The Federal Communications Commission will not pursue misinformation complaints against broadcasters who air President Trump’s daily press conferences, the commission announced today.
The FCC’s announcement came in response to an emergency petition by the advocacy group Free Press, which had called on the commission to investigate “the spread of false COVID-19 information via broadcast outlets across the United States.” In particular, Free Press alleged that the president was spreading misinformation about the efficacy of the drug hydroxychloroquine, which has been erroneously promoted as a miracle cure for the ongoing pandemic.
Commonly prescribed as an antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine is largely untested as a treatment for COVID-19, and there is no medically significant evidence that it is effective against the disease. However, the drug has been widely promoted in the media, being mentioned by Fox News more than 100 times over the course of three days.
The president has also expressed enthusiasm about the effectiveness of the drug, referring to it frequently in his daily press conferences. “A very powerful drug for certain things, and it’s a very successful drug,” Trump said in a press conference on March 28th, when confronted with skepticism over hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness. “There’s reason to believe that it could be successful here....we have had some tremendous results.”
But despite the ongoing controversy, the FCC declined to open a proceeding on the issue, citing unavoidable First Amendment issues if the agency intervened. “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,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “In short, we will not censor the news.”
Free Press did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
FCC officials elaborated on this argument in more detail in the official response to Free Press’s petition. “The Commission does not—and cannot and will not—act as a self-appointed, free-roving arbiter of truth in journalism,” they write. “False speech enjoys some First Amendment protection, and section 326 of the Communications Act, reflecting First Amendment values, prohibits the Commission from interfering with freedom of the press or censoring broadcast communications.”
While not officially ruling out future action, the vehemence of the commission’s response makes it unlikely that any similar efforts will succeed in the future. “We will not second-guess broadcasters (much less deploy the formal investigative power of the state against them) that are serving a critical function in providing the public comprehensive coverage of the current public health crisis and the government’s response,” the letter continues.
The FCC has also been getting censorship pressure from the president, whose campaign has warned TV stations that airing a specific Priorities USA ad critical of Trump’s coronavirus response might “put your station’s license in jeopardy.” Thus far, there’s no indication that the FCC has moved to revoke any licenses in response to the threat.