Ajit Pai's Forked Tongue on Media Freedom

His boss has repeatedly asserted that journalists are the “enemy of the people,” but when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was asked directly at a Senate hearing earlier this month whether he agreed, he skillfully talked around it. Claiming reluctance to “wade into the larger political debates,” Pai commented that he believed “that every American enjoys the First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Constitution.”
After the hearing, 13 Senate Democrats sent Pai a letter asking for more detail on his commitment to press freedom, and his response was perfunctory – though he did assert that he thought Trump was talking about “fake news” being the enemy, not legitimate journalism.
Unfortuantely, Pai’s past actions as a lowly Commissioner completely contradict these claims. There are two cases that make this plain.
The first involves an aborted study proposed by the FCC in 2013 which would have investigated the “critical information needs” of communities across the United States. This was wholly a research initiative whereby the agency, in conjunction with scholars of media studies and journalism, would’ve conducted in-depth surveys and analyses of six local media ecosystems. The point of the study was to examine the interplay of a variety of news platforms to get a better sense of just how the concept of the communicative “public sphere” actually operates in the 21st century.
But Pai would have none of it: utilizing the bully pulpits of CNBC, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal, he accused his own agency of designs on “newsroom policing” – in Pai’s view, simply collecting information on how journalism is created and distributed, and the effects this has on how well-informed the public can be, was tantamount to some sort of prior restraint on newsgathering and dissemination. Although nothing could be further from the truth, the Commission subsequently killed the study before it even began.
At the same time as Pai was waging his battle against nonpartisan news research, the FCC itself was actively tarring the reputation of a news organization as deceptive. This, of course, is the sordid case of Workers Independent News, a labor-centric headline radio news service whose legitimacy became the focus of a complaint tendered by a right-wing “think tank” to the FCC in a sponsorship-identification case.
Although this case ostensibly involved the behavior of one Chicago-area radio station who aired WIN’s newscasts, FCC staff took it upon themselves to impugn the legitimacy of WIN itself, accusing the service of failing to meet some standard of “objectivity” – a concept of questionable and much-debated import within journalism circles.
This led the Radio Television Digital News Association, in its reporting on this particular case, to tar WIN with the moniker of “fake news” years before the term developed the currency that it has today. Repeated attempts to utilize the Freedom of Information Act to uncover just who at the FCC went so far afield as to actively attempt to define just what journalism is have been met with strong resistance…so much so that we may never know just how and why this determination was made. This also sets a precedent for the FCC to engage in similar efforts at roundabout censorship in the future.
I was raised to believe that you take a person at their word…but it’s their actions that tell the tale. In the case of Ajit Pai, his deeds speak much louder than his words. In addition to the above examples, in just two short months as Chairman Pai has:
1. Begun to unwind a program that helps subsidize broadband Internet access for the poorest Americans;
2. Froze rules that protected the privacy of all Internet users (these were eviscerated by Congress just this week, and now awaits Trump’s signature to become law);
3. Blocked the FCC from defending caps on the predatory rates prison phone providers charge inmates and their families to keep in contact;
4. Is proposing modifying broadcast ownership regulations to allow for even more consolidation in the television sector; and
5. Is cooking up a plan to trash the FCC’s regulations that protect network neutrality.
So who’s the real “enemy of the people” here? Looking at the evidence, it’s not the media, but rather those who claim to regulate the media in the “public interest”…as narrowly defined by corporate personhood.