FCC chair Ajit Pai got a grilling from Democrats Wednesday (Oct. 25) unhappy with his deregulatory thrust and his perceived failure to sufficiently parry Donald Trump's threats against TV licenses.
Pai had a ready answer for the House Communications Subcommittee durig an oversight hearing Wednesday (Oct. 25) with the five FCC commissioners.
Ranking committee member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) was among a host of Democrats who upbraided the chairman for what they said was a delayed -- and "tepid," as Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) put it -- response to the president's tweeted threats about pulling TV licenses after an NBC news story Trump called fake.
Pai said he had repeated "again and again and again" that the First Amendment must be and would be at the heart of the FCC's work. That includes ensuring journalists can report as they see fit without government interference. He said that was why he opposed a news diversity study under his predecessor.
Pai said his record is clear, but that presidential attacks on the press were not new. But to Democrats it was not as clear whether Pai was leaving room in his past statements for actions beyond just not pulling licenses.
Pressed for more clarity from Pallone, Pai committed to not affecting license transfers in other ways due to the content of newscasts, not to launch investigations based on the content of newscasts, and that the FCC would not retaliate against companies based on the content of newscasts.
Pai invoked President John Kennedy's suggestion to an FCC chair of his era that a story was "outrageous" and something should be done about it, and Congress' own call to the FCC to pull FCC licenses over a documentary that had not even aired (that was Sinclair's "Swift Boat" documentary of over a decade ago).
The chairman has suggested that the focus on the tweeted attacks and his response is a political effort to distract from the FCC's work.
The subcommittee has already favorably reported to the full House Energy & Commerce Committee a bill reauthorizing the FCC, but there was plenty to talk about, including the ATSC 3.0 transition, the post-auction TV station repack, network neutrality, the Sinclair-Tribune merger proposal and media ownership deregulation among them.
On that last point, the chairman said he would be proposing a vote on major broadcast deregulation at the November meeting.
Republicans stood up for the chairman, particularly efforts to roll back Title II classification of ISPs and rolling back media ownership regs he has long argued are outdated in a world of online and MVPD competition.