Trump NBC FCC tweet

Trump calls NBC ‘fake news’ and suggests FCC should challenge its broadcast license

October 11, 2017

On October 11, 2017, President Trump called NBC News “fake news” and suggested that the FCC should challenge the network’s broadcast license.

“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!” Trump tweeted.

Trump also criticized an NBC News report which said that Trump wanted to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the FCC’s five commissioners, responded to Trump on Twitter.

Rosenworcel’s tweet included a link to a document on the FCC’s website titled “The Public and Broadcasting,” which outlines the agency’s regulation of broadcasts.

“We license only individual broadcast stations,” the document states. “We do not license TV or radio networks (such as CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox) or other organizations with which stations have relationships (such as PBS or NPR), except to the extent that those entities may also be station licensees.”

While the FCC regulates which local TV stations can broadcast over the air, it does not — and cannot — regulate which networks those stations broadcast. The agency could deny licenses to local stations directly owned by NBC, but doing so would not prevent other stations from broadcasting NBC News. If the FCC did attempt to deny broadcast licenses to NBC-owned stations in retaliation for the network’s coverage of Trump, it would likely be challenged in court and lose on First Amendment grounds.

The Radio Television Digital News Association (which is a partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker) condemned Trump’s tweet.

“Today’s call by the President of the United States to challenge the licenses of networks is not only dangerous to the American people’s right to access responsible journalism, it represents a clear misunderstanding on his part of how much control the federal government can exercise as it relates to networks and cable channels,” RTDNA executive director Dan Shelley said.

Trump is not the first president to try to retaliate against journalism organizations by challenging broadcast licenses. 

Newton Minnow, a former FCC director, writes in the Chicago Tribune that John F. Kennedy once called him up to complain that NBC News was broadcasting false information about him.

I was at home one evening when Kennedy called, furious because of a television news story,” Minnow recalls. “Executives in the steel industry announced a price increase, which the president believed was a violation of an agreement he had negotiated to avoid a strike. He asked if I had seen NBC’s newscast in which the steel companies’ execs bitterly attacked the president. I had. The president bellowed: ‘Did you see how those guys lied about me? Outrageous! Do something about it!’”

Minnow refused to do anything and Kennedy dropped the matter.

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon and his allies took more serious steps, challenging the broadcast licenses of local TV stations owned by The Washington Post. 

“In 1973, the Associated Press reported on the effort from George Champion Jr., who had been finance chairman for Nixon’s campaign in Florida, to challenge the license of a Jacksonville, Fla., TV station — WJXT-TV,” Post reporter Aaron Blake writes. “The station was then owned by Newsweek and The Washington Post Co., which also owned The Washington Post. The Post was at that point well into its Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate investigation of the president.”

Despite Nixon’s efforts, the FCC renewed the broadcast license for WJXT-TV and other stations owned by the Post.

October 11, 2017 Update

Trump later tweeted that it might be appropriate for the FCC to “revoke” broadcast licenses:

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