Another day, another casual threat from the president of the United States to abuse the powers of his office in order to stymie reporting that he doesn’t like.
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 context here is that NBC News reported first that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a “fucking moron,” setting off a week’s worth of coverage of internal administration chaos, and then today reported that what set Tillerson off was a Trump request to increase the size of the US nuclear arsenal tenfold. Such an increase would be financially costly, break international law, surely lead to more nuclear proliferation, and accomplish nothing, since the US already has plenty of nukes to deter anyone. It was, in short, pretty moronic.
The policy context is that individual television broadcast stations need licenses from the Federal Communications Commission to stay in business.
This licensing regime is necessary to prevent different stations from offering overlapping transmissions that prevent anyone from tuning in. But it’s also potentially open to abuse — Lyndon Johnson and his wife deployed licensing authority corruptly to prevent anyone from competing with a station they owned in Texas. In theory, you could also abuse the power less for this sort of venal corruption and more for the kind of systemic corruption that Trump is proposing here.
Trump’s threat isn’t remotely credible
Trump often offered threats of this nature as a candidate, and during the transition and early days of the administration, it’s something I worried about a lot.
The reality, however, is that Trump’s appointees to key regulatory agencies — including Ajit Pai at the FCC — are very conventional pro-business deregulators. Your mileage may vary on whether deregulation is a good idea. Personally, I think I will miss network neutrality and broadband internet privacy rules from the FCC, antitrust enforcement from the Federal Trade Commission, environmental enforcement from the Environmental Protection Agency, and so on.
But it is what it is. Threats to crack down on independent media, though scary to normalize as part of public discourse, are empty, just like Trump’s earlier threats to sue the women who’ve accused him of sexual assault for libel. The whole Trump war on the press is largely a phony war, and in concrete material terms, Trump has been really good for business.