Media Watchdog Hollings to Retire


Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), a powerful voice in the ongoing national debate over media consolidation, last Monday said he would not seek re-election next year.

Hollings, 81, was first elected in 1966, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and the Vietnam War was raging.

His departure was not unexpected: Recent campaign records revealed that he had not been raising money for a possible 2004 run. Republicans hope they can pick up Hollings' seat in conservative South Carolina and widen their majority.

"I want to confirm what you have all suspected — that I will not be opting for re-election next year," Hollings told reporters at a Columbia, S.C., press conference on Aug. 4. "The people of this state have been unusually good to me since I started up in 1948, and I've been elected seven times to the U.S. Senate. Now it's time for someone else to take over."

Consolidation opponent

Although unfair textile trade and budget deficits were his signature issues, Hollings was just as influential on media and telecommunications matters.

From his position as the most senior Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, Hollings supported rules that restricted the size of the "Big Four" broadcasters and that separated ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same market. When the Federal Communications Commission voted June 2 to relax both rules, Hollings became a leader in the Senate effort to roll back the decision.

After the FCC vote, the Commerce Committee approved a bill, co-sponsored by Hollings, that called for the restoration of the old rules. When the Senate returns in September, Hollings is expected to continue the effort to nullify the agency's actions, despite overt veto threats by the White House.

Hollings was chairman of the Commerce Committee in the early 1990s. He lost the post when the Republicans took over after the 1994 elections. He became chairman again last Congress, but had to yield the gavel to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after President Bush's stumping helped the GOP regain Senate control.

Still, Hollings played a central role in passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which called for breaking up the Baby Bell phone monopolies, phasing out expanded basic-cable rate regulation by March 31, 1999, and fostering a deregulatory environment for the expansion of the Internet.

"Fritz Hollings is one of the true giants in the … Senate and the cable industry will miss his knowledge and leadership on telecommunications issues," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs in a statement.

Drawl and daggers

Hollings spoke with such a deep Southern drawl that he was at times difficult to understand. Although he had a courtly appearance, he often had sharp words for those who challenged him.

For example, Hollings was one of FCC chairman Michael Powell's harshest critics. At one hearing, he said that because Powell placed so much faith in the market, he was better suited to run a Chamber of Commerce than a regulatory agency.

In September 1990, Hollings appeared on an ABC News program and fought back hard when reporter Sam Donaldson asked whether Hollings used a Korean tailor — an insinuation that Hollings was for protecting the South Carolina textile industry as long as it did not affect him personally.

Hollings replied, "If you want to personalize this thing, where did you get that wig, Sam?"

On telecommunications policy, Hollings supported regulation of the cable industry, but eased up when the direct-broadcast satellite industry demonstrated its ability to compete.

He was a relentless critic of the Baby Bell phone companies, though, calling them sluggish monopolies that should not be deregulated.

If Democrats were to recapture the Senate in the 2004 elections, the next chairman of the Commerce Committee would likely be either Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) or Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).