Someone needs to remind President Donald Trump that he was elected president of a nation based on the United States Constitution with a First Amendment ensuring freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
On several occasions the president has talked as if he was an authoritarian leader. He has publicly attacked federal judges, criticized NFL players and sports anchors exercising their First Amendment rights and has threatened to crack down on media outlets he doesn’t like.
Trump rails against mainstream media organizations, deriding them as “fake news.”
Trump’s latest attack is his feud with NBC News, and his raising the possibility of challenging broadcasting licensing for broadcast outlets.
This is similar to what late President Richard Nixon appeared to attempt in the 1970s except that Nixon talked about it only privately while Trump makes brazen public threats against the media.
Trump tweeted Wednesday, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
Trump has been critical of recent NBC News story that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson considered resigning during the summer and that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.”
It’s fine for Trump to be critical of the story or the new media in general. Most presidents are.
But to threaten a network’s license because he’s unhappy with their coverage of him is wrong.
Fortunately most experts say Trump’s threats aren’t likely to lead to any action.
The NBC network doesn’t need a license to operate, but individual stations do. NBC owns several stations in major cities. The licenses come from the Federal Communications Commission, an independent government agency whose chairman is a Trump appointee.
License renewals are fairly routine. A station could be deemed unfit and have its license stripped if it were telling lies and spreading fake news, as Trump claims, which is difficult to prove according to Harold Feld of the consumer group Public Knowledge.
“The reality is it is just about impossible to make that showing,” he said. “All this stuff is opinion.”
Feld said he can recall only two instances in the past 20 years when there has been a renewal challenge. One involved an owner of radio stations who was convicted of child molestation, and the other when someone died as part of a radio station’s contest. Both lost their licenses.
Although removing a license is rare, just the threat could put pressure on NBC’s news coverage.
“The words ‘license renewal’ are ones which have had a chilling effect in the past on broadcasters,” said lawyer Floyd Abrams, an expert on the First Amendment. “The threat, however unlikely, is one that broadcasters will have to take seriously.”
The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, said it was contrary to First Amendment principles “for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist.” Someone needs to tell president Trump.