Remember that tweet, six long days ago, when President Donald Trump called for a review of NBC’s broadcast license after it aired unflattering stories about him? We barely can either — but FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has remained conspicuously silent as Trump has amped up attacks on the media from the Oval Office, finally has offered his response.
Pai’s comments, during an appearance at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, will not appease critics who say he is choosing passive loyalty to Trump over any of the agency’s traditional obligation to express vigilance or concern.
“I will reiterate what I have said for many years at the FCC, up to and including last month,” Pai said. “I believe in the First Amendment. The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment. And under the law, the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
Asked about whether the agency should respond to Trump’s repeated use of the term “fake news,” Pai said, “Traditionally that has not been within the FCC’s jurisdiction.”
While no one can object to support of freedom of speech or an affirmation of the agency’s authority, critics say Pai is missing a key opportunity to stake out territory. Also, they say, while he is correct to say the FCC does not technically have the ability to pull a license, Pai could stick up for the media’s First Amendment rights and the importance for the president to avoid hammering away at the “fake news” theme.
Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the five FCC commissioners and one who was appointed by President Obama and then reconfirmed by Trump, has warned of the consequences of Pai’s silence. In an op-ed piece appearing in the somewhat unlikely venue of Cosmopolitan magazine, she concedes that tension between government and media is an age-old feature of Washington. But she said something newer and more insidious is afoot with Pai.
“It’s important to remember that even if you don’t like the commentary on Fox & Friends or news coverage on CNN, the First Amendment ensures that what we see on television, hear on the radio, read in print and interact with on the Internet is free from interference,” she wrote. “No government official has the right to use their power to dictate what news organizations can say.”
Pai also has raised some eyebrows with his anti-regulatory fervor, at a moment when Sinclair Broadcasting’s acquisition of Tribune Media (still under review) could be a sign of bigger megadeals to come. The Senate reconfirmed Pai for another five-year term earlier in the fall, so the debate is unlikely to end anytime soon.