Ajit Pai: Silence is Consent to the Trump Agenda

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.” Read More

FCC Whacks Zombie-Moles

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is regularly making waves in the agency’s Daily Digest now, issuing slews of warning-letters to unlicensed broadcasters nearly every week. Interestingly, these letters are typically grouped by location: one week it’s a passel of pirates “caught” broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area, the next a bunch of folks in South Florida, etc.

The agency, and radio industry, have long described the enforcement process as “whack-a-mole” in reference to the carny game where you score points bashing plastic rodents with a mallet, who pop up and disappear often before you can bring the hammer down. It’s an apt description…but the agency’s most recent enforcement-activites vividly demonstrate just how devoid the process is of deterrent value.

In an update to the Enforcement Action Database earlier this month, I highlighted the case of Kacy Rankine. He’s a New Jersey-based unlicensed broadcaster who first appeared on the FCC’s radar way back in 2005. That year he received a slew of station-visits and warning-letters from the federales, but to no avail, so the FCC ended up fining him $10,000 in 2007.

It’s highly unlikely that fine was ever paid, because Rankine was noticed again this year (a full decade later) running another station in another New Jersey community. The FCC, which apparently doesn’t keep a logically comprehensive record of its own regarding prior enforcement actions and lacks a semblance of institutional memory on this issue, simply restarted the enforcement process with Rankine, issuing him a warning letter last month. Read More

FCC’s Trumpist Trajectory Intensifies

The rotten hubris that is the Trump administraton is in full bloom at the FCC. It began when its leadership refused to defend core communications principles like free speech and press and flourished when they swore fealty to hypercapitalism and preemptively demonized those who may oppose their policy agenda. Now the dirty tricks have arrived. It’s all so far outside the already-troublesome norm of how media policy is made as to be head-spinning.

Let’s begin with the agency’s effort to repeal network neutrality regulations. An issue that’s overly complicated in most news coverage, the nation turns to John Oliver to make sense of it. He’s done this twice now – most recently in May, and as before his coverage inspired millions to visit the FCC’s public-comment site and make their thoughts known on the issue.

The first time, the public response in favor of net neutrality was so overwhelming that it crashed the FCC’s servers. This time, the system went down again…but the FCC claims that it was due to a malicious attack of unknown origin. According to (now-gone) Chief Information Officer David Bray, as Oliver’s latest segment went to air, “the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDos). These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic. . .[they] were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.” Read More

FCC and Pirates: Going Through the Motions Faster

Signifying what the industry trades call a “crackdown” and added “pressure” on unlicensed broadcasters, the FCC’s Enforcment Bureau has stepped up its issuance of warning-letters, primarily to pirate stations in New York and New Jersey. Of the 94 enforcement actions against unlicensed broadcasters this year, 52 of them have taken place in these two states. Enforcement activity also includes two Notices of Apparent Liability and seven Forfeiture Orders, for cases that originated in 2015-16. Overall, however, the pace of enforcement actions is running behind the totals of a year ago.

This is not necessarily an expansion of enforcement duties. NYC-based field agents especially are now doing what they call “follow-up investigations” – in a nutshell, agents now re-visit unlicensed stations they’ve already contacted. If they are still on the air, they issue yet another warning letter to the operator (or, in the case of one New Jersey-based pirate, to the owner of the property where the station is housed, who was not in on the first-round contact). “Follow-up investigations” typically occur within 1-3 months of initial contact with the offending station. But if stations aren’t fazed by the first FCC nastygram they get, what are the odds the second one will change their ways? Read More

FCC and Pirates: A War of Words

The rhetoric’s heated up, for sure. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, who’s made cracking down on unlicensed stations one of his signature issues, calls them infectious squatters, casting the phenomenon as a cancer preparing to metastisize. And he’s gotten much more critical about his own agency’s handling of the problem: when the FCC proposed to fine a Kentucky couple more than $144,000 last month for operating a low-power TV station for nearly twenty years after its original license had expired, he likened FCC enforcement to “a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses.”

That makes “paper tiger” sound almost tame.

Industry trade-press has taken the cue and upped their coverage of the FCC’s anti-pirate broadcast enforcement. Radio World trumpets warning lettters, fines, and threats of fines issued by the Enforcement Bureau as if they’re landing knockout blows. It even got Chairman Ajit Pai to concede in a March interview that pirates are a “serious concern.” Read More