Curiously, there are two answers to the question Donald Trump poses here. The first is “never,” and the second is “absolutely never.” A third would have to point out that it’s a trick question in the first place:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
The trick answer to the trick question: broadcast licenses apply specifically to broadcast stations, not networks. Most of the broadcast stations that carry NBC are affiliates, not owned-and-operated stations. That’s true of all the broadcast networks. In fact, Sinclair — a more conservative media group — owns or will shortly own over 230 television stations that run programming from all of the major and minor broadcast networks. They are the second-largest owner of TV stations in the US. Networks are content providers for the most part, and there is no license required for producing journalistic content.
The same is true for cable channels such as CNN and Fox News, by the way, who aren’t broadcasters in the legal sense. Their product is carried by cable and satellite providers, who are required to have licenses to operate but which have little to do with content.
Of course, we’ve been told a number of times that we should take Trump seriously rather than literally. Doesn’t he have a legit gripe about media coverage, and shouldn’t Trump push back against it? After all, the Media Research Center found that 92% of broadcast news coverage of the Trump administration was negative in September, a ratio that has remained mainly constant throughout 2017. Pew Research confirms that Trump has faced a much more hostile media environment than his three immediate predecessors. So isn’t this an understandable attack?
Er … no, not really. It’s impossible to take a threat to a non-existent license seriously, first off. It comes off as entirely ignorant, which is hardly a good look for the Leader of the Free World. More importantly, though, having the president of the US threaten to shut down media outlets because he doesn’t like their content sets a bad precedent and erodes the cultural consensus for freedom of speech — a problem that is already evident, even on the Right. Had Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton even hinted at making “licenses” conditional on the tenor of coverage, conservatives would have (rightfully) screamed to high heaven about an attack on the First Amendment.
In fact, the reason conservatives have dominance on talk radio is due to the removal of the content-balance requirements in the defunct Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Want to bet who will suffer most if it gets reimposed?
If Trump wants to criticize networks for their coverage, he’s got plenty of ways to do so without threatening government action over it. That’s precisely the kind of Big Brother authoritarianism against which conservatives have fought for decades. We ought to call it out even when it gets deployed — briefly — in our favor.