At the Senate Commerce Committee's FCC oversight hearing Wednesday (March 8), agency chairman Ajit Pai would not be drawn into the debate over President Donald Trump's attacks on the media, refusing to comment on Trump's "enemy of the people" characterization, but he stood by his past statements against the government pressuring news outlets to cover stories in a certain way and pledged to run an independent agency.
Outlining Trump's "open hostility toward media outlets" -- many of which have business before the FCC, "from regulatory matters to potential merger reviews" -- as well as Pai's historic statements in support of a free press and against White House pressure on independent agencies, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asked Pai whether he also views the press as the enemy.
While Pai said he would not comment on issues beyond the commission, he associated himself with the comments quoted, including an op ed in which he wrote, "The government has no business pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories," and an interview in which he said the FCC should use the bully pulpit to continue advocating for free speech.
Udall said the president was using bully tactics against the media and asked Pai whether he agreed with Trump's comments.
"I don’t want to get into the larger political debates, but I will simply reaffirm the quotes that you offered," Pai said, referring to his own quoted statements.
"So you refuse to answer that," Udall noted.
"No," Pai said, adding, "I believe that every American enjoys the First Amendment protection guaranteed by the Constitution."
Pai would not comment on whether his discussions with Trump, including one earlier this week, covered any specific media companies, saying he would leave that question to the White House to answer. But asked if the FCC would operate independently of the White House, Pai said, "Absolutely."
Udall pressed further, asking if Pai would resist "any attempt by the White House to use the FCC to intimidate news organizations." Pai said he has consistently stated the FCC is independent and that he would render decisions based on law, precedent and what he and his colleagues think is in the public interest.
The chairman said he has not had any conversations with anyone at the White House about CNN or the AT&T-Time Warner deal.
Asked if he would immediately report to the committee if the White House contacted him about taking any favorable or negative actions regarding any media or communications business, Pai said he would follow all the appropriate ethical requirements that would apply.
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