Pai to Hill: Guard's Physical Contact With Reporter Was Wrong

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has said that a security guard should not have had physical contact with a reporter following the FCC's network neutrality open meeting, and the reporter, CQ Roll Call's John Donnelly, should not have been subsequently asked to leave the building.

That came in responses to Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who had asked for information on the incident. Those senators did not seem assuaged. 

But the chairman also said the contact was accidental and that the context was a heightened security alert given death threats and previous demonstrations related to the network neutrality issue, which has inflamed passions on both sides of the issue. 

He also said that while Donnelly claimed to have been "pinned against the wall," the security officers present "adamantly denied" that allegation. Pai appeared to be persuaded by the officers, since he characterized the interaction as "inadvertent" physical contact when the officer "backed" into the reporter while escorting commissioner Michael O'Rielly from the meeting room.

Pai said that while the contact was "inadvertent...nevertheless, it should not have occurred." He said that, likewise, the reporter "should not have been asked to leave the building." 

But the chairman also said the officers had a difficult job and suggested they were just trying to do it in the face of a heightened threat level. 

He told the legislators that the FCC has apologized and has provided "appropriate counseling" to security staff so that such an incident won't be repeated.

The senators said they appreciated the response but still had issues with the incident. 

"I am still troubled by what seems to be a dangerous pattern of hostility by the Trump administration toward professional reporters that goes beyond rhetoric," said Udall. "Physical intimidation of working credentialed reporters undermines the constitutional right to freedom of the press, and I would expect a chairman of a federal agency created to ensure public access to information would join Senator Hassan and me in our deep concern. It is understandable that security was high at the FCC hearing on May 18. But I'm extremely concerned that the FCC security wasn't able to better balance the need to ensure access and safety. It is common practice for reporters to seek interviews with public officials outside of a public meeting—sometimes about the subject of the meeting, and sometimes not. While we don't always have time to respond, experienced security and public officials should be able to manage a reporter asking questions—starting with asking for his press credentials—without needing to physically separate them. Chairman Pai is correct to take action to ensure this never happens again. But I hope he also takes action to ensure that FCC commissioners understand that their job includes answering for their actions and being reasonably responsive to the people and the media."

Hassan, characterizing the incident as deeply troubling and a mistreatment of a journalist, said she had concerns that the FCC "continues to downplay the account of a respected Washington journalist. As we noted in our letter, this incident is particularly troubling because it seems to be part of a larger pattern by the Trump Administration of hostility toward the press. It is critical that the Trump Administration and our taxpayer-funded agencies show the proper respect to the First Amendment and defend the freedom of the press. I will continue to work to hold the Trump Administration accountable for its dangerous rhetoric and actions that undermine the functioning of the free press."

In a letter to Pai in response to his explanation to the senators, the National Press Club has invited him to appear at a National Press Club Journalism Institute sumit in the coming months to "talk about the challenges facing all of us and how we might establish some common ground and rules of the road for security and access in a 21st century democracy," given that the FCC's version of the event diverges marketing from Donnelly, a member of the press club's Press Freedom Team.

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.