By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two top Democrats in Congress on Thursday asked Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to reassure broadcasters the agency will not revoke their licenses for airing advertisements critical of President Donald Trump.
On March 25, Trump’s campaign sent letters to broadcasters in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin demanding they stop airing an ad critical of Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak and suggested continued airings "could put (the) station’s license in jeopardy."
The states are all expected to be battleground states that could prove decisive in November’s presidential election. Such states are hotly contested because their populations can swing either to Republicans or Democrats.
Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Mike Doyle, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the FCC, said the law prohibits the commission from interfering with programming decisions to air legally protected content.
"At a time when autocratic governments around the world are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to suppress press freedoms, we must reaffirm – not undermine – America’s commitment to a free press," Pallone and Doyle wrote. "By remaining silent, the FCC sends a disturbing signal that it sanctions these threats and that broadcaster licenses could be in jeopardy."
Last week, Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which created the ad, said it planned to expand its use despite the Trump's campaign's cease-and-desist letters.
The ad plays verbatim quotes from the president, including "We have it totally under control," and "One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear" as a graph shows the rising number of coronavirus cases. In the opening, the ad includes his quote that "this is their new hoax."
Trump’s re-election campaign said that quote was referring to Democratic "criticisms and politicization of the federal response to the public health crisis" and demanded the ad be taken down for falsely asserting he used the term to describe the coronavirus.
Trump has faced criticism for initially playing down the seriousness of the coronavirus.
The FCC declined to comment, saying it is reviewing the letter. The Trump campaign did not immediately comment. The White House declined to comment.
In October 2017, Pai rejected Trump's suggestion that the FCC could challenge the license of NBC, a unit of Comcast, after Trump suggested it reported stories that were not true.
The FCC, an independent federal agency, does not license broadcast networks, but issues them to individual broadcast stations that are renewed on a staggered basis for eight-year periods.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)