Democratic members of the Senate Commerce Committee were not happy with FCC chairman Ajit Pai's answers, or lack of them, about recent White House attacks on the news media.
At a March 8 FCC oversight hearing, when asked by Senate Democrats whether he agreed or disagreed with President Donald Trump's characterization of the media as the enemies of the American people, Pai would not say yes or no, saying he did not want to get into that political debate and deferred to the White House about what he might have discussed during meetings with the President.
In a letter dated March 10 and headlined by ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), those Democratic members said they wanted better answers by March 17 and said his lack of transparency at the hearing was unfortunate.
While Pai said he did not want to get into the issue, they suggested he should have.
"As FCC chairman, you have direct authority over the nation's broadcast and media marketplace… and ultimately, the decisions that you, your fellow commissioners, and the agency staff which you oversee make affect the viability and sustainability of news media."
They had several follow-up questions they wanted answers to—it is common for legislators to ask for written responses from witnesses following an oversight hearing—leading off with a reprise of the key query: "Do you believe the media is the 'enemy' of the American people."
In addition, they wanted his assurance that he would regulate the media in an impartial manner, though he appeared to have already answered that question in the hearing, as well as committing to not stifle or penalize free speech, to using his authority in a way that respects the agency's independence from the White House, and to inform the public of any attempt by the White House or any executive branch official to influence him to take action or not take action—including on license renewals for broadcasters—and to do so whether or not that notification is necessary under ex parte or other ethics rules.
Pai had said at the hearing that he would make public any such contacts as required by FCC and ethics rules, but the Dems are looking for more.
They also want to know if the chairman committed to take any specific action against a broadcast or cable entity or other outlet as a condition of getting the chairmanship.
When asked about the letter, an FCC spokesman said: "Chairman Pai is a strong supporter of the First Amendment rights of the media and all Americans," said an FCC spokesperson. "He has protected those rights at the FCC and will continue to do so as long as he is privileged to serve at the Commission."
The spokesman pointed to the following disent from then-commissioner Pai in the Commission’s 2016 media ownership order.
“Of course, newspaper reporters continue to do important work throughout our country each and every day. Many were recently reminded of the impact that their stories can have through the 2015 film Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie focused on The Boston Globe’s investigation into widespread child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in and around Boston—reporting that ended up having a worldwide impact on the Catholic Church. But given the newspaper industry’s profound financial troubles, it is becoming harder and harder for publications to do this type of investigatory journalism, hold our elected officials to account, and let Americans know what is going on in their communities.”
"Chairman Pai continues to believe that," said the spokesman, adding that the chairman also will provide a response to the senators' letter.