The former Verizon lawyer refused to answer a direct question from senators—and Motherboard.
You might think that the head of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with public interest oversight of the US media airwaves, would object to President Trump's incendiary description of news organizations as "the enemy of the American people."
But you'd be wrong.
Newly-installed Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday repeatedly dodged direct questions from two US senators about whether he agrees with Trump's recent "enemy of the American people" claim, prompting sharp criticism from press freedom advocates.
During a FCC oversight hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Pai was asked point-blank by Sen. Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat, whether he shares the view that news organizations are "the enemy of the American people," as Trump claimed last month.
Pai declined to answer Udall's question.
"Well, Senator, I don't want to wade into the larger political debates," Pai said, adding that he believes that "every American enjoys the First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Constitution."
Pai's non-answer drew a strong rebuke from Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the DC-based public interest group Free Press, a non-profit organization that advocates for free speech and media rights. (Aaron's group has repeatedly highlighted Trump's assault on the First Amendment.)
"Ajit Pai's refusal to speak out against attacks on the press is outrageous and dangerous," Aaron said in a statement. "We're entering uncharted waters when the nation's top media regulator—head of the allegedly independent agency that guards the public airwaves—won't stand up for press freedom."
"In the past, Pai has spoken out repeatedly about his support of free speech," Aaron added, "but he's tongue-tied when it comes to questioning Donald Trump's insistence that the media is the enemy of the people."
"If you're an outspoken defender of the free press, that should be a pretty easy question for you."
Later in the hearing, Pai was given another opportunity to answer the question by Sen. Maggie Hassan, the New Hampshire Democrat, who noted Pai's past comment that "anyone who has the privilege of serving at the FCC—any preacher with a pulpit, if you will—has the duty to speak out whenever Americans' First Amendment rights are at stake."
Hassan, who observed that Pai's official FCC biography states that he "has been an outspoken defender of First Amendment freedoms," reiterated Udall's earlier query about whether Pai agrees with Trump that news organizations are "the enemy of the American people."
"If you're an outspoken defender of the free press, that should be a pretty easy question for you," Hassan added.
Pai once again declined to answer the question.
"There's a larger political debate here that I don't want to wade into," Pai said. "All I can tell you is that I personally believe that every American enjoys the First Amendment freedoms that he or she is granted under the Constitution."
Hassan expressed disappointment at Pai's response: "I wish your answer had been a little different," she said.
During the hearing, Pai insisted that he would act independently from the Trump White House. (The FCC is an independent agency, supposedly free from executive branch interference.) Over the last few years, Pai repeatedly accused his predecessor, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, of improperly acting at the behest of the Obama administration.
On Monday, Pai met with Trump in the White House, but "no proceedings pending at the FCC were discussed," according to an agency spokesperson. On Tuesday, the White House announced that it had renominated Pai for a second five-year term at the agency.
After the hearing, Motherboard reached out to the FCC to see if Pai wanted to clarify whether he agrees with Trump that news organizations are "the enemy of the American people." A FCC spokesperson declined to address how Pai feels about Trump's claim, but said:
In his 2016 dissent on the Commission's media ownership order, then-Commissioner Pai said:
"Of course, newspaper reporters continue to do important work throughout our country each and every day. Many were recently reminded of the impact that their stories can have through the 2015 film Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie focused on The Boston Globe's investigation into widespread child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in and around Boston—reporting that ended up having a worldwide impact on the Catholic Church. But given the newspaper industry's profound financial troubles, it is becoming harder and harder for publications to do this type of investigatory journalism, hold our elected officials to account, and let Americans know what is going on in their communities."
Chairman Pai continues to believe that. Chairman Pai is a strong supporter of the First Amendment rights of the media and all Americans. He has protected those rights at the FCC and will continue to do so as long as he is privileged to serve at the Commission.
It's worth noting that this response does not constitute a direct answer to the question of whether Pai shares Trump's view that the news media is "the enemy of the American people."
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