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FCC Chairman Dodges Trump’s Attack on Media: ‘I Don’t Want to Wade Into Larger Political Debates’

Variety logo Variety 3/8/2017 Ted Johnson
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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appearing on Wednesday before a Senate committee that oversees the agency, declined to “wade into the larger political debates” when asked whether he agreed with President Trump that certain media outlets were the “enemy of the American people.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) pressed Pai on Trump’s attacks on the media, noting that the FCC chairman has in the past spoken out and written editorials championing the First Amendment. Last month, Trump sent out a tweet characterizing the “fake news media” as the “enemy of the American people.” Trump singled out the New York Times, CNN, NBC News, ABC and CBS.

After Udall asked Pai whether he agreed with Trump’s criticism, Pai said, “Senator, I don’t want to wade into the larger political debates, but I will simply reaffirm the quotes that you offered from last year and the year before.”

Udall responded, “You refuse to answer that, about the media being the enemy of the American people.”

“No sir,” Pai answered. “I believe that every American enjoys the protections of the First Amendment offered by the Constitution.”

Pai was appearing along with other FCC commissioners at an oversight hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Udall cited some of Pai’s past statements. In a 2016 speech to the Media Institute, Pai said, “In my view, 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.”

Pai met with Trump at the White House on Monday. The next day, Trump renominated Pai for another term at the agency, after elevating him to the top post shortly after his inauguration in January.

Pai refused to disclose what he discussed with the president at the meeting. Asked whether the FCC would act independently of the White House, Pai said, “Absolutely, yes.”

Udall’s questioning reflected concerns that Trump’s attacks on the media could have an impact on companies that have business before the FCC. He cited a Wall Street Journal report that Jared Kushner, an adviser to Trump and the president’s son-in-law, met with an executive of Time Warner and complained about CNN’s coverage.

AT&T has proposed a merger with Time Warner, and the transaction is pending before the Department of Justice.

Pai said that he has “not had any conversations with [Trump] or anyone else in the White House about that transaction.”

Udall also asked Pai about a comment that another Trump adviser, Stephen Bannon, made to the New York Times, in which Bannon said that the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

“I am not going to wade into the larger political debates,” Pai repeated, but added that he had “certainly not made comments like that.”

“I have heard it at home now and again,” he said.

Pai again said that he did not believe that the AT&T-Time Warner transaction would come before the FCC for approval, as the companies have said that it would not require a transfer of agency licenses. He did agree to have FCC staff conduct a legal analysis of whether there would be some other opportunity for the agency to weigh in.

Later in Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) pressed Pai on Trump’s “enemy of the people” comment, but he again declined to directly answer whether he agreed or disagree with the comment. Instead, he reaffirmed support for all Americans First Amendment rights.

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