Trent Lott, populist hero

Once a GOP ultra-partisan, the deposed Senate leader is now leading the charge against the FCC and media giantism. Is it his revenge against the Bush White House?

By Eric Boehlert

Published September 22, 2003 9:36PM (EDT)

The Republican-controlled Senate's lopsided, bipartisan vote last week in favor of trying to undo recent media deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission was the latest, surprising victory for anti-consolidation forces.

The battle over whether to further relax media-industry ownership rules and allow giants such as Viacom, Gannett, NBC, Clear Channel and News Corp. to expand their already vast holdings has touched off an unusually public debate about the role of big business. And in an age of strict party discipline, it has sparked a surprising split within the Republican Party.

Even more unexpected is the Republican who's leading the anti-FCC charge: former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. Lott is known as a strong deregulation champion who rarely breaks ranks with the White House, and a sharp partisan unlikely to reach across the party aisle. Yet, at a recent Capitol Hill press conference there was Lott, standing alongside Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., delivering tens of thousands of public petition signatures -- not to mention some choice sound bites -- urging Congress to stand firm in what he saw as the FCC's cave-in to special corporate interests.

"He's become a champion for us on this," says Gene Kimmelman, director of the Washington office of Consumers Union, a public advocacy group not often aligned with Southern Republican senators. "As the former leader of the Senate he's extremely well-versed in strategy, which has been invaluable as we face formidable adversaries like broadcasters and publishers and the White House."

"Lott's role has been a mystery that many people have been speculating on," adds a Capitol Hill lobbyist who has been involved in the ongoing fight over media ownership. "He's been a pit bull. Every time it was time to hold a press conference, Lott was there. Every time a vote came up, Lott and his people were making calls and shaking hands on the floor. Unquestionably he's been a surprising ally."

The proposed rule changes would allow one media company to own the leading newspaper and television station in the same market. It would also allow broadcast networks such as Fox and NBC to buy more local television stations, enabling them to reach 45 percent of the national audience, up from the current national cap of 35 percent.

Proponents say the new rules are needed, that the old, restrictive rules no longer apply to today's media landscape, which has become flooded with so many choices. Critics argue that allowing fewer and fewer companies to control the media will lock out diversity and chip away at local productions.

The White House, standing firmly by the FCC, has indicated it would veto any attempt by Congress to alter the rules. If so, it would be President Bush's first veto. His allies on the Hill are hoping it doesn't come to that, but Lott seems determined to force a showdown with the White House. "Sen. Lott feels strongly there are a number of [legislative] vehicles out there and he will take advantage of them until we get the issue to the president's desk," says Susan Irby, the senator's communications director.

Lott's zeal to take on the Republican president has left some longtime observers stumped. "It's amazing, and very un-Lott-like," says Bill Miner, the dean of Mississippi political journalists, who writes a weekly syndicated column on state politics. "I've been scratching my head trying to figure it out."

The senator's spokeswoman insists his media consolidation position is nothing new. "He's never varied from his feelings that conglomerate corporations should not be able to gobble up stations and take airwaves, and localism and diversity, away from the people," says Irby. Kimmelman, who's working closely with Lott's office, backs up that assertion, noting that over the years the Mississippi senator "has, on numerous occasions, jumped in on the consumers' side of communication issues. This is not a first." (Champions of low-power FM radio remember a different Lott, though, one who worked with industry broadcast lobbyists to derail the Clinton FCC's effort to grow thousands of community-based radio stations.)

Still, speculation persists about his motivations, with some wondering if Lott's public fall from grace last December may be a factor in his battle with big media, as well as with the Bush administration.

"I believe there's some payback" in the current media debate, says Miner. "A little bit of kicking the White House in the shins, getting back at Bush who helped pull the rug out from under him" last year.

A former veteran Hill staffer who worked extensively on telecommunication issues is more blunt: "If Lott can hide behind the cloak of localism and make life miserable for the White House and the party leadership, that's fine with him."

Lott lost his leadership position following comments he made suggesting America would have avoided "all these problems" if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. A media firestorm ensued, which Lott could not extinguish. Eventually he was forced to step down from his Senate perch, making room for Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. There was widespread speculation at the time that the Bush White House, and specifically political advisor Karl Rove, was instrumental in choreographing Frist's rise. There's also talk that Lott feels he was treated unfairly by the national press corps last winter, that he's out to block efforts by its owners who want the government to OK further deregulation. Specifically, Lott is said to have poor relations with Mississippi's largest newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. The daily is owned by Gannett, a company lobbying strenuously for further relaxation in the ownership rules.

"It's safe to say Lott doesn't get along with Gannett," says one Mississippi newspaper editor.

But Lott's spokeswoman dismisses speculation that Lott's behavior is directed either at media companies or at the White House as "absurd." She complains, "Other people can talk about big tobacco, or big corporations, or big business. But when a Republican talks about big media, then there must be a motivation."

One liberal, anti-FCC activist who's grateful for Lott's support concedes Washington insiders are always searching for a motivation. "None of us are able to fathom that anybody would do something based on the merits, because there's always that cynical edge," he says. "But in Lott's case, you cannot discount that angle."

The Senate's recent vote, called a resolution of disapproval, would essentially overturn the FCC rules in their entirety, rules that govern ownership of newspapers and television and radio stations. Lott co-sponsored the resolution.

The legislative maneuver has been used successfully only once before, in 2001, when the new Republican Congress voted to overturn ergonomic rules adopted in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Last week's vote passed by a vote of 55-40, with 12 Republicans joining the majority of Democrats.

Activists say the margin of victory would have been even wider if it hadn't been for a last-minute misinformation campaign launched by conservative talker Rush Limbaugh. On the Friday before the vote, Limbaugh told listeners that the attempt to roll back the FCC ownership rules would mean the return of broadcasting's Fairness Doctrine, meaning he would have to invite liberals on the show to counter his views. His callers promptly lit up Capitol Hill phone lines to complain. But as Lott's spokeswoman points out, the Fairness Doctrine "has absolutely nothing to do with the FCC rules." Nonetheless, she suggests Limbaugh's scare tactic "might have shaved a few votes off" the winning margin.

Ever since June 2, when the FCC passed the rules on a party line vote of 3-2, with the Republican commissioners voting in favor, FCC chairman Michael Powell and the White House have suffered setback after setback as both the courts and Congress continue to tee off on the media deregulation push.

On Sept. 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia stunned Beltway insiders when it put the new rules on hold as it considered an appeal.

Lott's crusade is causing discomfort not only for the White House, but also for Powell, who was once seen as a rising star within the Republican Party. His public service career may still be intact, but Powell's standing has certainly dropped inside the Beltway, with criticism mounting that's he's botched the entire media debate.

Last week BusinessWeek called for the chairman's resignation: "Powell has generated unprecedented opposition across the political spectrum, from the conservative National Rifle Association to the liberal National Organization for Women. By the FCC's own count, it has received some 2 million calls, faxes, e-mails and letters opposing the [rule] changes. This is failed leadership."

Perhaps out of desperation, Powell recently penned on Op-Ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, warning that if the ownership rules were overturned, "the days of free television may be numbered." In other words, CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox might go out of business. That's tough to believe considering the networks collected $9 billion this spring in upfront advertising commitments for the season's prime-time programming, up 13 percent from last year. Powell's scare tactic brought a harsh critique from conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, who labeled the chairman's actions "an embarrassment to the White House."

In coming months the White House may have to endure more embarrassments before the bubbling media debate is over, and for that they can thank Trent Lott.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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