FCC rejects petition to probe broadcasts of Trump coronavirus briefings

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Monday rejected a petition from an advocacy group calling for an investigation into alleged misinformation being broadcast on news networks during President Trump’s daily briefings about the U.S. coronavirus response.

The group Free Press filed an emergency petition last month seeking a probe into the widespread broadcast of the White House briefings, claiming that it was responsible for the spread of false information about the novel coronavirus pandemic. The group specifically raised concerns over Trump’s promotion of a drug combination which includes an anti-malaria drug to treat the virus and alleged “disinformation that broadcast-radio personalities are spreading.”

Health officials have continually warned that not enough is known about the drugs to determine their efficacy, though it hasn’t stopped Trump and his allies from regularly touting their potential.

Free Press asked for emergency guidance “recommending that broadcasters prominently disclose when information they air is false or scientifically suspect.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai strongly rebuked the group’s request, saying in a statement 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,” he added. “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.”

The FCC’s Office of General Counsel and Media Bureau wrote in a letter to Free Press that the petition, at worst, amounted to a “brazen attempt to pressure broadcasters to squelch their coverage of a president” that the group “dislikes.”

“The Commission does not — and cannot and will not — act as a self-appointed, free-roving arbiter of truth in journalism,” the letter reads. “Even assuming for the sake of argument that Free Press’s assertions regarding any lack of veracity were true, false speech enjoys some First Amendment protection, and section 326 of the Communications Act, reflecting First Amendment values, prohibits the Commission from interfering with freedom of the press or censoring broadcast communications.”

Free Press co-CEO Jessica González defended her group’s efforts following the denial.  

“Today’s decision shows that when the Republican ideologues sitting in the majority at the FCC are asked to provide guidance and protect people against medical misinformation aired on broadcast outlets, they don’t take that request seriously,” González said in a statement.

“But when the agency feels like it can score points with the Trump administration and its right-wing base, it answers very quickly, but without giving any serious thought to the FCC’s public-interest mandate or to the life-and-death consequences of the issue at hand,” she continued.

Trump has repeatedly touted anti-malaria drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as a possible way to combat COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. He suggested multiple times over the weekend that people without coronavirus symptoms should also consider taking the drug. 

“What do you have to lose?” he said. “I’m not looking at it one way or another. But we want to get out of this. If it does work, it would be a shame if we didn’t do it early.”

Health officials, including Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert and a medical doctor, stress that not enough is known about the drug to make definitive conclusions. 

The petition from Free Press came around the same time the Trump campaign threatened legal action against some broadcasters airing an ad that makes it appear as if Trump called the novel coronavirus a “hoax.” The campaign also claimed airing the ad could put station licenses in jeopardy. 

Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) sent a letter to the FCC last week asking the agency to voice its opposition such threats, Reuters reported. Pallone is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Doyle chairs the subcommittee overseeing the FCC.

Tags Ajit Pai Anthony Fauci Coronavirus Donald Trump FCC Frank Pallone Mike Doyle

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