U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

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

Incident Details

Trump NBC FCC tweet
February 1, 2018 - Update

FCC letter

In a letter to Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said that the White House has not asked him to take action against NBC or any other broadcaster.

Throughout my tenure at the Commission, I have consistently been a strong supporter of the First Amendment, and the FCC under my leadership has protected and will continue to protect the First Amendment. Moreover, I have made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast. Additionally, I have long championed the FCC’s independence. Accordingly, I can also assure you that under my leadership the Commission’s review of any matter associated with any broadcast license will not be impacted by political pressure from elected officials. 

You asked that I “provide information about any correspondence or communications from the White House or other members of the Trump administration that have encouraged [me] to take action against a broadcaster.” I have received no such correspondence or communications.

Ajit Pai's letter to Sen. Markey

October 11, 2017 - Update

Trump follows-up tweet about broadcast licenses

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

October 11, 2017

On Oct. 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 Minow, 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,” Minow 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!’”

Minow 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.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].