HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday asked the Federal Communication Commission to pledge to uphold the First Amendment amidst a series of tweets from President Donald Trump threatening to revoke broadcaster licenses.
“The President’s calls to revoke broadcaster licenses based on speech content are an affront to the First Amendment and American values,” Blumenthal said. “The FCC must reassure our nation — and our journalists — that it will not be an accomplice to Trump’s disgraceful attacks on our free press.”
In a tweet on Oct. 11, Trump said: “With all the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
Earlier that day, NBC had reported that Trump had requested a nearly 10-fold increase in the size of America’s nuclear arsenal in a meeting of his military advisers. Shortly after that meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a “moron,” NBC reported.
Earlier this year, the White House threatened to punish CNN for unfavorable coverage by ordering the Justice Department to deny the network’s parent company, Time Warner, its proposed merger with AT&T.
Trump’s media criticism was the subject of many news talk shows Sunday and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is being pressed to speak out on what some journalism groups see as an attack on First Amendment values.
“I ask you to commit in writing that you will not vote against any broadcast license renewal application in a manner that is inconsistent with the First Amendment,” Blumenthal said in a letter to Pai.
Blumenthal told Pai that he’s certain to appreciate the “chilling effect a threat like this issued from the Oval Office might have on newsrooms — and especially on small, independent stations.”
A number of journalism organizations, including the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Free Press, Media Law Resource Center, and PEN America released a statement expressing concern over Trump’s comments.
“When coming from the leader of the free world, words matter,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “And if the First Amendment means anything, it’s that the government can’t censor news because it’s critical of the government. The President should be working to uphold the values of the First Amendment, not tearing them down.”
The FCC issues broadcast licenses to individual stations, not networks, and they are subject to renewals every eight years. But the renewal process is, in the vast majority of cases, a formality, and the FCC reviews whether the outlets have served the public interest.
That has included such things as the amount of programming devoted to public affairs and local issues, not the nature of its news reporting.
Those wondering why Trump would be so heavy handed with the news media shouldn’t be, according to Ben Bogardus, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University.
“This tweet, and the reaction from the media and the politicians, is exactly what President Trump wants to see,” Bogardus said.
He said it benefits the president in two ways.
“First, it changes the national conversation away from serious topics — like the Las Vegas shooting, hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, and the war of words with North Korea — and instead focuses politicians and the press on trivial matters like the hypothetical revoking of broadcast licenses,” Bogardus said.
“Secondly, it reinforces the President’s image of an outsider fighting against the establishment, which was the center of his 2016 campaign,” Bogardus said. “By going after the media, which conservatives often claim is biased against Republicans, he tell his voters he’s going to ‘go along to get along.’ Instead he’s going to be a fighter who is determined to ‘drain the swamp’.”
Blumenthal didn’t disagree with Bogardus’ assessment about the reasons why Trump is taking on the media.
“All that may be his true,” the senator said. “But his statements have an impact. He has such a powerful platform and a megaphone and his words have consequences.”
Borgardus had this piece of advice for journalists: “The best response to the President is for the media to ignore these intentional provocations, and instead keep focusing on substantive issues — and report both the good and bad coming out of the President’s policies.