Trump's NBC threat puts new pressure on FCC chief

Trump's NBC threat puts new pressure on FCC chief
© Greg Nash

President Trump’s threats to revoke media outlets’ broadcasting licenses have put Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai under new pressure.

Pai, a Republican, has been silent this week on Trump’s suggestions that media outlets he believes are slanted against him should be challenged over their licenses.

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” Trump tweeted in response to the outlet reporting that he had called for increasing the nation’s nuclear arms stockpile in a meeting with cabinet officials.

“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” he wrote in another tweet.

The calls were instantly met with criticism from both sides of the aisle. Critics said that, while the proposal isn’t feasible, it still constitutes an egregious threat to free speech and a free press.

And the controversy has turned the spotlight on Pai, whose agency is responsible for licensing local news broadcasters.

Democrats and activists have dialed up the pressure on Pai to break his silence. On Friday, a coalition of press freedom advocates sent Pai a letter urging him to publicly disavow the president’s comments.

“As an independent agency charged with protecting the public interest and overseeing the public airwaves, the FCC must resist any attempts to co-opt the broadcast-licensing process to suit the president’s whims,” the letter reads.

“Such threats are what you would expect to hear in a dictatorship, not a democracy, and they must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”

The Hill has repeatedly asked Pai’s office for comment since Trump’s initial tweet on Wednesday, but has not yet received a response. Spokespeople for the other two Republican commissioners, Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly, also did not return requests for comment.

The list of signatories on the letter urging Pai to comment on Trump’s threat includes Beau Willimon, the creator of the Netflix show “House of Cards” and head of the the Writers Guild of America, East; Free Press CEO Craig Aaron; and Tom Wheeler, Pai’s Democratic predecessor as FCC chairman.

Trump has not made it easier for Pai. Asked by The Hill to clarify what the president meant in his tweets, a White House spokesman essentially put the ball in Pai’s court.

“The FCC is an independent agency that has full authority over a process for ensuring licensees live up to their obligations,” the spokesman said.

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“It is common sense that news organizations have a responsibility to the American people to report fairly and accurately,” he added. “The issue is not limits on what the press reports, but the responsibility the press has to the American people to report the news honestly.”

While Trump has alarmed free press advocates, his threats are effectively toothless. While the FCC is in charge of licensing local broadcasters, the agency does not grant licenses to national networks, like NBC, that may be affiliated with local stations.

“Not how it works,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted in response to Trump on Wednesday.

Still, some critics are arguing that the mere idea of a president voicing the threat could hinder journalists.

“This threat alone may already be chilling free-speech across the country,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said in a joint statement Thursday that called on all five FCC commissioners to disavow the president’s attacks.

“That is why we and others have called on the FCC Chairman to immediately condemn this intimidation and promise to the American public that he will not follow through on the directions he has received from the President,” they said.

But Pai still has defenders. Roslyn Layton, a telecommunications scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former member of Trump’s transition team, told The Hill that she thinks Democrats are overreaching by using the president’s tweets to attack Pai.

“When I read the tweet, I don’t interpret it as Trump communicating to the FCC,” Layton said. “I interpret it as Trump communicating to Congress, because Congress sets up the FCC, they created the Communications Act. It’s ultimately Congress’s decision.”

Layton said that the transition team never discussed using media outlets’ licenses as leverage over critical journalists.

This isn’t the first time that Trump’s broadsides against the media have put Pai in an uncomfortable corner.

Senate Democrats grilled Pai in February during an oversight hearing about whether he agreed with a Trump tweet that characterized several media outlets as “the enemy of the American People.”

That episode put Pai on the defensive, and he repeatedly emphasized his vocal support for First Amendment rights. And while he responded that he didn’t see the press as an enemy, he also defended Trump’s attack.

"I should note that at the hearing, I was asked if I agreed with the President that the media was the ‘enemy’ of the people,” the FCC chairman wrote to the Democrats in a follow-up letter. "However, the President has made clear that he was referring to 'fake news.' As I stated at the hearing, these comments are part of a larger political debate into which I will not be wading."