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Pai Passes on Countering Press Attacks

FCC chairman Ajit Pai, when pressed by Democratic senators during an oversight hearing last week, would not repudiate President Donald Trump’s characterization of the news media as “the enemy of the American people.” But he didn’t endorse it, either.

It is important for media companies to have confidence that an independent regulatory agency is not being used as a political weapon by a press-bashing White House and Pai did say last week, emphatically, that the FCC would operate independently of the White House. That’s something he accused his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, of not doing when it came to Title II reclassification.

The senators are concerned that the Trump administration could pressure the FCC to crack down on media outlets, given the president’s attacks on the news media and criticism of the acquisition of CNN parent Time Warner by AT&T.

That concern may have been heightened by Trump’s Oval Office meeting with the chairman last week, though it was followed the next day by an announcement that Pai would be renominated.

Deferring to the White House for such inquiries, Pai declined to speak about what he and Trump discussed. An FCC spokesman said after the Oval Office meeting, though, that they didn’t talk about any items currently before the commission — that could still have included the AT&T-Time Warner merger, which the FCC is not reviewing, but Pai said he had not talked with any Trump administration officials about that deal.

Pai has spoken out in support of the First Amendment and has talked of using the FCC’s bully pulpit to do so, but he was not ready to speak out against the president’s broadsides at broadcast, cable, print and online news media.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) led that line of questioning at the hearing. He said Trump was trying to bully the media, and was clearly looking for Pai to use his influence to push back on the president’s attacks.

Pai was not willing to go there. He said he did not want to “weigh into the larger political debates,” but he did reaffirm his past statements in support of free speech and against government trying to influence news coverage.

The senators were looking for some yes or no answers, but Pai instead framed his responses in terms of his duty to follow the law and the facts, which did not seem to satisfy them.

Asked if he would “resist any attempt by the White House to use the FCC to intimidate news organizations,” Pai offered a lawerly response.

“Well, senator, I have said consistently, including just last week, that we are an independent agency and for any matter that is displaced before me, I will take a sober look at the facts that are based on papers submitted by interested parties,” he said. “I will render a decision based on the law and the precedents that apply to those facts and I will make a determination based on what I and my colleagues think is in the public interest.”

But the Senate Democrats wanted more, and in a letter late last week they asked the chairman to provide some yes or no answers by March 17.

After the hearing, Free Press president Craig Aaron responded, “Ajit Pai’s refusal to speak out against attacks on the press is outrageous and dangerous.”