“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.
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.