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FCC chief, ‘defender of First Amendment,’ silent on Trump-NBC spat

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks during the Mobile World Conference Americas event in San Francisco on Sept. 12, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Cayce Clifford.
Cayce Clifford/Bloomberg
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been under pressure to comment on President Trump’s suggestion that network news outlets should have their licenses challenged.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is ‘‘an outspoken defender of First Amendment freedoms,’’ according to his biography on the agency’s website.

Yet a day after President Trump’s threat to use the FCC to revoke broadcast licenses, Pai remained silent on the issue — including on Twitter, where he comments, on average, about six times a day.

Democrats called on Pai to speak out against the president’s call to challenge TV licenses, issued after a report on NBC News that Trump denied.

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‘‘@FCC Chairman Ajit Pai must immediately condemn Trump’s threat to remove broadcaster licenses because he disagrees with their reporting,’’ tweeted Representative Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees the agency. He called for a hearing on the matter.

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Pai on Thursday was in Indiana as part of a bus tour to highlight startup companies. Tina Pelkey, an FCC spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Less than a month ago, Pai, speaking at a symposium in Washington, said freedom of speech ‘‘should unite Americans across the ideological spectrum,’’ and cited ‘‘worrying signs’’ about intolerance driven by partisan views.

‘‘On Twitter, for example, people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks,’’ Pai said in the Sept. 15 remarks. ‘‘Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn’t license cable channels, these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions.’’

Trump questioned whether FCC licenses should be taken from NBC after the network published a story on Wednesday saying he had called for a tenfold increase in the U. nuclear arsenal in a meeting with military and security officials. The president later told his 40 million Twitter followers that ‘‘Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!’’

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The FCC doesn’t license networks. It issues licenses to owners of television stations, which must be periodically renewed. Comcast owns 10 NBC stations, including in New York and Los Angeles. The television network also broadcasts through more than 200 stations owned by independent businesses.

It’s unclear whether Trump could succeed if he were to go after licenses. Broadcast attorneys with decades of experience said they couldn’t recall the FCC retracting a license because of what is broadcast. The agency’s own broadcast guide says ‘‘the FCC cannot prevent the broadcast of any particular point of view.’’

Still, the presidential threat evoked memories of intimidation by President Richard Nixon, who urged his lieutenants to interfere with the renewal of the Washington Post’s licenses for Florida TV stations in 1972.

Lawmakers of both parties reacted to Trump.

On Twitter, Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a frequent critic of Trump, said, ‘‘Mr. President: Are you recanting of the Oath you took on Jan. 20 to preserve, protect, and defend the 1st Amendment?’’ Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, tweeted, ‘‘The FCC must show it is more loyal to the law than the President.’’

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Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the FCC’s Democratic minority, said in a tweet that ‘‘Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy. Hope my @FCC colleagues can all be on the same page with respect to 1st Amendment.’’

Pai, an FCC member since May 2012, was elevated to chairman by Trump. Pai has tweeted 11,880 times since May 2012, according to his page on Twitter. On Thursday, he tweeted from Indianapolis about the road trip with internet entrepreneur Steve Case.