FCC chairman silent amid Trump’s attacks on press

President Trump continued his assault on NBC News Friday, retweeting former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that “the President will not be able to impact licenses, but he is doing major damage to the NBC brand.”

Trump added, “Sadly, they and others are Fake News, and the public is just beginning to figure it out!”

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has yet to weigh in on the commission’s role in upholding the First Amendment after Trump called Wednesday for network news licenses to be revoked based on “partisan, distorted and fake” reporting.

A petition started by nonpartisan advocacy group Free Press garnered thousands of signatures within the first hour of it being posted online, including the signature of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are calling for a hearing with Pai and the other FCC commissioners so that “they can publicly disavow President Donald Trump’s repeated threats.”

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesFCC Chairman Ajit Pai arrives for a confirmation hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 19, 2017 in Washington.

Though Pai has a history of defending free speech rights, he made no mention of the issue while speaking at a “Fireside Chat” on entrepreneurship Thursday in Indianapolis.

The president’s threat to revoke NBC News’ license is the latest battle in a war he began waging against the media during his presidential campaign.

The attacks have grown even more intense during his presidency.

In July, the president shared an edited video of him body-slamming someone with the CNN logo superimposed on his face. At a Phoenix rally in August, Trump railed against journalists as “sick people” who “don’t like our country,” blaming the media for misrepresenting his words responding to the violence in Charlottesville.

Last week on Twitter, Trump urged the Senate Intelligence Committee, the same committee investigating possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian government, to launch a congressional investigation into “Fake News Networks.”

A closer look at the threat

Lori Brainard, a professor at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, said revoking news networks’ licenses could happen — if the FCC allowed it.

“The FCC can do what it wants. The FCC can investigate whatever it wants,” Brainard said.

That’s what makes Pai’s silence so unsettling to advocates, Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “I think it would be good for the FCC to come out and clarify that they don’t intend to start limiting licenses based on the content of the speech.”

The FCC has not responded to ABC News’ request for comment.

While it is unusual for the FCC to revoke a broadcast license based on content, Brainard said there is precedent. In 1969, WLBT, an NBC-affiliated station in Jackson, Mississippi, was stripped of its right to broadcast by the FCC for “failing to serve the public interest.” According to the Jackson Free Press, activists complained that the station hired few blacks, routinely cut programming featuring blacks and refused to air some political ads.

Brainard said the Trump administration might lean on the FCC to launch an investigation into news programming, or fund or back interest groups to challenge licenses that go up for renewal. While there is no single license for any national television network, local television stations’ licenses are subject to FCC review every eight years.

This also wouldn’t be the first time an administration has tried to meddle in the license approval process. President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office recordings revealed that he wanted The Washington Post to be given “damnable, damnable problems” getting its FCC licenses renewed for a station the paper owned in Florida.

Leslie said he found some solace in the way the Nixon interference played out.

“Appropriately, that was treated as a scandal…that it was horrible that a president would try to take action and interfere with the rules of a federal agency,” he said.

Response and Condemnation

Trump’s threats this week were condemned by some members of Congress, as well as Democrats serving on the FCC.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted a link to Trump that gives an overview of FCC license rules. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn tweeted that revoking a broadcast license on such grounds “will only happen if we fail to abide by the First Amendment.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, wrote a letter to Pai, asking him to publicly refuse any presidential challenge to broadcasters’ licenses because of coverage disagreements. Markey is also requesting any communications from the Trump administration on the matter by Nov. 1.

The president’s comments also drew condemnation from some Republican lawmakers. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., asked if the Trump was renouncing his oath of office. House Speaker Paul Ryan refused to weigh in directly, telling ABC News, “I’m for the First Amendment…I don’t always agree or like what you guys write, but you have a right to do it, and I’m a constitutional conservative and I’m just going to leave it at that.”

In a speech last month in Washington, Pai stressed the need for a “shared cultural commitment to the importance of free speech,” pointing to college campuses that silence views perceived as unpopular or offensive. However, he also pointed to demands from people on Twitter, requesting the FCC “yank licenses from cable news channels…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,” he said.

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