FCC Chairman Pressed to Respond to Trump’s Threat to Revoke Licenses Over News Coverage

Ajit Pai FCC

WASHINGTON — Days after President Donald Trump suggested that network outlets’ broadcast licenses should be revoked because of “partisan, distorted and fake” news coverage, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is being pressed to speak out on what some journalism groups see as an attack on First Amendment values.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said that she doesn’t “think history will be kind to silence” and that it was important that the agency make clear its support for the First Amendment.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was more critical of Pai, saying that his silence was “making himself complicit in the coercion that the president himself is engaging in.” Wheeler wrote in a blog post on Friday that “the president may decide he can walk away from his oath of office, but the FCC commissioners have also sworn to uphold the Constitution.”

An FCC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday. Pai and the two other Republican commissioners, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, have not responded to Trump’s tweet on Wednesday, in which he said that “network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”

A number of journalism organizations, including the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Free Press, Media Law Resource Center and PEN America released a statement expressing concern over Trump’s comments.

“When coming from the leader of the free world, words matter,” the organizations said in a statement. “And if the First Amendment means anything, it’s that the government can’t censor news because it’s critical of the government. The president should be working to uphold the values of the First Amendment, not tearing them down.”

The FCC issues broadcast licenses to individual stations, not networks, and they are subject to renewals every eight years. But the renewal process is, in the vast majority of cases, a formality, and the FCC reviews whether the outlets have served the public interest. That has included such things as the amount of programming devoted to public affairs and local issues, not the nature of its news reporting.

“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the First Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press,” Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement last week. “It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist.”

Pai himself expressed dismay last month over what he sees as free speech “under siege” in the United States, citing efforts to silence to speakers on college campuses. But in his speech to the Future of Speech Online Forum at the Newseum, Pai said that he also saw “worrying signs” at the FCC, pointing to Twitter messages in which “people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks.”

“Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn’t license cable channels, these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions,” Pai said.

As Rosenworcel noted on CNN on Sunday, Trump’s tweets on FCC licenses evoked the efforts by some of President Richard Nixon’s allies to revoke the licenses of stations owned by the Washington Post, then aggressively reporting on the Watergate scandal.

In his CNN appearance, Wheeler also criticized Pai for his efforts to relax a series of media ownership rules that have helped make possible Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media. Sinclair has become the target of a number of public interest groups who warn of media consolidation and that it will force its stations to adopt a rightward agenda at the expense of localism. Wheeler was joined by Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who has been a longtime advocate against media consolidation.

The Sinclair-Tribune merger, currently under FCC review, would create a broadcasting giant with 223 TV stations serving 108 markets, including 39 of the top 50, and to cover about 72% of U.S. households.

Wheeler said that while Pai has “gone out of his way” to change the FCC rules to help out a “pro-Trump broadcaster,” now as Trump is “trying to intimidate other broadcasters there is absolute silence.”

Pai has defended the FCC’s review of the transaction, and said that his actions as chairman “have not been fueled by a desire to help any particular company.” In a letter to Senate Democrats, he also dismissed the idea that Trump pressed him to ease the way for Sinclair’s plans to expand.

“We did not discuss any issue pending at the FCC involving Sinclair Broadcast Group even being mentioned at either meeting, and I do not recall the Sinclair Broadcast Group even being mentioned at either meeting,” Pai wrote.