Despite diluted power, free press still plays vital role

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse won’t gain many votes among his constituents, the majority of whom voted for President Trump, but he’s never been known to shirk his duty as a member of the legislative branch of government when he feels it’s time to question the head of the executive branch.

Following an NBC report that the president called for greatly increasing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, Trump tweeted that “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged, and if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”

He told reporters in the Oval Office “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it.”

Despite earlier calling for Trump to refrain from issuing so many tweets, Sasse took to Twitter himself Wednesday night:

“Words spoken by the President of the United States matter,” he said. “Are you tonight recanting of the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect and defend the First Amendment?”

In fact, NBC, which earlier reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called President Trump a “moron” or worse in July, doesn’t need a broadcast license, although individual stations do. Even that restriction is hazy, however, with the advent of cable and Internet delivery of programming.

Presidents have railed against opposition in the free press — effectively the fourth branch of government — for as long as the office of president and institution of the press have been in existence. Trump faces a mountain of legal obstacles should he actually try to take action against the networks.

They include landmark court decisions, FCC regulations and the Constitution itself. Actual revocation of licenses are extremely rare, and both Democratic FCC commissioners have their own twitter accounts.

“Revoking a #broadcast license on such grounds will only happen if we fail to abide by the First Amendment,” tweeted Mignon Clyburn. “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy. Hope my @FCC colleagues can all be on the same page with respect to 1st Amendment,” wrote Jessica Rosenworcel.

The conflict draws one distinction between the actual “press” — print media — and broadcast media, in that the former cannot be forced to obtain a license the way radio or television stations are.

The fact that Trump and others can tweet directly to the public shows just how diluted the power of the press has become. There is no shortage of avenues available to the president or any other elected officials to get their message directly to the voters.

But heaven help us if government ever succeeds in restricting the flow of information to only that which it spoon feeds to the public.

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