After NBC News reported on Wednesday morning that President Donald Trump had shocked his military advisers by demanding “a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” our commander in chief did what he does best and lashed out at the press via Twitter.
Shutting down critical TV networks is, of course, a favorite move of would-be strongmen the world over—Hugo Chávez was particularly fond of it—and many were aghast to see a U.S. president musing about such an idea on social media. Just in case he hadn’t made his point clearly enough, though, Trump told reporters later in the afternoon that he thought it was “frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.” The man is not a fan of the First Amendment.
Which raises the question: If Trump grows angry enough, could he try to exact revenge on NBC, or any other news networks, by stripping their parent companies’ of their broadcast rights?
Thankfully, the answer is almost certainly no. But if you’re worried about the authoritarian streak rapidly engulfing the American right, Trump’s empty threats are still plenty chilling.
Trump’s threat is a bit awkward since, technically, NBC does not have a single broadcast “license.” That’s because it’s a television network—it creates programming, which mostly airs across affiliate stations around the country run by other companies. However, NBC’s corporate parent Comcast does own 10 NBC stations in major markets, which the company says reach 27 million households, or a little more than a quarter of the American TV viewers. And just like every other broadcaster on the public airwaves, those very valuable stations need to periodically renew their licenses with the Federal Communications Commission.
In theory, Trump—or one of his political allies—could file an official petition asking the FCC to deny licenses to Comcast’s stations the next time they need to be reupped. But to do that, they’d have to find something to complain about other than NBC’s critical White House coverage, because the commission doesn’t regulate news content. When stations’ licenses are challenged, it’s typically over technical or cut-and-dry legal issues like whether stations misled the FCC in previous applications. In one famous case from the 1980s, RKO General lost broadcast rights after it misled the FCC about bribery charges it had faced. But that legal battle took almost 20 years to resolve.
“I really don’t see anything [Trump] could do,” said Angela Campbell, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who specializes in media and telecommunications. “They [the FCC] don’t really deny anyone a license to begin with, but they certainly don’t do it because of what was broadcast on a news program, because that would be such a clear content discrimination claim.”
If Trump or his friends did find a superficial excuse to challenge one of Comcast’s broadcast licenses—that is, something other than “bad for country!”—chances are the effort wouldn’t go very far. The FCC is an independent body, and while its members are nominated by the White House, the recently confirmed chairman, Ajit Pai, is a by-the-book, business-friendly conservative who served on the commission during the Obama years. Even if you don’t like his stand on net neutrality, he probably isn’t going to entertain Trump’s desire for a political vendetta.
Meanwhile, Trump’s favorite media punching bag, CNN, is entirely safe from this nonsense, because cable networks aren’t regulated by the FCC.
So, if Trump’s threats are toothless, why worry? Because by talking openly about censoring unfriendly news outlets, he’s leading the right one step closer to a very dark place politically. As University of Tennessee professor Stuart Brotman pointed out to me, there actually is a historical parallel to Trump’s Twitter threats: During the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon talked about going after the Washington Post Co.’s radio and TV broadcast license.* “The game has to be played awfully rough,” he was caught saying on the White House tapes. His political allies eventually filed challenges against broadcast licenses of two Post-owned stations in Florida, both of which failed.
But even Nixon felt compelled to keep his plotting behind closed doors. With Trump, it’s out in the open, performed for millions supporters checking their iPhones. Maybe he’s just putting on a show for them. But a lot of those voters are going to come away with the idea that shutting down news stations is a good idea. And that might do more damage to the country than quiet, Nixonian skullduggery ever did.
*Correction, Oct. 11, 2017: This post originally misspelled University of Tennessee Knoxville professor Stuart Brotman’s last name.