The president can’t just pull the broadcast license of a television network that angers him — despite what Donald Trump implied in his latest tweet about NBC.
Trump raised the threat while venting at an NBC News report that said he had sought a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a story he slammed as "pure fiction." He added: “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!”
But a Federal Communications Commission official and telecom experts quickly outlined all the reasons that’s unlikely to happen — including the fact that the FCC doesn’t give broadcasting licenses to networks like Comcast-owned NBC.
Rather, the agency licenses individual television stations, including stations owned by Comcast or affiliates that air NBC programming. And while a process exists for challenging a station’s renewal after an eight-year term, successful challenges are exceedingly rare.
Residents or competitors can file such a challenge but face a high bar: To be at risk of losing its license, the station must have systematically violated the FCC’s rules or lack the requisite “character.” That is usually defined as a felony conviction, said Andrew Schwartzman, a communications lawyer with the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.
"It’s an empty threat," Schwartzman said. “The last thing that NBC is going to worry about is whether its broadcast licenses are in jeopardy.”
Furthermore, he said, the standard for renewing licenses has been "eased" over time: "The kinds of things that might theoretically have resulted in problems for a license have long since gone."
Schwartzman said the only time he could remember a large broadcaster losing its license was in the 1970s when a New York station’s management was convicted of bribery. The license renewal issue surfaced in 2012, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was facing controversy over a phone-hacking scandal in Britain that some critics said raised the "character" question, but Fox’s U.S. television licenses were not revoked.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed to the flaws in Trump’s rhetoric within minutes of his outburst, tweeting that’s "not how it works" and linking to an overview of the agency’s TV and radio license rules.
An FCC spokesman did not immediately comment. Senate Democrats, though, quickly urged the agency to shoot down the president’s suggestion.
"It is essential that the FCC send out a joint statement rejecting this kind of interference," tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), urging people to "imagine the reaction" if President Barack Obama had asked his Democratic FCC to revoke the license for Fox stations.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican tapped by Trump to head the agency, for information about any communications from the White House encouraging him to take action against a broadcaster. The senator also called on Pai to publicly "refuse to challenge the license of any broadcaster because the president dislikes its coverage."
Wednesday’s tweet is the second time in less than a week the president has referred to broadcast rules as he rails about what he sees as unfair media coverage. Over the weekend, Trump wrote: "Late Night host are dealing with the Democrats for their very ‘unfunny’ & repetitive material, always anti-Trump! Should we get Equal Time?"
He later added: "More and more people are suggesting that Republicans (and me) should be given Equal Time on T.V. when you look at the one-sided coverage?"
The equal time law requires that broadcasters give political candidates the same amount of air time from personal appearances and paid advertising, with exemptions for programs like newscasts. It doesn’t apply to comedians’ commentaries, the apparent targets of Trump’s tweet.
Infamously, President Richard Nixon also targeted broadcasters whose coverage he didn’t like amid the Watergate scandal and controversies over his Vietnam policies. NBC was a presidential target then as now, though Nixon’s preferred threat was a potential antitrust lawsuit, which he held over broadcasters in a bid to influence their coverage.
"If the threat of screwing them is going to help us more with their programming than doing it, then keep the threat," Nixon told a White House aide in July 1971, in a conversation that The Washington Post reported in 1997 after his Oval Office recordings were transcribed. "Don’t screw them now. [Otherwise] they’ll figure that we’re done."
The Nixon Justice Department eventually did file an antitrust lawsuit against television networks in April 1972 on the grounds that they had a monopoly on prime-time entertainment with their programming. The suits were dismissed in 1974.
Angela Greiling Keane contributed to this report.