The FCC rejected a petition to investigate how broadcasters are airing President Donald Trump’s statements about the coronavirus, as well as those made by on-air personalities including Rush Limbaugh.
In response to an emergency petition from public interest group Free Press, the agency said that it would act would “neither act as a roving arbiter of broadcasters’ editorial judgments nor discourage them from airing breaking news events involving government officials in the midst of the current global pandemic.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that “the federal government will not — and never should — investigate broadcasters for their editorial judgments simply because a special interest group is angry at the views being expressed on the air as well as those expressing them. In short, we will not censor the news. Instead, consistent with the First Amendment, we leave it to broadcasters to determine for themselves how to cover this national emergency, including live events involving our nation’s leaders.”
In its petition, Free Press argued that Trump’s misstatements and misinformation about coronavirus have caused “substantial public harm.” They point to Trump’s statements about chloroquine phosphate as an effective treatment for the virus, even though one of his task force members, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said that testing is still inconclusive.
“In terms of science, I don’t think we can definitively say it works,” Fauci said on Face the Nation on Sunday.
In their petition, Free Press argued that “when the president tells dangerous lies about a public health emergency, broadcasters have a choice: don’t air them, or put those lies in context with disclaimers noting that they may be untrue and are unverified. And certainly the FCC has a duty to rein in radio broadcasters that seed confusion with lies and disinformation.”
Among other things, Free Press said that the FCC could issue guidance “recommending that broadcasters prominently disclose when information they air is false or scientifically suspect.”
Broadcast networks have covered briefings on a case-by-case basis, while adding analysis and context. But Trump’s claims over chloroquine, given some promising study, have been a particular flashpoint.
The FDA has approved it for emergency use, given some promising, but there also are concerns of potentially harmful side effects or it being used without medical supervision.
The FDA issued guidance last week warning that chloroquine phosphate used to treat aquarium fish should not be used by humans. After hearing on TV about its potential, including during White House press briefings, an Arizona man died last month after he and his wife took the chloroquine fish treatment, thinking it would be an effective way to prevent coronavirus.
Twitter has been removing tweets that it says contain misleading or potentially harmful content, including one from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, that quoted a claim that “hydroxychloroquine has been shown to have a 100% effective rate treating COVID-19.” Hydroxychloroquine is a related drug used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
The Free Press petition is the latest battle over the role of broadcasters when it comes to the coronavirus. Trump’s campaign has tried to get broadcasters to remove an ad from the pro-Joe Biden super PAC. The spot featured a graph mapping coronavirus cases in the U.S. over the past two months, with audio of comments Trump has made downplaying the threat of the virus.
Last week, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), called on Pai to provide assurances to stations in the wake of the Trump campaign’s legal threats to take the ad spots down. The Trump campaign warned that continuing to air the spots “could put your station’s license in jeopardy.”
The FCC has had no comment yet on the lawmakers’ letter, but in his statement, Pai said, “Under my leadership, the FCC has always stood firmly in defense of Americans’ First Amendment freedoms, including freedom of the press.”
Jessica J. Gonzalez, the co-CEO of Free Press, said that Pai and a fellow commissioner, Brendan Carr “are only on guard for what they consider as attacks on the press from people outside their political bubble, when we’re asking the FCC to use its own rules and processes to raise concerns about the airing of disinformation during a national crisis. They are far less concerned about defending the First Amendment when those threats come from President Trump, who constantly threatens news organizations and declares war on individual journalists.
She added, “Coverage of Trump’s dangerously uninformed medical advice was just one example we provided of the airwaves being used to sow disinformation about Covid-19. There are many broadcast personalities with massive audiences who are using the same harmful talking points. We believe it’s right to ask that the FCC clarify its rules in the context of this national emergency, as other agencies have done for other coronavirus frauds.”