April 6, 2020 / 4:20 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. agency rejects group's request to probe Trump coronavirus broadcasts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said on Monday it was rejecting a petition that sought an investigation into broadcasters that aired statements U.S. President Donald Trump made in news conferences about the coronavirus pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on Oversight of the Federal Communications Commission on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Free Press, a media advocacy group, last month filed an emergency petition with the FCC to investigate the broadcast of what it said were false statements about the health crisis by Trump.

In a statement on Monday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “the federal government will not - and never should - investigate broadcasters for their editorial judgments ... We leave it to broadcasters to determine for themselves how to cover this national emergency, including live events involving our nation’s leaders.”

The petition suggested that during a March 19 news briefing, Republican Trump had mischaracterized the efficacy of malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a possible remedy for the sometimes deadly respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. It cited a 1992 FCC rule barring the broadcasting of hoaxes.

The White House declined to comment.

The FCC order, signed by its general counsel and media bureau chief, said the Free Press petition sought an expansion of the broadcast hoax rule in “order to enable government-led flyspecking of broadcasters’ editorial judgments” on airing statements by Trump and other government officials.

“A broadcaster’s decision to broadcast and comment on statements made by the president, relating to one of the most severe public health crises in a century, does not amount to airing an intentional or knowing falsehood,” the FCC said. “It is implausible, if not absurd, to suggest that broadcasters knowingly deceived the public by airing these press conferences or other statements by the President about COVID-19.”

The FCC said Trump’s optimism about the potential treatment “has been shared by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Food and Drug Administration, and a number of medical professionals.”

Free Press’ co-chief executive officer, Jessica J. González, said in a statement that when the Republican-led FCC is “asked to provide guidance and protect people against medical misinformation aired on broadcast outlets, they don’t take that request seriously.”

She suggested the FCC “moved so quickly because it sees this as an opportunity to rally the Trump base at a time when its attention should instead be focused on saving lives.”

The FCC did not immediately comment on her statement.

On Monday, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro acknowledged members of the task force dealing with the coronavirus crisis clashed over the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine.

Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao and Matthew Lewis

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