Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell wants the federal government to investigate whether or not Sinclair Broadcasting is objective enough. This comes after news anchors were effectively forced to read a script decrying the dangers of unsourced, false stories — a message that was promoted by CNN’s Brian Stelter, before it was deemed controversial.
Today I called on @FCC to investigate #Sinclair Broadcasting Group for deliberately distorting news, questioning the company’s fitness to retain its existing broadcast licenses and its ongoing attempts to acquire more broadcasting rights through its proposed merger.
— Sen. Maria Cantwell (@SenatorCantwell) April 12, 2018
Cantwell later tweeted she believes Sinclair may have “engaged in a systematic #news distortion operation that seeks to undermine #FreedomOfThePress & the robust localism & diversity of viewpoint that is the foundation of our national broadcasting laws.”
Ironically, this is a direct and chilling assault on the free press. She’s attempting to weaponize the FCC to silence what she believes to be the opposition.
Cantwell is questioning Sinclair’s fitness to continue broadcasting because she perceives them to be partisan. She implies she’d like to see them stripped of their license to broadcast. In other words, while proclaiming the importance of a free press, she’s threatening to help rescind their broadcast license because she disagrees with their presentation of the news.
I’ve asked Cantwell’s office to cite a single example of news that they believe has been distorted. Her office didn’t respond. This is important.
The FCC “generally will not intervene in such cases [of alleged bias] because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own.” They will investigate, but not simply because Cantwell and her partisan colleagues believe Sinclair purposefully distorts facts.
The FCC writes:
The Commission will investigate a station for news distortion if it receives documented evidence of such rigging or slanting, such as testimony or other documentation, from individuals with direct personal knowledge that a licensee or its management engaged in the intentional falsification of the news. Of particular concern would be evidence of the direction to employees from station management to falsify the news. However, absent such a compelling showing, the Commission will not intervene.
There was nothing incorrect in the Sinclair PSA about false news. Indeed, folks on the left routinely claimed it was false blogs about Hillary Clinton that somehow got people to vote candidate Donald Trump into office. They called out the fake PizzaGate story, demanding people fact check and use legitimate sources for their news. They took the same position as the Sinclair PSA.
Indeed, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rejected Cantwell’s request, writing in part
In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline.
A free media is vital to our democracy. That is why during my time at the Commission I have consistently opposed any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press and have fought to eliminate regulations that impede the gathering and dissemination of news. Most relevant here, I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.
I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage.
But, speaking of partisan bias, Cantwell did post a Deadspin article on her Twitter feed titled “Sinclair’s Soldiers in War on Media” when she could have used a non-partisan source. This is also important.
If Cantwell believes Sinclair is doing Trump’s bidding, then she’s actively trying to silence her political opponent with the might of federal government. Would the left be okay if Republican senators questioned the broadcast licenses of NBC, ABC, and CBS, which have all been alleged to be bias against Trump? Of course not. They’d scream that that’s an impermissible attack on the press.
In fact: they did. Before Trump won the election, Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer ridiculously wrote a letter to the networks issuing a veiled threat because the broadcasters offered too much bias. Cramer was rightfully called out for his scheme.
But now, suddenly, it’s OK to go after the press — but only if you perceive them to be your political enemies.