When Deborah Majoras was majoring in social work during the '80s, she received some fortuitous advice. If she really wanted to help people, a trusted professor told her, she should work toward a position of power. Majoras took the counsel to heart. The advice led her to law school, after receiving her B.A. from Westminster College in Pennsylvania.
“I'm not one of these people who always wanted to be a lawyer,” says Majoras, now chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. The decision to pursue a legal career, however, proved sound.
Today, she is one of the most important lawyers in Washington, as well as a critical figure on the TV landscape. Because the FTC is the top regulator of consumer advertising, Majoras plays a key role in the economics of television.
For the past year, the FTC has been urging broadcast stations, cable operators and other media to reject ads for bogus diet-drug ads and report such marketers to the FTC. Some in Congress are also calling on the FTC to restrict food marketing to children. Majoras says that is unlikely to happen unless Congress specifically orders the FTC to do so.
Still, the agency is consulting with food manufacturers to beef up their self-policing efforts. Kraft, for instance, announced plans in January to eliminate snack-food ads to kids under 11. General Mills and Kellogg are promoting food lines with less fat and sugar.
The head of the FTC since August, Majoras spent most of her career as an antitrust lawyer. Now she is charged with protecting consumers from bogus ads and monopolies. And she doesn't shy away from blunt talk to make her case.
Speaking at a luncheon earlier this year with Good Housekeeping editors, she insisted there are too many diet ads on cable hocking “crappy product.”
She also blasted the identity thieves, sellers of phony business investments and other scam artists who prey on consumers as “cowards. I was going to say 'scumbags,'” she said, in an aside from her prepared text. Sassy talk from a seasoned merger negotiator should come as no shock, but from the petite and polished Majoras, it catches a listener a bit off guard.
Majoras began her career assent simply. She spent a year as a legal secretary before heading to law school at the University of Virginia. In 1989, she was hired as a clerk for Stanley Harris of the U.S. District Court in Washington. Working for Harris, she got her first taste of antitrust law—and experienced her first dealings with the FTC.
Early Cable Experiences
After the clerkship ended, she was hired to work in the Chicago office of law firm Jones, Day. Among her early assignments was assisting cable operator Tele-Communications, Inc. with the spinoff of its Liberty Media subsidiary. (TCI's cable systems are now part of Comcast.)
Majoras was assigned to write Harris' opinion overturning the FTC decision not to let printing/directory- publishing company R.R. Donnelly purchase a rival. The judge ordered the case to be sent back to the commission; it became part of FTC lore, lasting another five years. The merger was ultimately approved.
Although her career has allowed her to handle huge antitrust cases, such as the government's settlement with Microsoft four years ago, and enter into negotiations with European Union officials to combat e-mail spam, Majoras retains a small-town skepticism of Washington's power structure and the legal profession itself.
Growing up in Meadville, Pa., a town of 13,000, she often took trips to Cleveland, about 90 miles away. “It was true-grit America; not everybody was a lawyer. When I was growing up, I was a Browns fan, an Indians fan. I still am.”
Despite her small-town roots, Majoras quickly grew comfortable in a job that keeps her in the national spotlight. She champions high-profile FTC campaigns regarding credit fraud and publicizes the new “do not call” law for telemarketers, among other causes.
In the Spotlight
The spotlight, however, brings scrutiny—something Majoras learned to handle in her previous job at the Justice Department, where she was hired in April 2001 as a deputy to Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Charles James. He had been a colleague at Jones, Day when he got into government, and he asked Majoras to join him.
Her first assignment was a daunting one: negotiate a new antitrust settlement with Microsoft, because a previous one with the government had been rejected by a federal court.
“Before I even joined Justice, Charles said, 'You better start reading about Microsoft.'” Majoras ultimately landed in a media maelstrom; press reports and Microsoft competitors ripped into the settlement a week before it was announced.
“It was a bit of shock,” she says. “I was not fully prepared for the press reaction.” Looking back, Majoras regrets stonewalling journalists. It gave her opponents an opportunity to create the negative perception that the government was going easy on Microsoft. At the same time negotiations were coming to a head, Majoras was busy getting married.
“The wedding went ahead. I even went on my honeymoon,” she smiles. “But I was calling in every day from Maui.”