I can almost understand Republican Chairman Ajit Pai’s muted response to Trump’s tweeted threats against NBC’s TV station licenses, but not those of Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn. If what they’ve said so far reflects their passion for protecting media from Trump at the FCC, the networks and their licensed stations may be in a little trouble.
The controversy over President Trump’s tweeted threats against the broadcast licenses of NBC because of “fake news” on the network dragged into a second week as reporters finally cornered FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for a comment on Tuesday.
“The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment,” Pai said when asked about the tweets during an event at George Mason University. “And under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
What he didn’t say is that, under the law, the FCC has the authority to revoke a license for many other reasons, and, more important since revocations are rare, make life miserable for licensees in many other ways, most notably by delaying or denying license transfers.
For instance, the FCC could block Sinclair’s merger with Tribune Media by simply determining that it was not in the public interest for this or that reason.
In fact, there is a whole slew of people who want Pai to do just that. Most of them are on the left. They fear that Sinclair will use its enlarged broadcast footprint to spread its conservative message even further.
It is ironic that these are some of the same people who are concerned that Pai might use his regulatory power to bring NBC to heel. I bet that if Clinton had won, they would right now be banging on the door of Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel demanding that she kill the Sinclair deal because of Sinclair’s political views, First Amendment be damned.
Pai’s comments at George Mason this week were as disappointing as they were predictable. Last March, after Trump called CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC “the enemy of the American people,” Pai was asked by Sen. Tom Udall at an oversight hearing if he agreed with the president.
Pai took a pass, saying he didn’t want to “wade into the larger political debates.”
So, on two occasions now, Pai has made it clear that he is not going to criticize the president for his war on the media or even caution him against trying to impose his will on what is supposed to be an independent agency.
Watch him dance around the question again next Wednesday when he appears before the House Communications Subcommittee.
But what about the FCC’s two Democrats, Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn? Surely, they came down hard on the Trump for trying to intimidate the media through the offices of the FCC.
Rosenworcel first reacted with a tweet of her own: “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy. Hope my FCC colleagues can all be on the same page with respect to the 1st Amendment.”
And then in a piece that appeared this week on the website of Cosmopolitan of all places, she said: “I don’t think history will be kind when this agency is silent and does not clearly and unequivocally refute interference like this from the president.”
If you think that was a snore, here’s Clyburn’s Twitter response to Trump’s attack on NBC: “Revoking a broadcast license on such grounds will only happen if we fail to abide by the First Amendment.”
HBO’s political satirist Bill Maher often mocks liberal Democrats for their namby-pamby responses to conservative loudmouths like Trump. Rosenworcel and Clyburn prove his point.
Perhaps the problem is, they don’t have anybody on staff who writes tough.
For Rosenworcel: I don’t have time or the inclination to educate that ignorant, two-bit real estate hustler on freedom of the press. But let me be clear: I will treat any Trump-inspired complaint against NBC with the same contempt I would Trump himself.
For Clyburn: As a former newspaper publisher, I will burn this place to ground before I let Trump or any other political hack use the FCC processes to intimidate or silence the news media in any fashion.
OK, I know, these may be a bit strong and I would like to see more decorum return to Washington. But Rosenworcel and Clyburn could at least be a little more colorful and pointed in defense of free speech and their agency. The Trump resistance needs outspoken leaders.
I disagreed with former Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps on just about every matter of policy, but I appreciate how he was able to use his bully pulpit to rally liberals when he was in the minority during the Bush administration.
The New York Daily News got a good statement from him after the Trump tweets: “This madcap threat, if pursued, would be blatant and unacceptable intervention in the decisions of an independent agency,” he said.
“The law does not countenance such interference. President Trump might be happier as emperor, but I think the American people would strip him of his clothes on this issue.”
That, I think, is just about the right tone for the FCC’s current minority duo.
Last week, I said that their most important job is to make sure that the White House does not meddle in FCC affairs by keeping an eye on what’s going at the commission. All those FCC lifers who voted for Clinton should help with that.
Their second most important job is to speak up early and often in the strongest possible terms whenever Trump’s war on the media crosses over into FCC territory.
They, too, I would note, are scheduled to appear before the House committee next Wednesday. I’ll be listening.