Donald Trump has decried, derided, and dismissed reporters and news outlets since he emerged as a presidential contender in 2015. Even after he swore an inaugural oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” that guarantees a free press, this president has continued to attack major newspapers, magazines, cable news networks, and the major broadcasters of the United States.
But now Trump has escalated his assault on journalism with an abuse of his position that cannot be neglected. Angered by recent NBC News reports that he has sought to dramatically increase America’s nuclear-weapons stockpile, and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to him as a “moron,” Trump went off the rails. He did not merely rip the revelations as “fake news”; he took the dramatically more serious step of suggesting that the network might be punished for broadcasting accounts that did not meet with his approval.
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” Trump asked in a Wednesday-morning tweet. “Bad for country!” He continued.
Hours later, Trump got more specific, and even more ominous. “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” he tweeted. “Not fair to public!”
Those threats came on the same day that America’s current chief executive chose to trash one of the basic premises of the freedom-of-the-press protection contained in the First Amendment. During an Oval Office appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump griped, “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want.”
What distinguishes the latest presidential tirade from previous meltdowns is Trump’s amplification of his constant complaining about negative coverage with more aggressive language and a suggestion that regulatory power might be used to punish critics.
The president appoints members of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that issues and regulates broadcast licenses. Those licenses are issued to individual television stations, as opposed to networks. And the FCC is not in the business of pulling licenses from those stations because of their broadcasting of network content. As Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee to the FCC, noted in a tweet that responded to the president, Trump’s “challenge the license” scenario is “Not how it works.”
Rosenworcel helpfully steered the president’s attention to an FCC guide to broadcast regulation that declares, “The Constitution’s protection of free speech includes that of programming that may be objectionable to many viewer[s] or listeners. Thus, the FCC cannot prevent the broadcast of any particular point of view.”
Just because Trump is off target does not mean, however, that his pronouncements should be laughed off. When the president of the United States opens a discussion about the use of federal authority to restrict freedom of the press—especially a president who is clearly ignorant with regard to the Bill of Rights, and who has a history of using his bully pulpit to stir discord and division—that’s a serious development. There is no telling how far Trump might try to take his attack on NBC, on stations affiliated with the network, and on other news outlets that offend his delicate sensibilities.
Even if the president is merely making another round of social-media threats, the fact that he is now mingling those threats with talk of formal action to punish a network that does not meet with his approval is deeply troubling.
There is no question that the message Trump is sending to the rest of the world is a dangerous one, as the Committee to Protect Journalists reminds us: “Trump’s assertion that @NBC’s license could be challenged emboldens other gov’ts to embrace authoritarian tendencies.”
The message that Trump is sending at home is also unsettling. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) described the president’s expression of disgust with those who write critically about him as the “words of an authoritarian.”
Trump is opening up new fronts in his war with those who would hold him to account. It is vital that he be challenged by members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans—who recognize what is at stake when the commander in chief points an accusatory finger at journalists who dare to question his authority.
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey got it right when he dispatched a pointed letter to FCC chair Ajit Pai on Wednesday. Markey, one of the savviest members of Congress when it comes to the FCC and to press-freedom issues, wrote:
Dear Chairman Pai,
I write to urge you to maintain the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) charter as an independent agency and withstand any urges from President Trump to harm the news media and infringe upon the First Amendment.
This morning, President Trump tweeted “[w]ith 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!”
In response to President Trump’s question, it is inappropriate for the President to propose challenging broadcasters’ licenses because he disagrees with their coverage. The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy, and the news media plays an instrumental role in educating the American public and holding elected officials accountable. Any insinuation that elected officials could use the levers of government to control or sensor the news media would represent a startling degradation of the freedom of press.
I ask for your commitment to resist the President’s request and call on you to publicly refuse to challenge the license of any broadcaster because the President dislikes its coverage. Please provide information about any correspondence or communications from the White House or other members of the Trump administration that have encouraged you to take action against a broadcaster.
I thank you for your attention to this important matter, and respectfully request that you respond to my inquiry no later than November 1, 2017.
Markey’s colleagues in the Senate, and members of the House, should support this demand that the FCC step up.
When it comes to defending press freedom from this president’s threats, this is mission critical for those who take seriously their duty to defend the First Amendment that Donald Trump so casually disregards.