This post has been updated.
“CNN requested that the advertiser remove the false graphic that the mainstream media is ‘fake news,’” the cable channel said in a statement Tuesday. “The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.”
NBC issued a similar statement on Friday: “Consistent with our policies, we have agreed to accept the ad if the inaccurate graphic — which refers to journalists as ‘fake news’ — is corrected.”
The “fake news” graphic appears over a split-screen showing NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CBS’s Scott Pelley.
The ad was produced by Trump’s campaign committee, which remains active; the president already has filed to seek reelection in 2020. The Trump campaign said Monday that it planned to spend $1.5 million to place the commercial on TV and online.
“It is absolutely shameful to see the media blocking the positive message that President Trump is trying to share with the country,” Michael Glassner, the Trump campaign's executive director, said in a statement Tuesday. In an email on Friday, the campaign said the blackout is “setting a chilling precedent against free speech rights.”
The president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News show Thursday night to decry CNN's decision.
“You would think after a while you would get used to this sort of thing, but it is never normal,” she said. “It's really disappointing that we live in the United States of America. This is supposed to be a free society. We have freedom of speech.”
In this case, the free-speech argument is not a winning one. TV stations — even over-the-air broadcasters, which are subject to tighter regulation by the Federal Communications Commission than their cable counterparts — do not have to allow the president to buy airtime for his ad.
Here is the relevant FCC rule:
No station licensee is required to permit the use of its facilities by any legally qualified candidate for public office, but if any licensee shall permit any such candidate to use its facilities, it shall afford equal opportunities to all other candidates for that office to use such facilities. Such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast by any such candidate.
Remember: We're talking about candidates for president in 2020. Trump doesn't have opponents yet — not any serious ones, anyway, and certainly none buying ad time.
If, for example, Martin O'Malley were already in the race and if ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates had been airing his commercials, those stations would have no choice but to show Trump's, too. And they would have “no power of censorship.”
But the networks, which are not licensed by the FCC, do not have to show Trump's ad, and their affiliates can turn down Trump, so long as they have not said yes to any other 2020 presidential candidate.
Also, by the dictionary definition of “fake,” the networks are correct to say that the ad is “false” or “inaccurate.” With few exceptions (Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair), mainstream news outlets do not fabricate stories. They might display shades of bias or publish errors requiring corrections, but that does not make them fake.
Trump, however, has tried (largely successfully) to turn “fake news” into a catchall slur for reporting he doesn’t like.
Observe: In its first email to reporters about the ad, his campaign said it is “calling out the mainstream media for peddling fake news and not reporting on the fact that President Trump is making America great again.”
By Trump’s standard, news is fake if it does not promote the subjective view that he is “making America great again.”
It is easy to understand why TV networks would want to ban Trump’s insulting ad from their airwaves. If Trump takes his “fake news” message into his reelection bid, however, he can probably compel them to air it — unless they are willing to give up ad revenue from all candidates.