The first returns from Capitol Hill on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's response to President Trump's tweeted attacks on the press were not promising.
Pai told a Mercatus Center audience in Washington Tuesday, after being asked for comment, that he supports the First Amendment and that the FCC "doesn't have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast."
The President, apparently angered by an NBC News story, had suggested someone "must" challenge the licenses of media outlets and the FCC revoke them if necessary.
Any member of the public can challenge a license, as could the FCC on its own initiative, but the FCC would have to conclude a broadcaster was not operating in the public interest, which is a high bar that has rarely been met.
Pai said Tuesday (Oct. 17) he was just reiterating what he has said before--though not publicly since the President's twitter storm last week--which was part of the problem.
“This statement is better than nothing," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). "but it is merely a reiteration of the FCC’s authorities under the law. What we needed is a full-throated defense of the independence of the FCC against political interference. When the president announced his intent to retaliate against a broadcaster based on content, the FCC should have rejected it.”
Schatz is ranking member of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, which has primary jurisdiction over the FCC.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee agreed.
“Chairman Pai was right to assure the public that the FCC cannot revoke any broadcast licenses based on the content of a specific newscast," he said, "but I am disappointed that the Chairman continues to remain silent on the President’s ongoing efforts to intimidate and threaten news outlets. The Chairman should therefore be prepared to commit—under oath, if necessary—that he will take no actions whatsoever to retaliate against news outlets in response to the President’s pressure.”
The Energy & Commerce Committee Communications Subcommitee has scheduled an FCC oversight hearing with Pai and the other commissioners for Oct. 25.
“Chairman Pai’s remarks do not sufficiently address my concerns – shared by newsrooms and journalists across the country – about a President who seems intent on curtailing their Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sought Pai's public disavowal of the President's attacks (http://www.broadcastingcable.com/news/washington/blumenthal-joins-call-f.... "The President’s comments were chilling and intimidating. What’s needed from the Chairman of the FCC is not just a restatement of the blackletter law, but a clear rejection and repudiation of the President’s suggestion, including a pledge to protect the free press from political interference.”
Free Press, which joined Schatz and other Democrats in calling for that full-throated, direct repudiation of the President, saw it as progress but also wanted more.
"I'm not sure why it took Ajit Pai almost a week to say anything about President Trump's dangerous comments, but I'm glad he is at least willing to acknowledge that the First Amendment still applies at the FCC," said Tim Karr, senior director of strategy.
"This isn't the first time Pai had to respond to a Trump attack against journalists; and it likely won't be the last. Trump's assault on press freedom will continue until enough people -- including those like Pai who have been carrying out his agenda -- renounce the president in stronger and more direct terms."