The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment expert, Gene Policinski, originally published this commentary on the Newseum blog, and have given First Amendment Watch permission to reprint.
There’s only one appropriate, spirit-of-freedom response to the “Trump tweet” on Wednesday asking when it’s “appropriate” for the government to punish NBC News for a story the president didn’t like:
NEVER. And yes, the repetition of “appropriate” and the use of all-caps is for emphasis.
Trump is disputing an NBC report earlier in the day – based on interviews with three officials in the room at the time – that during a July meeting Trump had proposed a massive increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal, which critics immediately pounced on as evidence he was naïve and ignorant of the cost, policy and treaty barriers to such an increase.
“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!” the president tweeted.
No – what’s bad for the country is for a president to threaten a news organization over a story that offended him – and about which it should be noted, the White House did not offer evidence or counter witnesses to discredit.
NBC, to its credit, also reported that no action was taken on the proposed ten-fold increase in the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal of some 7,000 warheads. Trump supporters said it was likely he was only raising a “provocative” idea to prompt responses from his military advisers – which they said is his combative management style.
True or disputed, style or substance, there’s no room in any president’s vocabulary for words that would try to put a news outlet out of business for a report. Criticize, call out or condemn – all fair game, and all tactics that Trump has used frequently about news accounts he did not like, even during his campaign and during his reality show and real estate career prior to running for office.
So far, Trump’s most-heated attacks on journalists or news operations have been more hot air than real fire. But raising the idea of a direct challenge on government licenses – which accurately should have focused on NBC’s licenses to operate a number of local TV stations, if not NBC affiliates owned by other companies – crosses the line from complaint to a threat of government censorship.
It’s not that Trump has no effective means to get his version of things to the public. His tweets regularly reach millions of people, and he also has the “bully pulpit” of his office, which means he can grab headlines by simply deciding to do so.
The tweet on challenging licenses is simply a step too far for the leader of a democratic nation, whether he or some surrogate takes on the task. Not that he is the first president to consider doing so: Richard Nixon, deep in the pit of the Watergate scandal, discussed going after the TV and radio licenses of a station owned by the Washington Post Co. and Newsweek because of the Post’s aggressive reporting.
Two challenges were later mounted by individuals close to Nixon, but not directly tied to the White House, according to the Post in a story published after Trump’s tweet.
But, that story noted, “The difference here is that Nixon talked about the scheme only privately.”
We’ve been down this road before – and rejected the idea of a subservient press, beholden to government at any level. In 1798, eight years after adopting the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment) Congress passed the Sedition Act – making it a crime to criticize the president or Congress. Some 20 editors were jailed, but the nation recoiled at the restrictions on free speech and the press, even reelecting one editor – Matthew Lyon of Vermont – to Congress while he was behind bars.
The law faded from the books in 1801, and some historians and First Amendment advocates say the experience “inoculated” the country from such overt attempts to muzzle what the nation’s founders protected as the “watchdog on government.”
Washington is said to have decided against seeking another term because of harsh press criticism, and John Adams suffered from insults ranging from “balding have royalist” to words we hesitate to use publicly today. Lincoln briefly jailed so-called “Copperhead” editors whom he saw as Confederate sympathizers – but the action is considered a stain on the record of the Great Emancipator, even though he said at the time it was because the editors were encouraging riots and attacks on Union troops.
Going after the business and government licenses of news operations in order to silence critics would echo the strong-arm tactics of the worst dictatorial nations today – something that we see in nations such as Turkey and Eritrea. Joel Simon, head of the worldwide press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists, coined a word several years ago to describe elected leaders who eschewed jailing or murdering journalists they disliked: A “Democrator.”
Trump has every right to respond to critics and to stories he thinks are unfair, inaccurate or insulting. But the “licenses” tweet is not merely unpresidential, but undemocratic and unpatriotic. We’ve made it as a nation since 1776 without the kind of official licensing of printers and publications that was in place under the English king, so let’s not start now.
A suggestion: Feeling frustrated and “demeaned?” Why not just tweet about it?
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, which includes the Religious Freedom Center, the First Amendment Center, and NewseumED. One of the founding editors of USA Today, he oversees all programs of the Newseum Institute and also is a longtime proponent of diversity in journalism as an essential element of a free press. A veteran multimedia journalist, he also writes, lectures and is interviewed regularly on First Amendment issues. In 1996, he began working at the Freedom Forum, the foundation that is the principal funder of the Newseum and Newseum Institute. He hosts a variety of online audio and video programs produced by the Newseum Institute, including the “Journalism/Works” podcast, and is co-author of the bi-monthly, nationally distributed commentary “Inside the First Amendment.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.