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Charles D. Ferris, a champion of deregulation at the FCC, dies at 90

Charles D. Ferris, a Washington lawyer who helped enact landmark civil rights legislation as a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and who helped usher in an era of telecom deregulation as head of the Federal Communications Commission, died Feb. 16 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 90.

His daughter Caroline Ferris confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.

As chairman of the FCC from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Ferris loosened restrictions on radio, telephone and cable and satellite television industries, arguing that the public interest was often better served by a competitive marketplace rather than government regulators trying to play the role of referee. His tenure “transformed how the FCC does business,” according to broadcast and media scholar Reed W. Smith, with deregulation only escalating during the Reagan administration.

Mr. Ferris “changed the FCC’s status from being a behind-the-times and sluggish agency to being one that was activist and innovative,” Smith wrote in a 2014 article for the Journal of Radio & Audio Media.

Nominated by President Jimmy Carter and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in October 1977, Mr. Ferris had hardly any technical knowledge of broadcasting and communications, though he dryly noted that he had been “using a telephone and listening to the radio” since boyhood and had “been watching television” for nearly as long.

What he lacked in policy expertise he made up for in political experience, having spent nearly 14 years on Capitol Hill as an adroit and decisive chief counsel to Mansfield, a Montana Democrat who steered the Senate through debates over civil rights, Watergate and the Vietnam War. Mr. Ferris also briefly served as general counsel to Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., a fellow Democrat from his home state of Massachusetts.

Although he was all but unknown to the general public, Mr. Ferris had accrued so much power and influence from his work with Mansfield that “he was regularly referred to as the 101st senator,” according to the New York Times.

As the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act unfolded on the Senate floor, Mr. Ferris retreated to backroom offices, joining a coterie of congressional staffers and Justice Department officials who helped shape the bill’s language and the strategy behind its passage. “I always felt that my job was to make sure that we didn’t screw things up,” he recalled in a Senate oral history.

At the FCC, he found himself in charge of an agency that was widely seen as sluggish and beholden to special interests. He took a firm hand in reshaping the organization, starting with more quotidian matters like staff hours (he changed the daily schedule of agency employees so that they no longer clocked out at 4:30 p.m., which he considered inconvenient for the public, but at 5:30) before moving on to issues of public policy.

Mr. Ferris sided with fellow Carter administration officials such as Alfred E. Kahn, the head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, in championing a looser approach to government oversight. He hired a bevy of economists to an agency that had long been staffed primarily by lawyers, and argued that unless regulations were “improving the market,” they “were nothing but a nuisance.”

Under his direction, the agency removed rate regulations on telephone equipment and paved the way for consolidation between the telephone and computer industries, notably by allowing AT&T to enter the computer field through a subsidiary.

The agency was also credited with helping encourage a cable television boom by eliminating key restrictions on programming and satellite use; eliminating paperwork requirements for local radio broadcasters; simplifying the licensing procedure for new radio stations; and helping women and minorities qualify for broadcast station ownership.

Broadcasters didn’t quite know what to make of Mr. Ferris, who broke with the more respectful stance of his predecessors to upbraid the industry, as when he warned cable broadcasters that they needed to innovate or perish — “If you cannot compete with new technologies, you will be overcome by them” — and chastised networks for failing to offer a wider array of programs.

Critics charged that the policy changes he spearheaded, including the decision to eliminate time requirements on radio commercials and public affairs programming, were not entirely successful.

His belief that “public demand” would lead to an outgrowth of public service programming “has not been realized,” Smith wrote, noting a 2011 study that found “a shortage of local, professional, accountable reporting” in many communities. Mr. Ferris’s efforts to diversify station ownership also proved incomplete: A 2011 FCC study cited by Smith noted that only 6 percent of the country’s more than 18,000 broadcast stations were minority owned.

Still, Mr. Ferris had plenty of admirers. Under his leadership, the FCC “moved with the times and helped the nation adjust,” the Times editorial board declared in January 1981, three months before he left office.

“Mr. Ferris, and the President who appointed him, addressed the right problems,” the editorial continued, “and they leave the right ones behind.”

The second of three sons, Charles Daniel Ferris was born in Boston on April 9, 1933. His father was a conductor and union officer for the Boston-area transit authority, and his mother was a telegraph operator who became a loan investigator.

Mr. Ferris, who was known as Charlie, went to Catholic schools and studied physics at Boston College, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1954. He briefly worked at Sperry Gyroscope before joining the Navy and serving in the Pacific with the rank of lieutenant junior grade.

He returned home to teach naval science and marine engineering at Harvard University and took night classes at Boston College Law School. After receiving his JD in 1961, he joined the Justice Department as a trial lawyer, specializing in admiralty law. Within a few years he was staff director and general counsel of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, which was led by Mansfield.

Mr. Ferris went on to help shape legislation including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Mansfield and other lawmakers championed after civil rights demonstrators were beaten by state troopers and a sheriff’s posse while marching outside Selma, Ala. In the Senate oral history, Mr. Ferris recalled meeting with Mansfield the morning after the attacks.

“Charlie, I want you to draft a voting rights bill for me by three o’clock this afternoon,” he said the senator told him. “And I want it on one page. I want it air tight. I don’t want any exemptions. I want the absolute right to vote for everyone in this country. Now that should be able to be done in one page. I don’t want ambiguities that lead to exemptions.”

“I sort of snickered that he wanted it by three o’clock,” Mr. Ferris said. “He didn’t snicker.” (Mr. Ferris went on to craft a preliminary draft with Justice Department official Harold H. Greene.)

After leaving the FCC, Mr. Ferris joined the Boston-based law firm of what is now Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. He became the head of Mintz’s Washington office and helped launch its communications practice, remaining with the firm until he retired in 2013.

His marriage to Patricia Brennan ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters, Caroline of Barcelona and Sabrina Ferris of Boston.

Mr. Ferris served on the board of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which promotes U.S.-Asia relations, and was a trustee of Boston College, which invited him to deliver its commencement address in 1978, soon after he joined the FCC.

“Government, while imperfect, is the only counterweight we have to great combinations of narrowly held power in the private sector,” he said in his speech. “Government, in the end, is the only body that can claim to speak for the people.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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