Ajit Pai refuses Democrats’ request to revoke Sinclair broadcast licenses

Democratic lawmakers yesterday followed in President Trump’s footsteps by asking the Federal Communications Commission to consider revoking licenses from a broadcaster.

While Trump called for the FCC to consider revoking NBC licenses because of “fake news” in October 2017, Senate Democrats asked Pai yesterday to consider revoking licenses from the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai shot the request down, telling Democrats that he will stand up for First Amendment press freedoms and that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to revoke licenses based on the content of newscasts. Pai said much the same after Trump made his statement regarding NBC—but there were some notable differences between Pai’s response to the Trump incident and this week’s dispute with Democrats.

In October, Pai initially avoided making any statement in response to Trump, despite repeated requests from journalists and lawmakers.

“Despite our calls, the chairman has refused to say if he agrees with the president,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) said at the time.

Pai finally addressed the matter six days after Trump’s threat to NBC, when he was put on the spot in a public panel discussion.

“The FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast,” Pai said then. But Pai made no direct reference to Trump or Trump’s call for the FCC to challenge NBC licenses. Pai also has repeatedly declined to weigh in on Trump’s claims that the media is spreading “fake news” and is the “enemy of the American people.”

Pai issues more forceful response to Democrats

Pai’s response to Democrats today was consistent with his belated response to questions about Trump and NBC. But his reply to Democrats was much lengthier and more specific. His letter to Democrats reads, in part:

Thank you for your letter requesting that the Commission investigate a broadcaster based on the content of its news coverage and promotion of that coverage. In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline.

A free media is vital to our democracy. That is why during my time at the Commission I have consistently opposed any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press and have fought to eliminate regulations that impede the gathering and dissemination of news. Most relevant here, I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.

I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage.

Pai’s staff repeatedly promoted Pai’s rebuke of Democrats on Twitter today. “Many Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the FCC yesterday asking us to go after a broadcaster’s licenses because they don’t like its news coverage,” FCC Chief of Staff Matthew Berry tweeted. “But we’re not going to do that. Instead, we will protect the First Amendment and freedom of the press!”

Democrats concerned about “fake news” script

The Democrats’ call for Sinclair’s licenses to be challenged was spurred by Sinclair forcing its local news stations to read a script that echoed Trump’s frequent complaints about the media spreading “fake news” stories.

Led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), 12 Democrats argued in their letter to Pai that Sinclair “violated the public interest obligation inherent in holding broadcast licenses.”

They wrote:

Sinclair may have violated the FCC’s longstanding policy against broadcast licensees deliberately distorting news by staging, slanting, or falsifying information (traditionally known as the news distortion standard). Multiple news outlets report that Sinclair has been forcing local news anchors to read Sinclair‐mandated scripts warning of the dangers of “one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” over the protests from local news teams.

As strong defenders of the First Amendment, guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press, we are alarmed by such practices. In the United States, the airwaves belong to the American people. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for ensuring that broadcast licensees use the public airwaves to serve the public interest. We call on the FCC to investigate whether Sinclair’s production of distorted news reports fails the public interest test.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was among the Democrats who signed the letter. Pai’s response noted that Markey previously urged Pai to reject Trump’s demand regarding NBC.

“I agree with Senator 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,'” Pai wrote.

Sinclair fight will continue during merger review

Since Pai wasn’t willing to investigate NBC at Trump’s behest, it’s no surprise that he turned down Democrats’ request regarding Sinclair. But Democrats’ battle with Pai over Sinclair is not about to end, because Sinclair has expansion plans that are being helped along by the FCC.

Sinclair owns or controls 193 TV stations in 89 US markets, and its pending purchase of Tribune Media Company would give Sinclair another 42 local TV stations.

Pai already rolled back broadcast TV station ownership limits that would have prevented the merger. Upon the urging of Democrats, FCC Inspector General David Hunt recently agreed to investigate whether Pai has improperly favored Sinclair and coordinated with the company on FCC rule changes.

Democrats’ letter to Pai yesterday urged him to pause the FCC’s review of the Sinclair/Tribune merger. The Democrats wrote:

Because of the new facts that have come to light with regard to Sinclair’s misconduct and abuse of the public trust pertaining to its existing broadcast licenses, we believe it is appropriate to pause the pending Sinclair‐Tribune merger review and reopen the agency record on the transaction so that the FCC can receive another full round of robust public comments. We are concerned that if the Sinclair-Tribune merger continues without a thorough review of these new facts, Sinclair’s practices of news distortion will proliferate to even more local stations, which Americans rely upon every day for fair and impartial news.

Pai’s spokespeople have previously criticized Democrats for “target[ing] one particular company because of its perceived political views.”

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