FCC Rejects Petition to Investigate Airing of Trump Virus Statements

The FCC--in this case comprising the chairman, the general counsel and the Media Bureau chief-has flatly, and strongly, rejected a petition by Free Press seeking a government investigation into broadcasters who aired statements by the President during coronavirus briefings and "related commentary," arguing that the investigation would itself curtail a free press.

They made it clear that the FCC would not become "a roving arbiter of broadcasters’ editorial judgments nor discourage them from airing breaking news events involving government officials in the midst of the current global pandemic."

The President has been accused of inaccurate statements about the virus and treatment and raising false hopes about containing the pandemic and their have been calls for the media not to air the daily briefings in full, arguing the President is using them as alternative rallies of sorts given the social distancing that has curtailed his regular rallies.

The FCC's general counsel and Media Bureau "wholly rejected" the petition.

General Counsel Tom Johnson Jr. and Media Bureau chief Michelle Carey, in a joint letter, they said that the petition "seeks remedies that would dangerously curtail the freedom of the press embodied in the First Amendment and misconstrues the Commission’s rules."

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has been called upon by Trump critics to pledge not to interfere in broadcaster decisionmaking when it comes to airing an anti-Trump ad. The denial of the petition gave him the chance to do so in connection with a very different issue.

Related: Hill Dems Push Pai to Declare TV Licenses Not in Jeopardy

“Under my leadership, the FCC has always stood firmly in defense of Americans’ First Amendment freedoms, including freedom of the press," Pai said. "And so long as I am chairman of this agency, we always will.

"The federal government will not—and never should—investigate broadcasters for their editorial judgments simply because a special interest group is angry at the views being expressed on the air as well as those expressing them," said Pai. "In short, we will not censor the news. Instead, consistent with the First Amendment, we leave it to broadcasters to determine for themselves how to cover this national emergency, including live events involving our nation’s leaders.” 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.