Robert Pitofsky, a scholar of antitrust law who as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission was credited with energizing the agency dubbed the “little old lady of Pennsylvania Avenue” with his forceful yet measured approach to competition and consumer protection, died Oct. 6 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 88.
He had complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his son David Pitofsky.
Mr. Pitofsky dedicated his career to antitrust matters as a professor, including at Georgetown University’s law school, where he was dean from 1983 to 1989, and as a lawyer with the Washington firm Arnold and Porter.
But he was best known for his time at the FTC, the federal agency tasked with curbing anti-competitive and deceptive practices in the marketplace. Mr. Pitofsky joined the agency as head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection from 1970 to 1973. He returned as an FTC commissioner under President Jimmy Carter from 1978 to 1981 and became FTC chairman under President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 2001.
Joseph J. Simons, the current FTC chairman, wrote in an email that Mr. Pitofsky was “one of the true giants of his field and the antitrust community” and “one of the very best [chairmen] the FTC has ever seen.” Simons credited him with “establishing a strong bipartisan consensus on how to do antitrust enforcement and policy.”
The FTC, which earned the “little old lady” moniker for its relatively low visibility compared with antitrust enforcers at the Justice Department, took on a more prominent, and at times controversial, role under Mr. Pitofsky.
“What is it about this small agency that attracts superstars from law schools, Supreme Court clerks, partners at great law firms?” Mr. Pitofsky once said, according to the New York Times. “There is at this agency a willingness to challenge the most powerful companies in the world, when those companies have done wrong, in the name of the less powerful.”
He came to the chairmanship at a time when large mergers were becoming increasingly common and the rise of the Internet brought new complexity to cases involving media and technology companies. Meanwhile, old acrimonies remained: Consumer advocates wished for ever-more-aggressive government oversight, while business interests called for greater marketplace freedom. Mr. Pitofsky often sought to find a middle ground.
The agency under Mr. Pitofsky played a high-profile role in the merger of Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting in 1997, and of AOL and Time Warner in 2000. The latter deal was, at the time, the largest merger in U.S. history.
The FTC approved both mergers but insisted on certain conditions to preserve competition. In the first deal, Time Warner agreed to carry a 24-hour news channel — it ultimately went with MSNBC — to compete with CNN, which was among its holdings. In the second, the FTC obtained what the Times described as “the most aggressive action ever taken by the government to make sure that the content flowing through cable and other broadband wires into millions of homes was not controlled by the company that installed the wires.”
“Antitrust is more than economics,” Mr. Pitofsky told The Washington Post, explaining why it was incumbent upon the FTC to exercise relatively greater authority in the area of media and the news. “If somebody monopolizes the cosmetics fields, they’re going to take money out of consumers’ pockets, but the implications for democratic values are zero. On the other hand, if they monopolize books, you’re talking about implications that go way beyond what the wholesale price of the books might be.”
By 2000, shortly before he stepped down, the FTC had moved to stop 11 mergers and lost only twice, The Post reported. A noted victory for the agency was the scuttled merger between Staples and Office Depot in 1997.
In the arena of advertising practices, the FTC under Mr. Pitofsky reached a settlement with the five largest music companies in the United States to end what the agency characterized as illegal marketing agreements amid a price war. When the FTC complained that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. had illegally directed its advertisements at minors, the tobacco company agreed to discontinue the use of the Joe Camel cartoon.
At times, Mr. Pitofsky showed his authority by declining to use it. In 2000, the agency told Congress that it would be improper for the FTC to pursue movie, music and video-game companies that market violent materials to minors. “Personally, I do think some entertainment today is too violent,” Mr. Pitofsky told the Los Angeles Times. “On the other hand, government censorship is worse than the disease.”
Robert Pitofsky was born in Paterson, N.J., on Dec. 27, 1929. His father, a Polish immigrant, worked in textile factories, and his mother sold ladies’ clothing at a department store.
Mr. Pitofsky pursued higher education through scholarships, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English literature from New York University in 1951 and graduating from Columbia Law School in 1954. He served in the Army before beginning his career with the firm Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer and Wood in New York City and as a professor at NYU.
In 1970, he moved to Washington, where he taught antitrust and constitutional law at Georgetown law school. As dean, he oversaw the construction of the Edward Bennett Williams Law Library and founded an academic journal, the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.
Last month, the FTC held hearings at the Georgetown law school on competition and consumer protection in the 21st century that were modeled on hearings Mr. Pitofsky had conducted during his chairmanship. Bill Baer, a former assistant attorney general for antitrust at the Justice Department who also worked under Mr. Pitofsky at the FTC, honored him at the event, saying that “the tradition of nonpartisan, forward-looking and consumer-oriented law enforcement . . . was and is at the core of his being.”
Mr. Pitofsky’s survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Sally Levy, of Chevy Chase; three children, Alex Pitofsky of Hickory, N.C., and David Pitofsky and Liz Pitofsky, both of Brooklyn; and seven grandchildren.
“Antitrust is a deregulatory philosophy,” Mr. Pitofsky once told The Post, explaining the mind-set that he brought to his field. “If you’re going to let the free market work, you’d better protect the free market.”