The head of America's telly watchdog, the FCC, said he cannot follow up on Donald Trump's threat to revoke the broadcast licenses of TV networks that run unflattering news coverage of the US president.
Speaking at a public policy conference at George Mason University, Virginia, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the authority of the communications regulator does not extend to the ability to revoke any broadcaster's license simply due to political coverage.
"The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment, and under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke the license of a broadcaster station based on content of a particular newscast," the FCC boss said.
A spotlight was shone on Pai and the FCC this month following the president's suggestion that the government should "challenge [a news network's] license" for broadcasting what the White House deemed was "fake news" (read: the truth).
Pai was made chairman of the FCC by Trump in January, and is seen as a cheerleader for the celebrity real-estate tycoon. It was thought his allegiance to Donald was the reason why he remained silent on the president's anti-free-speech outburst. Following mounting pressure to speak up, however, Pai confirmed today that, no, America hasn't completely lost its mind: journalists can't be gagged in the Land of the Free for standing up to the administration and calling out its nonsense, not by the FCC, anyway.
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The FCC supremo went on to address the issue of "fake news," noting that, again, his agency doesn't have any authority to tackle it or decide what is and isn't made up.
"Traditionally that has not been within the FCC's jurisdiction, and I tend to hew as closely as I can to the terms of the Communications Act and other applicable legal principles, and that's the standard that we adopt going forward," said Pai.
The comments are the most decisive yet from Pai in the wake of Trump's claims. The FCC has come under fire for not being faster to speak out against what many say is an implied attack by the president on the First Amendment.
Even after today's remarks, some Congressional Democrats are skeptical of just how committed the Trump-appointed Pai really is to keeping the FCC out of politically motivated crackdowns on news stations. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) said he was hoping for for stronger condemnation.
"This statement is better than nothing, but it is merely a reiteration of the FCC’s authorities under the law. What we needed is a full-throated defense of the independence of the FCC against political interference," said Schatz.
"When the president announced his intent to retaliate against a broadcaster based on content, the FCC should have rejected it." ®