Senatorial attack on the First Amendment

Senatorial attack on the First Amendment
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On April 11, 11 Democratic senators and Independent Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins Biden calls Trump a 'liar' and a 'clown' at first debate Biden mocks Trump campaign debate claims: 'I've got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready' MORE sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai requesting that the proposed merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media be denied. Their request didn’t stop there; the senators requested not only that Sinclair’s future acquisitions be denied but that its existing broadcast licenses be reviewed and a decision be made on whether they should be revoked.

The senators wrote this letter seemingly without a sense of the tremendous ironies laced throughout. First, they express concern over a threat to the First Amendment. Consider that — they are working to restrict a local broadcast company from reporting news to more people, to silence its voice, and citing the First Amendment guarantees of Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech as the reasons to do so.

Second, they level the accusation that Sinclair’s broadcast decisions are driven by corporate and political agendas. It bears mentioning that, on average, a local Sinclair station programs about 96 percent of the weekly local news content, and about 4 percent of the content material is produced at the corporate level. Again, consider this: 12 senators, in overwhelmingly partisan fashion, sign onto a letter to intervene in a free-market acquisition because they find themselves in disagreement with an exceptionally small percentage of the content Sinclair distributes. One has to ask, who is politicking here?


And third, of particular irony is that one of the signers of the April 11 letter, Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Manchin opposes adding justices to the court MORE from Massachusetts, in October sent a letter to the FCC decrying President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE’s challenge over NBC’s broadcast licenses. His previous letter said “it is inappropriate for the president to propose challenging broadcasters’ licenses because he disagrees with their coverage.”

In a swift reply, Chairman Ajit Pai affirmed his agreement with Sen. Markey’s words from the senator’s previous letter and reasserted them to support his decision not to pursue the senators’ request:

“I agree with Sen. Markey that ‘[a]ny insinuation that elected officials could use the levers of government to control or sensor [sic] the news media would represent a startling degradation of the freedom of the press.’ I also take this opportunity to reaffirm the commitment I made to several members of the Senate Commerce Committee last year that the Commission, under my leadership, would ‘not act in a manner that violates the First Amendment and stifles or penalizes free speech by electronic media, directly or indirectly.’”

The catalyst for this letter appears to be the recent media furor regarding Sinclair’s practice of providing local affiliate stations with scripts. Not only is this standard practice across the industry, there are no regulations prohibiting Sinclair from having local anchors deliver a scripted promotional message. So what, then, could the senators’ letter truly be about? I struggle to find anything in Sinclair’s script that is not utterly mainstream.

Media often report on fake news; fact-checking often falls by the wayside. It’s a problem and presents a danger to our democracy. In the media, some people push an agenda, across the political spectrum, and those who don’t report facts need to be exposed.

Finally, what truly begs questioning here is the media’s coverage of this sequence of events.  Rightfully, there was mass coverage of the fallout from President Trump’s challenge of NBC licenses in October 2017. Many in the media shined a light on that as a threat to the First Amendment. Likewise, there is currently far-reaching coverage of Chairman Pai’s declination of the senators’ request to challenge Sinclair’s licenses. What received comparatively minimal media coverage was the senators’ challenge of Sinclair’s licenses in the first place.

Why is that? Why was there no outrage, given what an assault that would be on the First Amendment? I’ll continue searching for the answer.

David D. Smith is executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group.