Speaking on Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai rebuffed President Donald Trump’s threat to revoke NBC’s licenses and affirmed that his commission is not able to do that based off their content.
“The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment, and under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast,” Pai said at the event.
Trump tweeted a week ago, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
Trump also tweeted, “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
While clearly referencing the President, Pai did not mention Trump by name. Trump named Pai, who had been serving as a FCC commissioner, as chair of the FCC in January.
Broadcast networks like NBC are not licensed by the federal government, but their individual stations are. The licenses come up for renewals every eight years, but the FCC checks for rule compliance when evaluating the renewal, not content.
While there was little likelihood the FCC would take any actions based off Trump’s comments, Democrats called on Pai to speak out against Trump. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, speaking on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday, said, “History won’t be kind to silence.”
Trump’s tweets also caused some to wonder if the President was coming out in favor of reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine, a since-abandoned FCC rule that mandated broadcasters (networks like radio stations and the broadcast networks, as opposed to cable stations, use public airwaves and are therefore subject to regulation and oversight) present both sides of controversial issues. The FCC abandoned the rule in 1987, calling it a violation of the media’s First Amendment rights.
Pai came out against a potential revival of the Fairness Doctrine, calling it “an affront to the First Amendment to have the government micromanaging how much time a particular broadcast outlet decided to devote to a particular topic.”
The FCC commissioner also weighed in on another favorite topic of the President’s, fake news. When asking about the FCC’s potential ability to determine fake news and address it, Pai was noncommittal but leaned against federal action, “Traditionally that has not been within the FCC’s jurisdiction.” However, he left the door open, saying, “I’m a lawyer by training, of course. I tend to hew as closely as I can to the terms of the Communications Act and of course to other applicable legal principles, and so that’s the standard that we adopt, at least, going forward.”