Pai Commits to No Retribution, Period, Over News Content

FCC chair Ajit Pai got a grilling from Democrats Wednesday (Oct. 25) unhappy with his deregulatory thrust and his perceived failure to sufficiently parry the President's threats against TV licenses. He had had a ready answer.

That came in a House Communications Subcommittee oversight hearing with the five FCC Commissioners.

Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) was among a host of Democrats who upbraided the chairman for what they said was a delayed, and "tepid," as Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) put it, response to the President's tweeted threats against TV licenses and NBC over a news story he called fake.

Pai said he had repeated "again and again and again" that the First Amendment must be and would be at the heart of the FCC's work, including journalists reporting as they see fit without government interference. He said that was why he opposed a news diversity study under his predecessor.

Pai said his record is clear, but that presidential attacks on the press were not new. But it was not as clear to Democrats that the chairman was not leaving room in his past statements for actions beyond just not pulling licenses.

Pressed for more clarity from Pallone, Pai committed to not affecting license transfers in other ways due to the content of newscasts, not to launch investigations based on the content of newscasts, and that the FCC would not retaliate against companies based on the content of newscasts.

Pai invoked President John Kennedy's suggestion to an FCC chairman of his era that a story was "outrageous" and something should be done about it, and Congress' own call to the FCC to pull FCC licenses over a documentary that had not even aired (that was Sinclair's "Swift Boat" documentary of over a decade ago).

The chairman has suggested that the focus on the tweeted attacks and his response is a political effort to distract from the FCC's work.

The subcommittee has already favorably reported to the full House Energy & Commerce Committee a bill reauthorizing the FCC, but there was plenty to talk about, including the ATSC 3.0 transition, the post-auction TV station repack, network

neutrality, the Sinclair-Tribune merger proposal and media ownership deregulation among them.

On that last point, the chairman said he would be proposing a vote on major broadcast deregulation at the November meeting.

Republicans stood up for the chairman, particularly efforts to roll back Title II classification of ISPs and rolling back media ownership regs he has long argued are outdated in a world of online and MVPD competition.

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.