The Reality of Trump's Challenge to Network Licensing
It’s become a familiar cycle: an article or broadcast quotes President Trump saying something drastic, something inflammatory, and he retaliates in 160 characters or less, denouncing said newsgroup on Twitter as ‘fake news’. His target has been NBC for the past few weeks, ever since an October 11th article stated that, during a Pentagon security conference this past summer, the president said he wanted a tenfold increase in the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. Several officials later heard Secretary of State Rex Tillerson call him a moron.
This came as a surprise to many of Trump’s own top security advisors; others, meanwhile, claimed that they took his words as an exclamation rather than a literal demand. Either way, to rebuild the U.S.’s nuclear stockpile to what it was during the 1960s would be a violation to the many nuclear disarmament treaties that have emerged since the end of the Cold War, as well as drastically heighten tensions with North Korea, Iran and other countries.
After the NBC article came out, Trump immediately took to Twitter, calling the story “pure fiction, made up to demean,” and asking “at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” He followed with another tweet later that night: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” Later on, during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump called it “frankly disgusting, the way the press is allowed to write whatever they want to write.”
Reporters eagerly waited for a response from the Federal Communications Commissions chairman— none were issued. Chairman Ajit Pai was appointed by Trump at the beginning of his administration, but he didn’t make a statement even though many called on him to denounce the president’s tweets. Days after the article first came out, at an event for the Mercatus Center, he could no longer avoid questions and stated that he believes in the First Amendment and the FCC “does not have the authority to revoke the license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
Other FCC Commissioners, meanwhile, took no time voicing their thoughts. One of them, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel said that “history won’t be kind to silence,” hoping that her fellow commissioners would also speak up and make clear that “the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee's coverage.” Similarly, Pai’s predecessor and FCC Chairman during Obama’s administration Tom Wheeler said Pai’s silence was “shocking.”
Not only does the FCC have limited control over international newsgroups such as NBC—whose parent company, Comcast, could easily continue its work overseas even in the unlikely case that NBC is stripped of its license—but it is unprecedented for presidents to have much power in stripping licenses. Richard Nixon, for example, called for revoking the license of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, but it ultimately went nowhere. Chairman Pai himself couldn’t deny precedent, stating that “Traditionally [revoking licenses] has not been within the FCC's jurisdiction.”
While Trump can continue to rave about newscasts on Twitter and throw around the term “fake news,” it seems that, for now at least, newswires don’t yet have to worry about losing their licenses. The bigger issue remains in the situations of FCC commissioners and their complex ties between upholding the First Amendment and loyalty to the president.