’90s he’s been pushing “safe harbor” legislation, which relegates violent television programming to late-night hours.
The measure always raises First Amendment concerns and has never gone far, but it could get a boost with Sen. Hollings at the helm. He plans to hold hearings on it.
Over the years, he’s often added riders to appropriations bills to force others to play by his rules.
In the late ’80s, he used a rider to block the Federal Communications Commission from granting media mogul Rupert Murdoch a permanent waiver of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules in Boston.
Spectrum giveaway
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, may be the senator’s newest target.
While the senator often praises Mr. Powell, he recently accused him of overstepping the agency’s regulatory bounds when he approved a TV industry plan that lets some broadcasters profit from the early return of their analog TV spectrum.
GOP lawmakers regularly lambasted former Democratic FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, suggesting the senator’s criticisms may partly be political payback.
Despite these positions, Sen. Hollings also has been friendly to the television industry.
He supported the government’s giveaway of billions of dollars worth of digital TV spectrum to stations, was a major force behind the deregulatory 1996 Telecommunications Act and was instrumental in creating South Carolina’s public broadcasting system.
In a potential boon to cable broadband providers, the senator opposes the Tauzin-Dingell bill, which lifts restrictions on Baby Bell provision of high-speed Internet access.
The senator’s personality is colorful, to say the least.
“Sen. Hollings is famous for his frankness,” said Blease Graham, political science professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
“He’s developed, here in the state, a sense of telling it like it is, even if it hurts him,” he said.
Sources recounted an anecdote a few years ago when ABC news veteran Sam Donaldson was interviewing Sen. Hollings on TV.
The senator had just been to Korea with other lawmakers and had a suit made there.
Knowing that Sen. Hollings opposes the lifting of many trade tariffs and barriers, Mr. Donaldson asked the senator if he was wearing the foreign-made suit. The lawmaker replied that he bought his suit where Sam bought his wig.
Mr. Donaldson said he thought it was a “fair question,” to which the senator said he thought it was a “fair answer,” sources recollected.
Other comments by the senator about minorities and colleagues over the years, as documented in a recent front-page article in The State, South Carolina’s main newspaper, have elicited some apologies.
Fair fighter
But supporters said the senator is never intentionally mean and has long fought for the rights of women, minorities and the impoverished.
“He uses humor-and very sharp humor at times-to make a point,” said a source close to Sen. Hollings who spoke on condition of anonymity.
And the lawmaker commands almost universal respect on Capitol Hill.
Even hard-charging maverick Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who often ruffles feathers in his own party, shows great deference. Sen. McCain visited Sen. Hollings in the Democrat’s office when the Arizona senator took over the committee-not the other way around.
Sen. Hollings, who turned 80 this month, is one of the most senior members of the upper chamber but is still a junior senator because 99-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., has been in the Senate since 1954.
Sen. Hollings began his Washington career in 1966 when he was first elected to the Senate. He was governor of his state from the late ’50s to early ’60s and was close to John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.
He is a graduate of The Citadel and a World War II veteran. The senator and his wife, Peatsy, live in Isle of Palms, S.C., just outside Charleston, and have four children.
The senator declined repeated requests to be interviewed.