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A Lott of Clout Is Gone

Thanks to Trent Lott's abdication as Senate majority leader, the media industry's clout in the 2003 Congress is tougher to predict than it was three weeks ago.

The Senate majority leader's post last week was filled by Tennesseean Bill Frist, who has almost no background in media and telecommunications issues.

By contrast, "Lott was a fairly staunch defender of broadcasters," says Shaun Sheehan, Tribune Co.'s Washington lobbyist.

Frist, on the other hand, is "an unknown quantity" on telecommunications issues, says Richard Wiley, head of Washington law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding, and a former FCC chairman.

In the middle of his second Senate term, Frist, 50, is a deeply conservative lawmaker who is well regarded by Democrats for his willingness to strike bipartisan deals. A heart surgeon and son of the founder of a for-profit hospital chain, Frist is an expert in health policy.

Aside from his opposition to last year's McCain-Feingold campaign-reform law, which broadcasters also opposed, Frist has not taken an aggressive stand on industry-related legislation.

Whit Adamson, president of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, says he's grateful for Frist's opposition, considering fellow Tennessean Sen. Fred Thompson was a co-sponsor of the legislation. The law was signed into law by President Bush in March.

"Thanks to Sen. Frist, we split Tennessee's Senate vote," Adamson says. "We've been able to find an understanding ear in Bill Frist."

Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, which typically fights broadcasters on many issues, says Lott's demotion may actually work in broadcasters' favor if the Mississippi lawmaker takes a seat on the Commerce Committee, from which most legislation relevant to the industry originates. Lott didn't serve on any committees as GOP leader.

"Potentially he's an important ally for industry, particularly broadcasters," Schwartzman says.

Lott has had especially close ties to the National Association of Broadcasters, which is led by his friend and fellow Mississippian Eddie Fritts. (They attended the University of Mississippi at the same time in the early 1960s.) Lott backed broadcasters' stands on a number of critical issues including his calls to retain the 35% cap on the networks' and other TV station groups' national TV household reach and to require cable companies to carry TV stations' entire digital multicast lineup.

Among other industry stands, Lott has criticized FCC Chairman Michael Powell for considering broadband deregulation while a similar legislation was still pending in Congress and endorsed calls to revive a tax credit for companies that sell media properties to minorities and small business owners.

After Lott quit, some broadcasters were downplaying their relationship with him. They pointed out, for instance, that he voted against the Cable Act of 1992, in which NAB won must-carry and retransmission consent rights for TV stations.

Lott relinguished the majority leader post on Dec. 20 after drawing fire for suggesting that the U.S. would have been better off had Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) won the presidency in 1948. Thurmond ran as a segregationist.