Trump: we’ll go after their broadcast licenses

“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!” — @realdonaldtrump Wednesday morning. Later that day he tweeted, “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”

As was quickly pointed out [AP], the chances are extremely remote that presidential wrath is actually going to cost any broadcasters their licenses (networks as such are not licensed, but their local affiliates are, including network-owned local stations). First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams said that the threats could nonetheless have a chilling effect on coverage: “The threat, however unlikely, is one that broadcasters will have to take seriously.”

Note that the threat is utterly inconsistent with Trump’s having recently reappointed Ajit Pai to head the FCC. Had the chief executive seriously contemplated a drive against the broadcast licenses of his foes, as a 1960s-era president might have done, Washington is full of aspiring agency heads who would have served his ends better than free-marketeer Pai. Not for the first time, it would seem we have a President whose Twitter hand knows not what his signing hand is doing.

Matt Welch has already dug up a speech by Pai last month, as reported in Variety, that is to the point:

Pai said that he also sees “worrying signs” at the FCC, pointing to Twitter messages in which “people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks.”

“Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn’t license cable channels, these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions,” Pai said.

John Samples reminds us of the bad bipartisan history of power plays aimed at broadcast speech, which didn’t work for Richard Nixon. David Harsanyi writes that “even if you’re not idealistic about free expression, it might be worth remembering that any laws or regulations you embrace to inhibit the speech of others, even fake-news anchors, can one day be turned on you.”

Of course, another theory one hears is that Trump doesn’t really mean it with his loose talk about curbing press freedom but is just, as it were, vice signaling.


  • Trump’s comments are appalling. But the news media is acting as if this is only a Nixon/Trump thing. In his campaign, John Kerry threatened licenses, as did Senator Dick Durbin. Democrats, it must be remembered, made it an article of faith that Citizens United (a case which was about criminal sanctions for political speech, let that sink in) should be overturned, leaving bureaucrats to ban speech.

    Trump’s judicial appointments seem like they would protect our First Amendment rights, and that is another important part of the story.

    Trump is bad here, no doubt, but the real threat to free speech in America is from the Democrats.

  • I am not sure that I see Trump “going after” broadcast licenses, at least not from what he says in the tweet.

    However, I think the topic is a discussion that needs to be had.

    Let’s remove Trump and all political commentary from this for a moment.

    If the FCC issues licenses as part of its charter duties and part of the issuance of licenses is to “serve the public interest,” (from the original 1934 act) can anyone really say that the staged rollovers of the Suzuki Samarai served the “public interest?” How about the faked exploding gas tanks? Rollovers staged for Ford Explorers? Pink slime anyone? (These are some cases just off the top of my head.)

    It is easy to say those cases can be handled by the courts, but those plaintiffs and defendants are big buck corporations with the ability to spend big bucks on lawyers. What about the average person who can’t afford to take on large broadcasting corporations?

    Where is the “public interest” when a broadcasting company deliberately lies? Repeatedly lies? Is there a threshold when a broadcasting company has become so reckless in regard for the truth that their license is not renewed? Does size of the company affect that renewal?

    I am not naive enough to think that there is not an ulterior motive to Trump’s tweet. I am not saying that I think that stations should be held accountable for running stories where there is a disagreement in politics. Disagreements is not the same thing as lies. Criticism is not the same thing as lies.

    Whether a broadcasting company can or should have its license revoked for continual lies is a conversation that in my opinion, should happen.

    In the movie 1776, Stephen Hopkins returns from the “necessary” and says “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.”

    I happen to agree with that sentiment.

    • gitarcarver wrote:

      Whether a broadcasting company can or should have its license revoked for continual lies is a conversation that in my opinion, should happen.

      In the past 30 years I have led FCC broadcast license renewal efforts for a small non-profit broadcast station several times.

      To be very clear here on the matter of “challenging FCC licenses”, I would first point out that FCC broadcast licenses can be challenged by anyone when they are up for renewal.

      There are some politically motivated organizations, some individuals, and some organizations that just want to obtain a station’s broadcast license for themselves, who challenge some broadcast licenses at renewal time.

      Their challenges usually consist of strongly worded letters (or letter writing campaigns) to the FCC regarding the licensee. Their allegations are often irrelevant under the law, and sometimes simply false.

      They sometimes do succeed in creating more work for the licensee to rebut their allegations. But the FCC has a decent track record of finding out and dismissing irrelevant and/or bogus challenges on its own.

      The challenges rarely succeed.

      To understand the mass hysteria (and its longevity) which can lead to organized license challenges, see this canonical example of a related Rulemaking Petition:

      Although Rulemaking petition RM-2493 was not a license challenge, it does illustrate the semi-organized hysteria which underlies some license challenges.

  • Is “news” a technical description? After all, much of what NBC and its ilk put forward is “entertainment”. Just treat it as another segment of that, soothing the masses with what they wish to hear. Religion, at least in its original meaning, is no longer the opiate of the masses. It appears that “fake news” has taken that role on both sides and maybe even the middle.