Trump melts down over critical NBC article, issues threat against press freedom

The president is explicitly threatening to suppress coverage he doesn't like.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

On Wednesday, President Trump floated the idea of pursuing a federal crackdown on NBC and other TV networks, tweeting that it may be “appropriate” to revoke their “License.”

Trump’s tweet came 10 minutes after he accused NBC of fabricating a story about him telling national security officials during a meeting in July that he wants to dramatically expand America’s nuclear arsenal. Not only was NBC’s story sourced to “three officials who were in the room,” but Trump himself tweeted in December that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.”

The National Association of Broadcasters — the leading trade association for radio and TV — quickly issued a statement condemning Trump’s threat.

“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the First Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press,” NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith said in the statement. “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.”

Though the president is sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution — including freedom of the press — Trump has made no secret of his authoritarian impulses when it comes to the media.

Just last week, Trump urged the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate the American press in response to a previous NBC report about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling him a “moron” — a report that Tillerson himself didn’t deny.

Trump also has a long history of joking with authoritarian leaders around the world about how much he hates the press.

During a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in August, Trump commiserated with Duda over their mutual distaste for so-called “fake news,” with Trump specifically singling out CNN.

As The Independent noted, Duda’s government “has been accused of significantly clamping down on press freedoms,” and Duda “signed a law allowing the government to take political control of state media outlets, resulting in claims that the government is turning public news organisations into mouthpieces for the party.”

During a joint news conference in Washington, D.C. early last month with the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, the two men shared a laugh a the media’s expense. After Sabah noted that “it’s true we have descended into some not-very-healthy issues, especially in the media,” Trump said that “I’m very, very honored and happy to know that you have problems with the media also.” 

Freedom House notes that in Kuwait, journalists “operate in a restricted environment. Journalists and social media users deemed to have insulted the emir or Saudi Arabia often face prosecution, and the government sustains efforts to stifle criticism of its actions and policies.”

In September, Trump praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a joint appearance before journalists in DC, saying the increasingly authoritarian ruler is “getting very high marks.”

“It’s a great honor and privilege — because he’s become a friend of mine — to introduce President Erdogan of Turkey,” Trump told reporters. “He’s running a very difficult part of the world. He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”

Erdogan has presided over a press crackdown since an attempted coup in the summer of 2016. As the Washington Post noted in January, Erdogan “has jailed at least 144 journalists and shuttered or seized control of more than 150 media companies, according to Human Rights Watch.” That same month, Erdogan praised Trump for calling a CNN reporter “fake news” during a news conference held days before the inauguration.

“Mr. Trump put the reporter of that [media] group in his place,” Erdogan told Turkish journalists.

In December of last year, Trump dismissed concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime murdering journalists, telling MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.”

While it’s not immediately clear how Trump could curtail NBC and other networks, his Federal Communications Commission chief has already helped disseminate coverage that is favorable to him and other Republicans.

As Politico detailed in August, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s expansion into nearly three-quarters of American households was aided by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, “who revived a decades-old regulatory loophole that will keep Sinclair from vastly exceeding federal limits on media ownership.”

“The change will allow Sinclair — a company known for injecting ‘must run’ conservative segments into its local programming — to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations,” Politico reported. “That’s nearly double the congressionally imposed nationwide audience cap of 39 percent.”

The Trump campaign struck a deal with Sinclair for uncritical coverage. Last December, now-White House senior adviser Jared Kushner reportedly told business executives in Manhattan that the campaign granted access to Trump and other campaign officials in exchange for broadcasting interviews with them without commentary.

Less than a month before the election, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declared Trump to be a threat to press freedoms throughout the world.

In a move unprecedented in CPJ’s 35-year history, the nonprofit organization released a statement saying, “Trump, through his words and actions as a candidate for president of the United States, has consistently betrayed First Amendment values.”

“A Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States, but the consequences for the rights of journalists around the world could be far more serious,” the statement said. “Any failure of the United States to uphold its own standards emboldens dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own countries. This appears to be of no concern to Trump, who indicated that he has no inclination to challenge governments on press freedom and the treatment of journalists.”


UPDATE (10/11, 2:40 p.m.): During a brief appearance before reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon, Trump reiterated his desire for a crackdown on the media, and again called for an investigation of some sort.

“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it,” he said.

Trump, referring NBC’s reporting about his desire to expand American’s nuclear stockpile in particular, went on to accuse mainstream media outlets of simply making up sources.

“When they make up stories like that, that’s just made up, and the generals will tell you that,” Trump said. “And then they have their sources that don’t exist, in my opinion they don’t exist. They make up the sources. There are no sources.”