October 17, 2017

Cortez Masto, Commerce Committee Democrats Call for FCC Oversight Hearing to Address President Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom

Senators: "FCC Chairman’s failure to quickly denounce threats raises questions about FCC’s ability to act independently under Chairman Pai"

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and other members of the Senate Commerce Committee, in calling on the Chairman and Ranking Member of the committee to hold an FCC oversight hearing to highlight President Trump’s attacks on the media and his latest threat to interfere with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) television station license renewal proceedings.

“The FCC Chairman’s failure to quickly respond and denounce these threats is shocking and raises questions about the ability of the FCC to truly act independently under Chairman Pai’s leadership,” the senators wrote. “It is imperative that FCC Chairman Pai and his fellow Commissioners address this Committee and respond to the President’s stated desire for regulatory abuse of his perceived critics at the FCC.”

In their letter to Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the senators outlined the escalating rhetoric the president has used to attack the press and undermine public confidence in the media by disputing the legitimacy of any reporting critical of his administration. 

In addition to Senators Cortez Masto, Schatz, Udall, and Hassan, Commerce Committee members U.S. Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) signed the letter.

The full text of the letter is here and below:

Dear Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Nelson, 

Since taking office, this Administration has made statements and has taken actions that suggest a troubling disregard for the First Amendment and the freedom of the press.   The President has referred to the media as “the enemy of the state”, publicly antagonizes specific companies for what he deems unfair coverage, and regularly undermines public confidence in the free press with unsubstantiated claims of “fake news.”

On October 11, the President escalated that attack by directly attacking specific, and real, network news operations based on reporting with which he disagreed, and threatening those operations through the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) television station license renewal proceedings.

It took six days and pressure from Congress and the media for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to respond and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr continue to remain silent on the President’s threats.  This silence is inexcusable on an issue that goes not only to the independence of the FCC, but also to the core of our democracy and the freedoms we value as Americans.  FCC Chairman Pai had previously defended his lack of response to the President’s earlier comments, saying the President was responding to “fake news” not to actual FCC regulated media operations.  The President’s latest actions have crossed that line with his blatant suggestion of interference with specific FCC licensees.  The FCC Chairman’s failure to quickly respond and denounce these threats is shocking and raises questions about the ability of the FCC to truly act independently under Chairman Pai’s leadership.

It is crucial that the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation exercise oversight in this matter. This Committee is the United States Senate’s committee of jurisdiction over policies that impact the media landscape, including through its oversight of the FCC, which is the only Federal agency that has express regulatory authority over broadcast and media companies.  Previously, you, Chairman Thune, committed to holding FCC oversight hearings at least biannually, but the Committee has yet to have a hearing with the newly fully appointed Commission.  Moreover, this Committee also has not held a hearing on the state of the media in the U.S. since 2009. 

We therefore request an FCC Oversight Hearing as soon as possible.  It is imperative that FCC Chairman Pai and his fellow Commissioners address this Committee and respond to the President’s stated desire for regulatory abuse of his perceived critics through the FCC.  We also urge you to move forward on the separate request made earlier this year asking you to hold a hearing on the state of the U.S. media landscape more generally.  A copy of the May 2017 letter is attached, and the topic of the state of the media is timelier than ever. 

Thank you for your immediate attention to this matter.