How stupid is the panic over Sinclair Broadcast Group’s hamfisted, “must-run” promotional video decrying “fake news”? This stupid: Yesterday 12 senators, including reported presidential aspirants Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), officially requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “investigate Sinclair’s news activities to determine if it conforms to the public interest.” If such an inquiry were to uncover “distorted news reports,” the senators reckoned, that “could disqualify Sinclair from holding its existing licenses” and put the kibosh to its proposed purchase of Tribune Co. television stations.
“Multiple news outlets report that Sinclair has been forcing local news anchors to read Sinclair-mandated scripts warning of the dangers of ‘one-sided news stories plaguing our country,’ over the protests from local news teams,” states the letter, authored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “As strong defenders of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press, we are alarmed by such practices….Must-run dictates from Sinclair harm the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment by turning local journalists into mouthpieces for a corporate and political agenda.”
FCC chair Ajit Pai this afternoon responded with a curt thanks-but-no-thanks. “In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline,” Pai wrote. “I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast. I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage.”
The full text of Pai’s letter is below:
Dear Senator Cantwell:
Thank you for your letter requesting that the Commission investigate a broadcaster based on the content of its news coverage and promotion of that coverage. In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline.
A free media is vital to our democracy. That is why during my time at the Commission I have consistently opposed any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press and have fought to eliminate regulations that impede the gathering and dissemination of news. Most relevant here, I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.
I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage. Instead, I agree with Senator Markey that “[a]ny insinuation that elected officials could use the levers of government to control or sensor [sic] the news media would represent a startling degradation of the freedom of the press.” I also take this opportunity to reaffirm the commitment I made to several members of the Senate Commerce Committee last year that the Commission under my leadership would “not act in a manner that violates the First Amendment and stifles or penalizes free speech by electronic media, directly or indirectly.”
Thank you for your interest, and let me know if I can be of further assistance.
Ajit V. Pai
Pai was quoting there from a letter Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to him in October, urging the chairman to pledge that the FCC would not follow up on President Donald Trump’s suggestion to challenge and possibly revoke the broadcast licenses of network news providers. Pai swatted away the notion of content-related license challenges both before and after Trump’s tirade. (And yes, Markey is a signatory to Cantwell’s Sinclair letter.)
Pai is currently under investigation by the FCC’s inspector general, who is considering whether he acted improperly when lobbying for TV ownership rule changes in advance of the Sinclair-Tribune merger. Sanders and Warren, like most of the contemporary Democratic Party, are dead set against the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United legalizing the political speech of corporations. In Commentary last year, I warned that the erosion of societal support for free speech might eventually trickle up to the judiciary.
Nick Gillespie interviewed Pai last November.
Reason · by Matt Welch · April 12, 2018