White House Threats Against Media Grow

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the news media have been unrelenting, but they veered into new, and dangerous, territory last week.

Trump, stung and angered by what he saw as more fake news meant to undermine his administration, has taken a page out of the playbook of another president, Richard Nixon, threatening to revoke the licenses of network news operations — they are not actually licensed — and calling them partisan, distorted, and fake. Nixon famously threatened the broadcast licenses held by The Washington Post’s parent company during its Watergate investigation.

The current president was responding to an NBC News report that he had talked about massively increasing the nuclear arsenal, a report the network said was based on three sources in the room.

Trump also said network news — he did not specify broadcast or cable — were unfair to the “public,” which suggests it is not operating in the public’s interest.

While networks are not licensed by the FCC, the stations that are co-owned with the major broadcast news networks are, and are required to serve the public’s interest, so the President’s use of the term “public” may have been intentional.

Supporters of the president and even the president himself, as members of that public, could challenge those co-owned TV station licenses, but the FCC would have to conclude the stations were not operating in the public interest, which is a high bar. Revocations are rare, as activists who have challenged licenses can attest.

The FCC could designate a license for hearing on its own, which is why Congressional Democrats last week were pushing the chairman not only to reiterate his appreciation of the First Amendment, but pledge he would not go after news outlet licenses at the president’s urging.

The story was moving fast last week as the tweets, and the criticism of them, mounted.

At press time, FCC chairman Ajit Pai had not commented, but in an agency oversight hearing on the Hill at the time of the president’s “enemy of the people” tweet at news outlets, Pai said that he would not act in a manner that stifles or penalizes free speech “even if requested by the administration.”

Trump’s latest in a seemingly endless string of attacks on news media, including threats to change libel laws and personal attacks on individual journalists, drew bipartisan pushback, including from former Republican senator and current National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith, who repudiated the attack on a free press in no uncertain terms.

“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the First Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press,” Smith said. “It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist.”

In letters, statements and at least one Hill hearing, Democrats excoriated the p[resident, including calling for a hearing where commissioners would be asked to pledge not to follow the president’s lead and try to punish the media for critical stories.

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.