The descent into authoritarianism continues apace in the United States, where Donald Trump went on a tirade against NBC News last week for publishing stories about him that he doesn’t like. Repeatedly, Trump suggested that NBC have its broadcast licenses revoked for all the “fake news” that it publishes.
Leaving aside the fact that television networks are not licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (broadcast licenses are awarded to individual radio and TV stations) and thus Trump (again) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, such vitriol from the nation’s chief executive should alarm any American who has actually read the U.S. Constitution. No surprise, then, that several members of Congress and many others have called out Trump for his attack on the First Amendment, and there’s even a case to be made that Trump’s ignorant threats already run afoul of it.
Over at the FCC, both Democratic Commissioners haven’t remained silent in the face of this bluster. Mignon Clyburn low-key responded in tweet-form, commenting that the only way TV stations might see their licenses revoked at Trump’s behest is if “we fail to abide by the First Amendment.” It bears noting that Clyburn may be mulling a run for elected office, so she’s obviously playing this close to the vest.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was just reappointed to the FCC for another term after a short hiatus, has been much more forceful. Not only has she castigated Trump on social media, but she’s also gone on CNN and told media reporter Brian Stelter that “History won’t be kind to silence. I think it’s important for all the Commissioners to make clear that they support the First Amendment, and that the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee’s coverage.”
She’s referring to the fact that none of the majority-Republican Commissioners have made so much as a peep about Trump’s latest media-attack. Nothing from Brendan Carr, Chairman Ajit Pai’s former chief of staff, who just landed his big job and might not want to ruffle any feathers. Nor that surprising that Commissioner Mike O’Rielly is mum, as he’s desperately trying to carve out his own space separate from Pai’s shadow and doesn’t seem to care all that much about such big-picture stuff, so long as it advances his personal agenda.
But for Chairman Pai himself, when the President insinuates that he’d like (or like to use) the agency for which he is responsible in a blatantly unconstitutional manner, the silence is deafening. The man’s still keeping up his activity on Twitter but standing mute on this issue, despite several calls to take any stand. (Update: on Tuesday, October 17 Pai made a remark during a speech on an unrelated matter in which he tepidly acknowledged that the FCC won’t kowtow to Trump’s whims on this.)
The fact of the matter is that Pai’s long silence is an answer all its own, and actually builds on what we already know. The man showed us his true colors in one of his first speeches as Chairman. There he inveighed against the manifestation of any semblance of “the public interest” that doesn’t align with his regulatory agenda, going so far as to tar those who oppose him as “typical of a larger movement in our country today that is fundamentally hostile to free speech,” as defined by Pai. This sentiment is echoed in spades in Trump’s latest anti-media tweetstorm.
Let us also not forget that this is not the first time Pai’s been asked this year to defend a core Constitutional right on which his regulatory power rests. Some enterprising journalists have dug up a series of statements Pai made back in 2013 when he invoked the First Amendment to oppose an FCC proposal to study local media ecosystems across the country. In that context Pai was battling a straw man, claiming unconstitutional regulatory overreach where none actually existed.
Furthermore, while Pai was riding the bully pulpit, the Democratic-controlled agency declared a news outlet to not be journalism – doing the very thing that critics of Trump are making so much hay out of now, and something to which Pai actively consented. Now the precedential value of what the FCC did to Workers Independent News takes on a new dimension.
At this juncture, any words from Ajit Pai won’t outweigh the statement his silence has already made, not to mention what he’s actually already said on/around this issue at other times. There’s already enough actual policy practice to show that the FCC is going the same way as the Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, and Homeland Security, just to mention a few. Too bad there’s no “Rogue FCC” to provide a counterpoint to the budding kakistocracy, or to document the agency’s assimilation.