FCC chairman Ajit Pai, saying he did not want to be drawn into the wider debate over President Donald Trump's attacks on the media Wednesday during a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing, refused to comment on the President's labeling of the media as the "enemy of the people," or say whether or not he agreed with it, pledging to run an independent agency, and standing by past statements against government pressuring news outlets to cover stories in a certain way.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) outlined the President's "open hostility toward media outlets"—many of whom have business before the FCC, "from regulatory matters to potential merger reviews—as well as Pai's historic statements in support of a free press and against White House pressure on independent agencies and asked Pai whether he also thought the press was the enemy.
Pai said he would not comment on issues beyond the commission but associated himself with the comments quoted, which included an op ed in which he said "the government has no business pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories" and an interview in which he said the FCC should use the bully pulpit to continue to advocate for free speech.
Udall said the President was using bully tactics against the media.
Asked whether he agreed with Trump that the media were the enemy of the people, Pai said: "I don’t want to get into the larger political debates, but I will simply reaffirm the quotes that you offered."
"So you refuse to answer that," Udall said. Pai said no, saying that "I believe that every American enjoys the First Amendment protection guaranteed by the Constitution."
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) was not happy with Pai's answer on the enemies question and later gave him another chance to answer. He stuck with his original answer. She said she wished she had gotten a different response.
Pai would not comment on whether his discussions with President Trump included any conversations about specific media companies, saying he would leave that to the White House to comment.
But asked if the FCC would operate independently of the White House, he said "absolutely."
Asked if he would resist "any attempt by the White House to use the FCC to intimidate news organizations," Pai said that he has consistently said that the FCC is independent and he would render decisions based on law and precedent and what he and his colleagues think is in the public interest.
Pai did say he has not had any conversations with anyone at the White House about CNN or the AT&T-Time Warner deal.
Asked if he would immediately report to the committee if the White House contacts him about taking any favorable or negative action regarding any media or communications business, Pai said he would follow all the appropriate ethical requirements that would apply.