President Trump is yet again threatening to crack down on media outlets he doesn't like. But this time he's doing it in a much more brazen fashion. And it's almost exactly what Richard Nixon appeared to attempt in the 1970s.
Here is what Trump tweeted Wednesday morning:
Challenging the licenses of news outlets is a highly questionable strategy — and not even because of the First Amendment implications. As CNN's Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter note, it's just practically very difficult:
First of all, there is no single license for NBC or any other national television network. Licenses are granted to individual local stations — and NBC doesn't even own most of the stations that broadcast its content across the country. And it is extremely unusual for any station's license to be taken away for any reason, much less for a political vendetta. . . .It would not be possible for Trump or his allies to challenge all of the licenses held by NBC in one fell swoop. Individuals who reside in the areas the local channel airs would have to submit complaints to the FCC.
But here's the thing: That has actually happened before. Nixon allies did challenge the licenses of TV stations whose owners ran afoul of Nixon. And those owners were The Washington Post Co.
In 1973, the Associated Press reported on the effort from George Champion Jr., who had been finance chairman for Nixon's campaign in Florida, to challenge the license of a Jacksonville, Fla., TV station — WJXT-TV. The station was then owned by Newsweek and The Washington Post Co., which also owned The Washington Post. The Post was at that point well into its Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate investigation of the president.
Nixon's press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, was asked at the time whether Champion was acting at the behest of the administration. “No, absolutely not,” Ziegler assured.
But at almost the same time, some other Nixon allies challenged the license of another Washington Post Co.-owned station in Miami, WPLG-TV. One of the men challenging the license, Edward Claughan, lent his home to Vice President Spiro Agnew during the 1972 Republican National Convention. The other, Cromwell Anderson, was a law partner of former senator George Smathers, a Florida Democrat who was a close friend of Nixon's.
When Nixon's White House tapes emerged, though, they painted a picture of a president who wanted to employ exactly those tactics. Here's a relevant section from September 1972, a few months before WJXT and WPLG had their licenses challenged by people tied to Nixon.
NIXON: That's right. Right. The main thing is The Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one. They have a television station.JOHN DEAN: That's right, they do.NIXON: And they're going to have to get it renewed.H.R. HALDEMAN: They've got a radio station, too.NIXON: Does that come up, too? The point is, when does it come up?DEAN: I don't know. But the practice of non-licensees filing on top of licensees has certainly gotten more . . .NIXON: That's right.DEAN: . . . more active in the, in the area.NIXON: And it's going to be God damn active here.DEAN: (Laughs)NIXON: Well, the game has to be played awfully rough. I don't know — now, you, you'll follow through with — who will over there? Who — Timmons, or with Ford, or — How's it going to operate?
The motive for WJXT's and WPLG's licenses being challenged still isn't totally clear. WJXT also ran afoul of Nixon by digging up a speech that one of his judicial nominees had given in the 1940s espousing white supremacist views. Champion maintained that had nothing to do with it either, and he said he challenged it only because he wanted the TV station to be community-owned. The challengers to WPLG's license offered similar motives.
By May 1974, sources told AP that the edited White House transcript of that September 1972 meeting with Dean and Haldeman omitted the passage described above. Ziegler didn't address it directly, but he suggested it wasn't germane to the Watergate investigation.
“Really, they're just open threats,” a House Judiciary Committee source told AP back then. More than 40 years later, a U.S. president is now making those same threats publicly, for all to see.
Update: Trump added on Wednesday afternoon that it's "frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Schwartzman of the Georgetown University Law Center notes that it would be more difficult to go after NBC's licenses even than it was in Nixon's day. The 1996 Telecommunications Act repealed the so-called "comparative application" process and made it more difficult to challenge the renewal of a broadcast license.