Trump threat­ens NBC but ex­perts see no real risk to li­censes

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Tali Ar­bel

NEW YORK » Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is threat­en­ing NBC’s broad­cast li­censes be­cause he’s not happy with how its news di­vi­sion has cov­ered him. But ex­perts say his threats aren’t likely to lead to any ac­tion.

The net­work it­self doesn’t need a li­cense to op­er­ate, but in­di­vid­ual sta­tions do. NBC owns sev­eral sta­tions in ma­jor cities. Sta­tions owned by other companies such as Tri­bune and Cox carry NBC’s news shows and other pro­grams else­where. Li­censes come from the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, an in­de­pen­dent gov­ern­ment agency whose chair­man is a Trump ap­pointee.

Trump tweeted Wednesday, “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!”

NBC spokes­woman Hilary Smith had no com­ment. The FCC did not re­spond to mes­sages seek­ing com­ment.

These days, li­cense re­newals are fairly rou­tine. A sta­tion could be deemed un­fit and have its li­cense stripped if it were telling lies and spread­ing fake news, as Trump claims. But Harold Feld of the con­sumer group Pub­lic Knowl­edge says that’s tough to prove.

“The re­al­ity is it is just about im­pos­si­ble to make that show­ing,” he said. “All this stuff is opin­ion.”

Feld said he can re­call just two in­stances in the past 20 years when there has been a re­newal chal­lenge. One in­volved an owner of ra­dio sta­tions who was con­victed of child mo­lesta­tion, and the other when some­one died as part of a ra­dio sta­tion’s con­test. Both lost their li­censes.

Al­though yank­ing a li­cense is rare, just the threat could put pres­sure on NBC’s news cov­er­age.

“The words ‘li­cense re­newal’ are ones which have had a chill­ing ef­fect in the past on broad­cast­ers,” said lawyer Floyd Abrams, an ex­pert on the First Amend­ment, cit­ing Richard Nixon’s at­tempts to sway news cov­er­age as pres­i­dent. “The threat, how­ever un­likely, is one that broad­cast­ers will have to take se­ri­ously.”

The National As­so­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast­ers, a trade group, said it was con­trary to First Amend­ment prin­ci­ples “for any gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial to threaten the re­vo­ca­tion of an FCC li­cense sim­ply be­cause of a dis­agree­ment with the re­port­ing of a jour­nal­ist.”

Fol­low­ing his tweet, Trump told re­porters in the Oval Of­fice, “It’s frankly dis­gust­ing the way the press is able to write what­ever they want to write and peo­ple should look into it.”

The pres­i­dent has long railed against main­stream me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, de­rid­ing them as “fake news.” He has also said he wanted to “open up” li­bel laws so he can more eas­ily go after press out­lets for sto­ries he feels are in­ac­cu­rate. That would re­quire a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment or re­ver­sal of Supreme Court prece­dent on the First Amend­ment.

FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai is a Trump ap­pointee, but ex­perts say he can’t pull a li­cense just be­cause he feels like it. Re­newals come up ev­ery eight years, and chal­lenges are heard by an ad­min­is­tra­tive law judge.

The judge’s de­ci­sion can be over­ruled by po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees at the FCC, how­ever. And the agency could start a spe­cial pro­ceed­ing to re­voke a li­cense, said Er­win Kras­now, for­mer gen­eral coun­sel of NAB.

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