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Trump vs. The First Amendment

Don Rose 18 October 2017 No Comment

Almost overlooked in Donald Trump’s assaults last week on Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal was his moronic assault on the First Amendment–you know, the one that guarantees freedom of speech. The man was idiotic enough to suggest challenging the licenses of NBC and networks he accuses of “fake news.”

Where do we begin? With the fact that networks are not licensed, therefore can’t be challenged? Was this total ignorance of the law or just bluster for “the base”?


The print media need no licenses but individual TV and radio stations do. Networks own and operate dozens of them and many independently owned stations carry the network product. Individual station licenses could be challenged–but certainly not for broadcasting negative stories about Trump, even with an error or two. Major networks and individual stations make every effort to correct errors, as do most newspapers.

Trump has done more than any other president to vilify the press and broadcast media–at times putting some reporters in physical danger at his rallies by calling them out by name. More than one reporter had to be protected by either Secret Service or security people.

It’s clear that if  he had  the power of other tinhorn dictators he would muzzle the media by executive order–especially NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC,CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post. (But I’m sure he would like to amplify Fox and Breitbart.)

Yes, every president has found himself at war with the media–including Obama, who in many ways was a creature built up by the media. But none with the exception of Nixon advocated shutting them down by challenging their licenses. Nixon associates actually tried but failed to revoke several TV station licenses.

Some crazed Trump loyalists might try challenging a station’s license, but it’s virtually impossible to succeed. The Federal Communications Commission makes the decision, not the president or congress–and the FCC has made it easier and easier to renew a station’s license.

In the 1970s I had a community affairs show on a major AM station and also filled out its license renewal application every few years. It was an onerous task, answering endless questions about the time given to news and “public service” plus querying dozens of community and civic leaders about the problems they identified in the city and also commissioning a professional poll.

We had “equal time” requirements and had to offer programs such as my Sunday morning talk show regardless of what the station aired the rest of the time, which was music. But the FCC kept easing up, abolishing “equal time” and public-service provisions, making relicensing  perfunctory.

Yet Trump keeps blathering about “fake news,” sometimes claiming he invented the term. Actually it dates back to newspaper wars of the early 1900s. It was revived during the cable/ internet era when right-wing (and some left-wing) platforms posted phony stories, like “The Pope endorses Trump.”

Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway may have coined the term “alternative facts,” but his continued, frenzied accusations of “fake news” really  means anything critical of himself.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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