President Donald Trump is no stranger to warring with news outlets, but he upped the ante Oct. 11 by suggesting in a tweet that a broadcaster's license with the Federal Communications Commission should be revoked.
"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 wrote.
The tweet came after NBC News reported Trump had proposed a 10x increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It is unclear whether Trump was calling for the revocation of all NBC owned-and-operated broadcast stations, which would share the same parent company as the network.
A representative for NBCUniversal Media LLC, owned by Comcast Corp., declined to comment on the tweet.
Another possibility was that the president envisioned all NBC affiliate stations could have their FCC licenses challenged.
Either way, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel responded with her own Oct. 11 tweet, noting that revoking a broadcast license in response to a particular news item is "not how it works." The commission as a whole did not respond to a request for comment.
According to FCC documentation, "The First Amendment and the Communications Act bar the FCC from telling station licensees how to select material for news programs, or prohibiting the broadcast of an opinion on any subject." There are, however, two issues related to "fake news" that are subject to commission regulation: hoaxes and news distortion.
A hoax is defined as the broadcast of information that a station licensee knows is false and that causes substantial public harm. News distortion, meanwhile, involves knowingly "rigging or slanting the news." But the commission emphasizes that while it often receives complaints that broadcast stations have aired "inaccurate or one-sided news reports or comments, covered stories inadequately, or overly dramatized the events that they cover," the agency generally will not intervene in such cases.
"It would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own," the FCC states.
A broadcast attorney agreed with Rosenworcel in that revoking a broadcast license in the wake of a news item is "not how it works."
"The commission stays out of First Amendment matters and leaves what the programming is to the discretion of the broadcasters with only very narrow exceptions," the lawyer said in an interview, pointing to the rules covering children's programming, the commercial limits on that programming, political ads and obscenity.
"It's a very narrow area, and the commission is very careful," the lawyer said.
But the lawyer argued that does not mean Trump's tweet should be ignored by the broadcast industry. The lawyer did not read the tweet as calling for the immediate revocation of a particular station's license but rather as a call to mobilize Trump supporters to file complaints with the FCC. The lawyer shared that at least one client had already called asking about the potential implications of the tweet.
Broadcast licenses are generally reviewed by the FCC during the renewal process, which happens every eight years, or during a merger or acquisition. In terms of the timing of Trump's tweet, the lawyer noted the next renewal process does not begin until 2019.
"So no one has a license renewal pending right now that someone could object to," the lawyer said.
In the immediate term, viewers can file a general comment or a complaint with the commission at any time. But the lawyer noted, "If 1,000 file something today and say, 'I don't like this station because they have fake news,' I don't think it's going to get a blip on the FCC's radar screen."
In a couple of years, if Trump supporters are still concerned about broadcast networks' news coverage to the point that they file complaints en masse when the license renewal process begins, the attorney noted the review of these complaints has been known to delay a license renewal.
Trump's Oct. 11 tweet comes after a series of tweets and speeches earlier this year in which he called news outlets such as the New York Times Co.'s flagship publication and Time Warner Inc.'s CNN (US) "fake news" and the "enemy of the American People," specifically criticizing their use of anonymous sources.
In the weeks leading up to the November 2016 election, Trump also said his administration would look at breaking up the combination of Comcast and NBCUniversal.