Trump NBC Threat Draws Bipartisan Chorus of Boos

President Donald Trump's tweeted threat against NBC has drawn a growing crowd of boos from industry.

That is in addition to pushback already registered from the National Association of Broadcasters and one prominent Senator.

The Radio-Television Digital News Association's Voice of the First Amendment Task Force condemned the threat and the tweet it rode in on. Executive director Dan Shelley said the threat was "not only dangerous to the American people’s right to access responsible journalism, it represents a clear misunderstanding on his part of how much control the federal government can exercise as it relates to networks and cable channels."

He was making the point that others have made, which is that broadcast networks are not licensed, only individual stations, although those stations represent hundreds of millions of dollars in lost value if the FCC were to, indeed, revoke their licenses.

Shelley pointed out that if the President did try to go after NBC's 11 owned TV station licenses, it would pushing the communities more than the network.

Another Republican President, Richard Nixon, famously targeted TV station licenses owned by The Washington Post when it was reporting on something—Watergate—that angered him.

The NBC story that drew President Trump's ire was one that he favored boosting the nuclear arsenal up to tenfold, which NBC said was based on three officials in the room when the President indicated that.

Shelley pointed out that just this week, three NBC-owned TV stations received half a dozen RTDNA Edward R. Murrow awards for "outstanding responsible broadcast and digital journalism."

Trump had equated NBC with one of his prime targets, CNN, so Shelley pointed out that CNN had gotten five Murrows.

Another prominent senator raised his hand to defend the First Amendment and journalists and join Markey's call for reassurance from the FCC.

Today, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, released the following statement after President Trump threatened to challenge NBC’s broadcast license.

“The president’s threat against NBC and other media outlets is far from empty," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the ranking member of the Senate Communications Subcommittee. "In 1974, President Nixon and his top aides discussed using the FCC’s license renewal process to punish the Washington Post for its Watergate coverage. Today, Donald Trump has threatened to do the same to NBC. In confirmation hearings for Ajit Pai, we raised this possibility. Now, the FCC must show that it is loyal to the law, not the president, and make clear that it rejects this kind of interference.”

Elsewhere, Randolph May, president of free market Think Tank the Free State Foundation, weighed in:

“As a conservative, I’ve certainly had many occasions to regret, and disagree with, some of NBC’s news judgments and those of other ‘mainstream media," he said. "But I would never suggest that their government licenses be challenged at the FCC because of my disagreements regarding their editorial judgements or other programming content decisions.

"More to the point, President Trump shouldn’t either. Absent clear evidence of deliberate falsification or conscious, willful distortion of the news by media outlets, for Trump to urge challenges to FCC licenses because of disagreements over editorial decisions threatens to chill the First Amendment rights of the media. President Reagan’s FCC got rid of the notorious Fairness Doctrine to get the government out of the business of judging whether programming was 'balanced’ and ‘fair.’ I don’t think he would have urged challenges to FCC licenses based on disagreement about program content decision — and I strongly suspect current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai agrees based on his understanding of the First Amendment." 

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) added his voice to the condemnation and call for Pai to weigh in.

"I am both shocked and disappointed that President Trump today suggested the revocation of a major network’sbroadcast license because he doesn’t like the negative light in which he has been portrayed in their newscasts," he said. "The President has previously asserted that members of the press are America’s enemies, and it is obvious he would like to silence any news coverage with which he disagrees.”

“In my opinion, this threat flies in the face of the most basic and sacred tenets of a free and open society. I am sure in the coming days, the White House staff will scramble to explain away the President’s hostile threat as simply a joke or a misunderstanding. But when the leader of the free world threatens to
silence a news organization, it should send a chill down the backs of all freedom-loving people – no matter what their political party or affiliation.”

“The FCC is responsible for maintaining broadcast licenses, and I call on Chairman Pai to immediately reject and repudiate the President’s disturbing threat – and to do so in no uncertain terms.”

In the wake of the President's "enemy of the people" characterization of the press, Lujan earlier this year introduced the Protecting Dissenting Viewpoints and Voices Act, which would prevent government retaliation against braodcasters on the basis of viewpoint.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.