The top US media regulator has refused to say if he believes the press is “the enemy.”
It should be a simple question: Do you agree with President Trump's claim that US news organizations are "the enemy of the American people"?
Yes or no?
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who runs the sole agency charged with public interest oversight of the US media airwaves, repeatedly refused to answer that question last week during a key Senate hearing.
Pai's evasion clearly annoyed several Senate lawmakers. Now, a group of influential Democratic senators are formally requesting that Pai clarify his stance on Trump's incendiary assertion, along with a host of other free speech matters.
"Your refusal to answer straightforward questions about how you view the media and whether you will uphold the First Amendment rights of journalists and media outlets is concerning," the senators wrote in a letter to Pai on Friday.
"While you have long claimed to be an advocate for the freedom of the press and the First Amendment, your silence on the matter and refusal to take a stand against threats levied at the media is troubling given your regulatory and oversight role over the industry," the senators added.
The letter was signed by Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, along with Sen. Tom Udall from New Mexico, Sen. Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire, Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, Sen. Brian Schatz from Hawaii, Sen. Edward J. Markey from Massachusetts, Sen. Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, and Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey.
In a statement, a FCC spokesperson said that Pai is a "strong supporter of the First Amendment rights of the media and all Americans."
During the Senate hearing, Pai's explanation for his refusal to answer the "enemy of the American people" question was that "there's a larger political debate here that I don't want to wade into."
That's a particularly disturbing justification for free speech advocates because Pai seems to be implying that the question of whether the press is "the enemy of the American people" is a matter of ongoing political debate in this country. It's not, or at least it wasn't until Trump levelled his incendiary charge.
"Chairman's Pai's failure to address these comments is very troubling," Victor Pickard, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard. "It is a bedrock American principle that a free press is a cornerstone of democracy and such core principles should not be subjected to partisan politics."
"Pai is entrusted to protect the public interest."
"Pai is entrusted to protect the public interest," Pickard added. "There should be no wavering when it comes to protecting press freedom, especially from the FCC."
In fact, the phrase "enemy of the people" is a notorious rhetorical device used by dictators like Stalin that meant "death," according to Mitchell A. Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It meant you were subhuman and entirely expendable," Orenstein told The New York Times last month. "This is the connotation for anyone who lived in the Soviet Union or knows anything about the Soviet Union, which Donald Trump obviously doesn't—or he doesn't care."
This is the type of language that FCC Chairman Pai, whose official bio says he's an "outspoken defender of First Amendment freedoms," has refused to denounce.
"I think Chairman Pai needs to decide, right now, whether this is Trump's FCC or his," Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, told Motherboard. "Pai must tell us whether he believes in the Constitution or the president, because apparently in a Trump Presidency, you can't have both."
"If Chairman Pai is unwilling to protect a free press without reservation or hesitation, perhaps Chairman of the FCC is not the right job for him," Cyril added.
In their letter, the Democratic senators asked Pai to answer the following questions and respond by this Friday March 17th:
1) Do you believe the media is the "enemy" of the American people?
2) Can you assure us that you will exercise your authority as chairman of the FCC to regulate the media in an impartial manner?
3) Will you commit to us that the FCC will not act in a manner that violates the First Amendment and stifles or penalizes free speech by electronic media, directly or indirectly, even if requested by the administration?
4) Did you commit to the administration, as a condition for your elevation or renomination as chairman of the FCC, to take any action against a specific media entity or generally against broadcast entities, cable network owners or other media outlets?
5) Will you commit to us that you will exercise your authority as chairman of the FCC in a manner that fully respects the absolute independence of the agency from the executive branch?
6) Finally, will you commit to inform us and the public of any attempt by the White House or by any executive branch official to influence your decision-making or direct you to take or not take any action with respect to media interests within your jurisdiction, including the license renewal applications for broadcasters (whether or not such contacts fall under the ex parte rules or other legal or ethical rules applicable to the FCC)?
Motherboard will keep you posted on FCC Chairman Pai's response.
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