On October 11th, President Donald Trump tweeted that if NBC was going to continue being so mean to him, he could simply have his subordinates “challenge their License,” adding that adversarial media was “Bad for country!”
In a second tweet, the president claimed that “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged, and if appropriate, revoked,” in what was apparently some very confused reference to either the long-defunct Fairness Doctrine or the still extant Equal Time rule.
The Fairness Doctrine was an Federal Communications Commission policy requiring broadcasters air material relevant to the public interest and devote time to explaining opposing viewpoints—which has not been enforced for decades on First Amendment grounds. It did not require people to be nice to the president, though Trump’s blatantly authoritarian call to restrict the broadcast rights of his opponents was met with unseemly silence by FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
Pai, whose anti-net neutrality stance has earned him the ire of most of the internet, finally stood up to the president somewhat on Tuesday and said the FCC would not be following his orders, Ars Technica reported. At a Mercatus Center telecom law conference, Pai told the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip he did not have that power:
I believe in the First Amendment. The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment. And under the law, the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.
As Ars Technica noted, Democratic lawmakers and other free speech groups had been pressuring Pai to say something about the matter since the original tweets on October 11th, and were not satisfied he merely restated the FCC’s powers under law.
A Politico article from Monday explained Pai may have felt like publicly responding to Trump would risk getting the FCC bogged down in the White House’s ever-spreading swamp of feuds. But the FCC is a nominally independent agency, and Pai does not report to the president. So depending on how charitable one wants to be, Pai’s refusal to engage could be refusing to take Trump’s bait, an attempt to avoid being distracted from or weighing down his already controversial agenda, or something entirely less savory. Either way, it’s not exactly encouraging.
Regardless, Pai never had the power to shut down NBC or any other network. The FCC licenses individual stations, not networks, and many of them are owned by massive media conglomerates which stand to benefit from business-friendly oversight regardless.