The Federal Communications Commission cited the First Amendment in rejecting an emergency petition from an activist group calling for an investigation into broadcasters that air President Trump’s coronavirus briefings.
“Under my leadership, the FCC has always stood firmly in defense of Americans’ First Amendment freedoms, including freedom of the press, and so long as I am Chairman of this agency, we always will,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement on Monday. “The federal government will not — and never should — investigate broadcasters for their editorial judgments simply because a special interest group is angry at the views being expressed on the air as well as those expressing them. In short, we will not censor the news.”
Free Press, a left-leaning media reform advocacy organization, filed a seven-page petition in late March, claiming that comments by Trump during White House coronavirus task force briefings and by others on the radio posed a risk to public health.
“When the president tells dangerous lies about a public health emergency, broadcasters have a choice: Don’t air them, or put those lies in context with disclaimers noting that they may be untrue and are unverified,” Free Press said. “The FCC has a duty to rein in radio broadcasters that seed confusion with lies and disinformation.”
But the FCC countered in a five-page ruling that it “does not — and cannot and will not — act as a self-appointed, free-roving arbiter of truth in journalism.”
The activist group urged the FCC to “conduct an urgent examination” into which broadcasters have aired “hoaxes and false or misleading information” about the coronavirus and to issue an “emergency policy statement or enforcement guidance” to broadcasters.
Pai, appointed to his role by Trump in January 2017, rejected this reasoning.
“Consistent with the First Amendment, we leave it to broadcasters to determine for themselves how to cover this national emergency, including live events involving our nation’s leaders,” he said.
The FCC said that there is a strong argument that broadcasters are serving the public interest by airing live coverage of news events such as the press briefings by Trump and his team of health experts, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the task force.
“At best, the petition rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Commission’s limited role in regulating broadcast journalism,” the FCC said on Monday. “And at worst, the petition is a brazen attempt to pressure broadcasters to squelch their coverage of a president that Free Press dislikes and silence other commentators with whom Free Press disagrees.”
Free Press also criticized comments made on the radio by conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, believing they downplayed or otherwise misled the public about the coronavirus. But the organization zeroed in on comments by Trump that they characterized as misinformation, specifically highlighting Trump’s public pronouncements that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine showed promise for treating COVID-19.
“The president’s mischaracterization of the efficacy of chloroquine phosphate is an acute example,” Free Press said. “Broadcast of that statement led to a nation-wide shortage of a drug integral to treating other ailments — exacerbating this health crisis. It also precipitated the death of an Arizona man and hospitalization of his wife earlier this week [in March].”
Free Press called this a “life or death” issue, but the FCC dismissed the argument.
The FCC said that “even assuming the truth of this story,” the decision by the husband and wife to “ingest fish tank cleaner,” not doctor-prescribed hydroxychloroquine, “is not the kind of foreseeable harm contemplated by our rules.”
“Tellingly, the single concrete example provided by Free Press of alleged substantial public harm from broadcasters airing the President’s remarks highlights the weakness of its argument,” the FCC said. “The President has expressed optimism that a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, taken together, could be effective in treating patients with COVID-19.”
The FCC also noted Trump's optimism was shared by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Food and Drug Administration, and various doctors.
On Sunday, Trump announced that the United States had stockpiled 29 million pills of hydroxychloroquine. In hard-hit New York, Cuomo said on Monday there has been “anecdotal evidence” that hydroxychloroquine is “promising” and “effective,” although he stressed that there was not yet a large enough data set to draw an official opinion.
Trump interrupted before Fauci answered a question about the drug on Sunday, and there was a report that White House economic adviser Peter Navarro clashed with the NIAID director over how much they should be touting it.
Fauci previously said, “There isn't, fundamentally, a difference” between himself and Trump on combating COVID-19.
“I'm not disagreeing with the fact anecdotally [hydroxychloroquine] might work, but my job is to prove definitively from a scientific standpoint that they do work,” Fauci said in March.
As of Monday afternoon, there were more than 1.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases around the world and more than 72,600 deaths tied to the infection, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. In the U.S., there were more than 347,000 cases, which have resulted in more than 10,300 deaths.
The FCC concluded by saying, “The antidote to the alleged harms raised by Free Press is — ironically enough — a free press.”
“We leave to the press its time-honored and constitutionally protected role in testing the claims made by our political leaders — as well as those made by national advocacy organizations,” the FCC said.
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