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Trump hints at revoking TV licenses

October 11, 2017

The US president has suggested the government consider revoking broadcast licenses for outlets running stories critical of his administration. Some warned that freedom of speech is under threat.

USA Trump
Image: Reuters/K. Lamarque

A combative US President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to launch another attack against US media outlets, suggesting that the US government should contemplate revoking their broadcast licenses. It was not the first time Trump has made statements criticizing freedom of the press. The actions he mentioned do not fall under the direct purview of his administration.

Trump kept up his criticism of the media in an appearance later on Wednesday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying, "It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write."

Trump later repeated the threat in another tweet:

In the past, the president has suggested jailing journalists, loosening libel laws and asked why the US Senate Intelligence Committee is not investigating media outlets for publishing "fake news" rather than looking into his campaign team and administration's possible ties to Russia meddling in the US election. He also threatened and maligned reporters and news outlets and blocked access to those reporting unfavorably about him and expanded access to those whose coverage was favorable.

Read more: Presidents always rail against the press, but not like Trump

Taking aim at the fourth estate

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits the government from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the free press." The Federal Communications Council (FCC) is tasked with issuing broadcast licenses to individual broadcast stations but not individual media outlets. While its five commissioners are appointed to 5-year terms by the president and confirmed in Senate hearings, the commission operates independently of the White House and has Republican and Democratic members.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, tweeted Wednesday that Trump would not be able to revoke a license for NBC.

Wednesday's comments came after US media corporation NBC published reports that Trump requested a tenfold expansion of the US nuclear arsenal during a meeting at the Pentagon. The NBC report said, "According to the officials present, Trump advisors, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised."

Tip-top nuclear weapons

Trump disputed that he wanted to increase the number of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal.

"It's got to be in tip-top shape," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday. "Right now we have so many nuclear weapons, I want them in perfect condition, that's all I've ever discussed."

Infografik Number of culear weapons by country, 2017 ENG (Sperrfrist: 03.07.2017 00:01 AM CET)

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis supported the president and called NBC's reporting "erroneous" and "irresponsible."

NBC had also previously reported that the secretary of state had referred to Trump as a "moron," after the president left the same meeting. That report also raised Trump's ire, setting off a chain of events in which he demanded that NBC "issue an apology to the America," and Tillerson was forced to hold an unusual press conference in which he refused to say whether he had actually used the term.

Who decides what is fake news?

Trump initially lashed out about the nuclear arsenal story in a tweet labeling NBC "fake news," calling the story, "Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC=CNN!" CNN was the first media outlet that Trump singled out with the fake news moniker. The term, which was originally used to designate knowingly false stories designed to sow confusion and spread disinformation. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump used the term —  often without any evidence to back up his claim — to describe unfavorable coverage of his campaign. He has continued to do so while president. 

Press freedom on the slide?

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), for instance, has said that freedom of the press in the US was already under threat during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, due to both president's use of the 1917 Espionage Act to jail whistleblowers and leakers, but that the situation has deteriorated since Trump took office. The United States ranked 43 of the 180 nations surveyed in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index. In 2016 it was ranked 41.

Media under fire - consequences of Trump's dealing with the media

js/sms (AFP, Reuters)