Trump's threat to yank TV licenses looks a lot like a Nixon move. Here's why.
The press has been often facile and wrong in making Donald Trump-as-Richard Nixon comparisons during the 2016 presidential campaign and since his inauguration. Now it has a pretty apples-to-apples comparison via a Wednesday morning tweet from Trump.
"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 latest source of his ire is an NBC News report that he threw out the notion of dramatically increasing our nuclear stockpile during a national security meeting in the summer.
That is fairly close to what proved to be substantive threats that President Nixon made in the direction of media he didn't like. In particular, they were those that owned TV networks, individual stations or both, in particular CBS and the Washington Post Co. Back then, the latter owned TV stations and, most importantly, spearheaded the Watergate investigation that would bring down Nixon.
The media has already been down the path of making Watergate comparisons to Trump, in particular amid his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. Those comparisons invoked the "Saturday Night Massacre," when Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the so-called third-rate burglary that would eventually bring down Nixon.
At the time CNN noted the Democrats "immediately raising comparisons to the Watergate era and claiming that the FBI chief was fired because his investigation got too close to the White House."
"Trumpian" or "Nixonian?" asked The Washington Post. With the New York Daily News declaring "Coup de Trump." But John Dean, who was both a party and a famous observer to the "massacre" and other Nixon misdeeds, previous made clear to me that the Comey canning was not equivalent. "But totally botched, and done in a manner that looks guilty — not proceeding as an innocent president would," he emailed at the time.
There is a rich and sordid history to mine when it comes to Nixon and broadcast licenses. It's detailed in many hundreds of places, including many books and academic papers. The latter included 1998's "Chilling the Internet? Lessons from FCC Regulation of Radio Broadcasting" by academics Thomas W. Hazlett and David Sosa of the University of California, Davis.
There, they touched on Nixon and then-Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman plotting a more targeted way to get after what they perceived as press enemies than what they deemed had been their previously scattershot approach. In part, they'd use the FCC's (since discarded) Fairness Doctrine by ginning up potential challenges to license renewals of individual network-owned stations (as opposed to networks, which aren't licensed) on the grounds that networks and stations were violating the doctrine.
There were direct calls from the White House to network executives, most famously from Nixon henchman Charles Colson (among the many who would go to prison for Watergate involvement). He would call and meet with executives of the then three major networks (CBS, ABC an NBC), especially CBS Chairman William Paley and President Frank Stanton.
The FCC licensed stations, not broadcast networks, but the threat was clear since those networks also owned many of major stations airing programming that Nixon disliked (primarily news). Back then, the FCC oversaw the granting and renewal of three-year licenses. That process of regulation has by and large continued, but by and large does not impact cable TV.
As the academics wrote in 1998, "The strategy was to directly intimidate broadcast executives in the hope that they would eventually tone down their unfavorable coverage of the administration by their news units, and in mid-1973 the effort finally paid off."
"Following a meeting at the White House between Paley and Haldeman, CBS announced plans to drop its policy of presenting news analysis immediately following presidential statements. Although it was widely believed that CBS had been 'silenced, or intimidated, or subverted' by the administration," Paley denied this, stating that his only objective was "better, fairer, more balanced" coverage."
The networks were forced into expensive defense of challenges to their renewals, one mounted by the Republican National Committee against CBS. But that went down the tubes, though the FCC initially sided with the RNC. But a federal court in Washington did not and overturned the FCC.
It noted how the commission "is functioning in the midst of a fierce political battle, where the stakes are high and the outcome can affect in a very real sense the political future of our nation."
Will Trump go beyond his tweet and similarly orchestrate a campaign against the networks? One suspects not. Unlike Nixon, he is so obviously a creature of television. And the legal basis of a challenge, even before a friendly FCC, is unclear.
In the immediate period after the latest tweet, the stock price of Comcast, the cable TV giant which also owns NBC, was down slightly.