President Trump, who has threatened press freedoms before, suggested Wednesday that NBC might lose its broadcast licenses following critical stories detailing his behavior.
Substantively, Trump’s threat is fairly empty: NBC and other networks do not hold a license for the network as a whole. Licenses are issued to local stations, of which NBC owns 28. Under deregulatory measures that Republicans successfully pushed over the past generation, challenging a license on the grounds that coverage is unfair or biased would be extremely difficult.
Gordon Smith, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, denounced Trump’s threat on Wednesday.
“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the 1st Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press,” said Smith, a former Republican senator.
“It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist,” he said.
The tweet fits a pattern for Trump. His threat of government retaliation against NBC followed a tweet Tuesday that threatened the tax status of the National Football League. The league gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015.
Trump had previously spoken of making libel laws stricter and other crackdowns on the press, raising concern from 1st Amendment advocates.
NBC reported last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron” and nearly quit the administration out of concern for Trump’s behavior and policy. The network followed up Wednesday with a report on what had prompted the “moron comment."
Tillerson made the comment following a July 20 meeting of top national security leaders at which Trump advocated a near-tenfold increase in the nation’s nuclear arsenal, questioning why he lacked the stockpile that U.S. presidents had during the height of the Cold War, the network reported. The U.S. has since entered into numerous treaties and other legally binding agreements to slow the nuclear arms race.
Trump has been furious at the coverage. He challenged Tillerson to an IQ test in a Forbes interview published Tuesday and tweeted separately on Wednesday that the NBC account is “pure fiction, made up to demean.”
9:00 a.m.: This story was updated with comment from Gordon Smith of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.