The president’s steady stream of anti-media rants puts government officials like FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and DOJ’s Makan Delrahim in a tough spot. Every time they take an action that negatively affects a news organization that Trump has targeted, they will be accused of acting as an agent for Trump. So, why is Pai making excuses for him?
Going into the House oversight hearing on Oct. 25, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai knew that he would once again be called on to repudiate President Trump for his continuous bashing and threatening of TV news. Just the week before, Trump had stirred things up afresh by tweeting that someone really ought to do something about revoking NBC’s broadcast licenses.
So, Pai came prepared. As expected, he didn’t distance himself from Trump. Instead, he presented his First Amendment credentials, which included opposing former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s lame plan to investigate how TV newsroom work, and then reminded everybody that Trump wasn’t the first president to go after the media.
President Kennedy, outraged by the reporting of The Washington Post and NBC, called an FCC official to demand he “do something about it,” Pai pointed out.
Pai is right. There is long history of presidents expressing their frustrations over their press or, as we say today, media coverage. And sometimes those frustrations have boiled over into their trying to use the levers of government to punish the critical media — electronic and print.
Nixon is the most often cited. He turned his vice president, Spiro Agnew, into an anti-media attack dog, who hit the mark in a series of hard-edged speeches. “Nattering nabobs of negativism” sticks in my mind.
During Watergate, when Nixon was being pounded by The Washington Post, he told his lieutenants to go after the licenses of the Post Co.’s TV stations at the FCC. Some of his cronies actually filed competing applications for the Post’s license, a real financial threat to the Post.
Early in the Nixon administration, the FCC imposed the primetime access and fin-syn rules on the broadcast network, limiting their ability to own TV programming and profit from the syndication sales. Over the next two decades, the rules shifted billions of dollars from the networks to Hollywood.
Nixon detested the networks, especially CBS, and many saw his hand in the FCC action.
At the NAB Show last April, Trump backer Stan Hubbard told me that if I thought Trump was bad, I should read an article in Reason.com on how Franklin Roosevelt had once tried to strongarm the press. I did.
According to an article, Roosevelt’s efforts to intimidate the press “reached their apogee” with his backing of a congressional committee headed by Sen. Hugh Black of Alabama. Although originally formed to look into lobbying practices, the committee turned to investigating the anti-New Deal Hearst newspapers and other critics of the administration. The committee got access to journalists’ tax returns and, through the FCC, millions of Western Union telegrams of reporters and their bosses.
So Pai and others have made the point: Trump was not the first to attack and threaten the press.
But so what? That’s no excuse.
No president should abuse governmental powers to punish news media or even threaten to do so because often the threats alone are enough to discourage robust journalism that our democracy absolutely needs to survive.
Trump deserves all the opprobrium that the media and other lovers of the First Amendment can dump on him. And I think he deserves more than any of his predecessors. He has attacked individual reporters and whipped up real hostility toward them at his rallies. I can’t imagine FDR, Kennedy or even Nixon doing that even at their worst I-hate-the-media moments.
Because of Trump’s impulsive tweeting, Pai now operates under a cloud of suspicion. If he takes any action against any news organization that has been targeted by Trump, questions will arise as to whether Pai was acting as a tool for Trump.
He didn’t help to lift the cloud at the oversight hearing by citing Kennedy’s remark. It sounded a bit like he was trying to excuse Trump.
So, now we have the AT&Ts proposed merger with Time Warner, and the Justice Department, we learned this week, has suddenly decided to get tough on media concentration.
The antitrust regulators gave AT&T the word: either get rid of DirecTV or the Turner suite of basic networks that includes Trump nemesis CNN.
So, is this honest new policy — Democrats have been decrying media concentration for years — or is it Trump trying get back at CNN, which keeps pricking Trump’s vanity by pointing out his lies and dragging his personal and political foibles out into the open?
Nobody knows for sure except Trump and Makan Delrahim, the man he has running the DOJ’s antitrust department. Delrahim can deny any undue influence, but it will not dispel the suspicions.
He, like Pai, must now operate under a cloud.