Is it a day ending in the letter "y"? Then yes, President Donald Trump has said something flippantly authoritarian, made a wholly empty threat, and blasted the media, all before lunch. Helpfully, he accomplished this all with just one tweet:
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
The president is correct, if unintentionally so, that challenging a media company's license out of frustration over its allegedly inaccurate coverage is "Bad for country!" As he would know well, if he paid attention to his own Federal Communications Commission Chair, Ajit Pai, who in a speech last month (as covered by Variety) sounded the warning that "free speech in practice seems to be under siege in this country":
Pai added that the "common thread is the belief, shared by too many, that those with views perceived as unpopular or offensive should be silenced. One has to wonder whether those who will one day carry the torch will be dedicated to open debate or will instead seek to marginalize viewpoints they don't like."
Pai said that he also sees "worrying signs" at the FCC, pointing to Twitter messages in which "people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks."
"Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn't license cable channels, these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions," Pai said.
(Check out Reason's April interview with Pai, which is embedded at the bottom of this post.)
CNN's Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter do a good job of explaining why Trump's trial-balloon threat is "essentially toothless," not least because "there is no single license for NBC or any other national television network." Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of Press Foundation, counters in a Twitter thread that "There's an argument that Trump's new threats against NBC & the NFL have crossed the line into an actual First Amendment violation." As always, keep refreshing Popehat.
Working through my own "5-Step Process for Playing Defense Against Trump's Bad Ideas," part of which emanated from his nonsense-talk as president-elect about criminalizing flag-burning, I quickly conclude that 1) Trump can't really do anything about this specific issue right now (not least because his FCC commish would raise a stink, 2) Congress ain't gonna do jack about this or any related issue, either. 3) There are many constitutional/institutional restraints to Trump acting on his many garbage ideas about the media (on which more below); 4) it's possible that his behavior will create a backlash that reverses the seeming erosion in public support for the First Amendment (see, for example, the recent increase in public trust of the media, and yes, yes, "the media" does not equal the First Amendment, but I'm talking about backlashes). But! 5) How might he be changing the political conversation in such a way to make what is currently unlikely possible? That's where this latest belch might linger.
Let's just posit that this is a stupid and awful thing for any American president to say:
President Trump: "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it." pic.twitter.com/gT9FhI94tJ— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 11, 2017
Press freedoms (including to the freedom to write mean-spirited things about politicians without being rung up for sedition) are not "disgusting," they are part of what Made America Great In the First Place (#MAGIFP). But by stomping up and down on the right's pre-existing anti-media button, Trump is helping to smoke out a fundamental incoherence among his base. Namely, that many red-hatters imagine themselves as fighting the real battle for free speech against an increasingly censorious, monolithically leftist, three-headed media/entertainment/academia monster. And their hero is so narcissistically combative, historically incurious, and blasé about government overreach that he's actually talking about bringing back the fucking Fairness Doctrine.
The #NeverTrump Republican political consultant Rick Wilson is fond of saying that Trump ends up ruining everything he touches. That's more sour than my take—after all, Trump has decisively touched his own regulatory state, with such salutary picks such as Ajit Pai. But I think we may soon conclude that just when conservatives were inching tantalizingly close to the free-speech high road, their hero led them down a Culture War highway to hell.
Nick Gillespie's interview with Mr. FCC: