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Could Trump Really Shut Down NBC?

The president tweeted about revoking the network's broadcasting license, but an expert says it's not clear how he'd do that.

Allie Conti

Allie Conti

Images via Getty

On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump tweeted the suggestion that NBC's broadcasting license be revoked. Apparently incensed an NBC News report earlier that day about how he had bizarrely called for a massive increase in America's nuclear arsenal—which reportedly led to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling him a "moron"—he lambasted the network as "bad for country!" The president doubled down hours later when he told reporters, "It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write."

Trump's going on a tirade against what he calls "fake news" is obviously nothing new. But this specific attack against NBC is the first time he's proposed a concrete, punitive measure against a news outlet he doesn't like. (Oddly, NBC is also the network that carried The Apprentice, the reality show that catapulted Trump to a new level of popularity and fame.) Now that the window has closed for Trump to sue the New York Times over the sexual assault allegations they printed last year, could NBC become the new target of his wrath? And what does he mean by that "license" stuff, anyway?

I asked Mitzi Hill, the former assistant general counsel for Turner Broadcasting Company who coordinated maintenance of the company's FCC licenses for 15 years, if Trump could ever take a channel off the air. Though she told me it was unlikely, it's not hard to imagine it's a possibility in a world that's inching closer to a dystopia seemingly every day. Here's what we talked about:

VICE: First off, can someone even "challenge" a company's broadcast license, like Trump suggests he's interested in doing?
Mitzi HilI: I don't know how often it's been done by political figures with this amount of power before. The basics of an FCC license for a broadcaster whether they're television or radio are that you use the publicly owned asset of airwaves to get your content into people's homes or cars. And as a concession for granting you the right to use that public asset, you have to follow certain rules and regulations and limitations. So unlike cable TV programmers like HBO that don't use public airwaves, [those license holders] have to run a certain amount of educational programming, for example, and can't use really extreme swear words.

Generally speaking, the content rules that apply to broadcasters are pretty limited because of the First Amendment. So the idea that someone could take away a broadcaster's license because they don't like the freedom of their speech has to pass the hurdle of showing that they've done something objectionable under the rules of their license. It would also have to pass the hurdle of a First Amendment challenge.

What would the formal process of Trump challenging the license look like?
What would usually happen is that someone in the public would complain to the FCC that someone has been in violation of the rules. Then the FCC would review the footage or try to get transcripts of the objected-to content. Then someone would make the determination of whether it was in violation of the rules, after which point the usual reaction would be censure the station or fine the station and then—in the instance of something that was really extreme—the license would probably be subject to revocation. But I'm not even 100-percent sure about that, because I can't remember that ever happening to anyone for content issues.

But also the license is something you have to reapply for periodically. So if you had an issue or a repeated set of issues, or if you were using your public airwaves platform to urge the overthrow of the United States government, for example, you also might face the penalty of not having the license renewed.

So if Trump wanted to go after NBC during their renewal process, how would that work? It isn't like NBC is some monolithic thing. Wouldn't he have to go through that process with however many affiliate stations the company owns?
Generally some stations would be owned and operated by NBC, and others would be locally owned and operated or owned by a different company. But if you wanted to shut down the nightly NBC newscast, it would not just be the license of the NBC affiliate in New York or DC, it would affect a lot of markets nationwide.

Who are the people at the FCC who review these complaints and applications for renewal?

Most executive branch agencies like the FCC are headed by a political appointee or a panel of political appointees, so they're the ones who create the strategic direction for those agencies. Those priorities could shift as a new administration takes office, but the people enforcing the rules and carrying out the day-to-day operations are just civil service employees.

I do wonder if fear of the president publicly threatening a media companies could chill free speech. Comcast's stock dipped today, which I'm sure has an executive somewhere freaking out.
I think First Amendment purists would say that the reason we have that amendment is precisely to prevent something like this—that the government should not be able to make arbitrary decisions or personally motivated ones about the contents of speech.

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