Two former commissioners with the Federal Communications Commission threw cold water on President Donald Trump’s suggestion on Wednesday to “challenge” the broadcast licenses of networks over news reports he considers to be “fake” and “bad for country.”
“To me it’s just incomprehensible that because of the content of NBC News that somehow their license would be at risk,” Alfred Sikes, a Republican who chaired the FCC under President George H.W. Bush, told The Wrap on Wednesday.
“Any kind of action would require a majority of commissioners and I find it very, very unlikely that based on arguments about the foundations of NBC News content that those licenses would be put up for review,” he added.
Michael Copps, a Democrat who served as FCC commissioner from 2001 to 2011, was similarly disturbed by Trump’s tweet, which followed criticism of a series of NBC News reports critical of his administration and whose facts he disputed.
“If such a threat were carried out it would be a blatantly unacceptable intervention in the jurisdiction of an independent federal agency,” Copps told TheWrap. “It would have a chilling effect not just on NBC but maybe even worse, small and independent stations who might not have the resources of NBC to fight back such an effort.”
Sikes took issue with the president’s even tweeting the suggestion of a government action over network reporting. “I believe any president using or attempting to use the levers of government to bring into line sources of news that he doesn’t like is inappropriate,” he said.
And he argued that FCC complaints for so-called “fake news” would likely be treated like frivolous civil litigation. “Anybody can file a complaint,” he said. “If you ask me whether I could sue you, the answer would be yes. But do I have any foundation for suing you? Obviously not.”
Copps added, “The best antidote to [fake news] in my mind is to have more real news and more investigative journalism. Too many reporters are walking the streets looking for a job rather than walking the beats looking for a story.”
In a Wednesday morning Twitter storm, Trump raised the stakes in his war against “fake news” by publicly floating the idea of challenging news network’s broadcasting licenses with the FCC.
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
Update: After a steady stream of backlash to his tweets, Trump declared later Wednesday in a tweet that all network news has “become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
A spokesperson for NBC News declined to comment, while current FCC chairman Ajit Pai did not respond to an email inquiry from The Wrap.
Trump’s threat also prompted a swift rebuke from the National Association of Broadcasters.
“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the First Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press,” the organization said in a statement provided to The Wrap. “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.”
During the campaign Trump became famous for his anti-media jeremiads. On the trail in 2016, Trump vowed to “open up libel laws,” and repeated the idea in March, 2017 in a threatening tweet to The New York Times
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
For the record: A previous version of this story misspelled Alfred Sikes’ name.