WASHINGTON — On Thursday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr responded to a right-wing blogger’s question about a recent Free Press petition urging the agency to help prevent the spread of false COVID-19 information via broadcast outlets.
Carr said: “This is a sweeping and dangerous attempt by the far left to weaponize the FCC against conservative media outlets and elected officials. They want to turn the FCC into a roving speech police empowered to go after the left’s political opponents.”
In actuality, the petition cites the FCC’s authority under the broadcast-hoax rule to ensure the public airwaves are utilized in the public interest — specifically, to advise broadcasters against knowingly airing false information concerning a catastrophe that causes, according to the FCC’s own rules, “substantial public harm.” The Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department and FDA have already issued similar guidance on the spread of disinformation about the national health emergency.
The Free Press petition catalogs a number of incidents in which both radio and television broadcasters have aired dangerous disinformation about the disease, including comments by President Trump.
Free Press Co-CEO Jessica J. González has the following response:
“We stand by our request that the FCC issue guidance on broadcast of disinformation about COVID-19. We think it's quite possible that certain broadcasts have amounted to ‘hoaxes’ as defined by the FCC’s own regulations. We join a growing chorus of journalists, medical professionals, activists and journalism professors who are concerned that the broadcast of disinformation about the virus has discouraged people from taking appropriate preventative measures, and that it is endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
“We also note that just last week, the Trump campaign started threatening to revoke the licenses of stations that air ads questioning the president’s policies. So the claim that our organization is using the FCC to silence dissenting voices is particularly ironic and hypocritical as the Trump campaign makes these chilling statements.
“As the alleged First Amendment experts attacking us today must know, broadcasters cannot censor the government. Only the government has the power to censor. Our petition seeks a balance that in fact protects broadcasters’ rights and editorial independence in their decisions about what news to air, while recognizing that hoaxes and other distortions on the public airwaves have life-and-death consequences.
“We will not stand down in the face of flip comments from a misguided FCC commissioner and his band of seven-cent trolls. We expect an official response from the agency mandated by Congress to protect the public interest on our nation’s airwaves, not a right-wing firing squad lobbing insults over Twitter. Be better than that, Commissioner Carr. We are simply asking you to do your job and provide clarity about one of the very few rules that you and the Trump FCC have left on the books.
“This is not the time for arrogance. Hundreds of thousands of people may die in this country as a result of this virus; many more are sick and fighting for their lives, including former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who we wish the very best on his path to recovery. You have a choice: Will your legacy be partisan business as usual, or will you treat this with the seriousness and professionalism it deserves?”