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Media Interference Talk Dominates FCC Head’s Appearance

Pai: ‘Federal government has no business intervening in the news’

FCC head Ajit Pai, shown here in September, spoke Wednesday before the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
FCC head Ajit Pai, shown here in September, spoke Wednesday before the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai vowed to pull government “out of the newsroom” by changing media ownership rules. As he appeared before a House panel Wednesday, Pai proposed to end longstanding restrictions on ownership of daily newspapers and broadcast radio or television stations serving the same community. 

Pai also deflected criticism from Democrats that he did not offer a more forceful defense of NBC and other networks against social media jabs by President Donald Trump. The president raised the prospect of revoking NBC’s license after one of its news reports early this month.

“I’m not going to characterize the views of anybody else,” Pai told Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee. “I’m going to focus on the facts and the job.”

Pai said he was determined to defend press freedom, citing a new proposal he circulated to FCC members Wednesday to end the ban on cross-ownership, or common ownership by the same company of a daily newspaper and a broadcast radio or television station whose service area covers the newspaper’s home base or community of publication. The prohibition dates back to 1975.

The proposed change would also end a related ban on a company owning more than two television stations and one radio station in the same market. It would ease a ban on owning two top-four television stations based on the size of their viewing audience in the same market, by allowing for reviews on a case-by-case basis.

Major changes ahead?

The ending of the cross-ownership restrictions is expected to be part of a broader plan for reshaping FCC media ownership rules that Pai is expected to unveil later this week.

“If you believe as I do that the federal government has no business intervening in the news, then we must stop the federal government from intervening in the news business,” Pai said.

“That is why this afternoon I shared with my fellow commissioners an order that will reform our media ownership rules and help pull the government once and for all out of the newsroom,” he said, adding that the FCC would vote on the proposed change at its November meeting.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon and other lawmakers in both parties have supported ending the cross-ownership rules.

Despite bipartisan support for ending the cross-ownership rules, several Democrats including Democratic Reps. Anna G. Eshoo of California and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania complained that Pai had not done enough to defend the media against Trump’s attacks.

[Watch: More and More Republicans Speaking Out Against Trump’s Politics]

Eshoo said Pai’s response to Trump’s shots at the media were “delayed and tepid.”

Trump charged in a tweet on Oct. 11 that “NBC and the networks” were carrying “fake news” and questioned whether it would be “appropriate to challenge their license.” In another tweet the same day, Trump said “licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked” because of partisanship and distortion in news reports.

Pai has denied holding back on Trump’s tweets and has said he weighed in when he was first asked about them in a public forum at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center on Oct. 17.

Communications and Technology Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn complained that Democrats were trying to use Trump’s tweets to score political points.

“I urge you not to be distracted. Keep your eye on the ball,” the Tennessee Republican told Pai.

Money woes

For his part, Pai urged lawmakers to move forward with a full committee markup of a draft FCC reauthorization that has been marked up by a subcommittee. He underscored that the measure was essential to provide authority for the Treasury Department to hold FCC funds from spectrum auction bids. 

The FCC is required by law to hold such funds in “an interest bearing account at a financial institution designated . . . by the commission” in consultation with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Pai said.

The FCC has “no way to comply with the law,” he said, because private banks are refusing to hold the funds. Pai has cited private banks’ concerns that they would be required to have collateral for the deposit of public funds that are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and that such deposits would not be counted toward capitalization requirements under the 2010 financial services overhaul.

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