President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau to the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017,
( Evan Vucci
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. On Wednesday morning, NBC reported that in July President Trump had expressed a desire for a nearly tenfold increase in the US nuclear arsenal. According to NBC’s unnamed sources, the President had seen a chart showing the country’s nuclear stockpile was at its peak in the late 1960s, in the heart of the Cold War, and he wanted to rebuild it. Some of his highest-ranking national security leaders were taken aback, so much so that after the meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump “a moron.” In response, Trump took to Twitter to express his outrage, not at his secretary of state’s insubordination but at the media outlet that reported it.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: “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!” he tweeted.
BOB GARFIELD: Then in the Oval Office, he repeated his call.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: And it’s, frankly, disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.
BOB GARFIELD: David Snyder is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. He says it’s highly unlikely that the President can directly carry out the tweeted threats.
DAVID SNYDER: The entities that are licensed are individual stations. So it’s not as if Trump could wave a magic wand and cause NBC News to stop broadcasting. The FCC is the entity that determines licensing, and it is an independent agency. The head of the FCC is appointed by Trump but the FCC does not do the president's bidding.
BOB GARFIELD: These aren’t entirely uncharted waters. Nixon did try to use the FCC license as a weapon against the press.
DAVID SNYDER: Nixon encouraged supporters of his to bring challenges against a couple of TV stations that were owned by Newsweek and the Washington Post at that time. Those challenges were unsuccessful but they highlight a route by which Trump’s tweet could actually have some substantive real effect.
BOB GARFIELD: David, gonna give you a little peek behind the OTM curtain. I saw these tweets and went nuts [LAUGHS] on the grounds of despotism, unconstitutionality, un-Americanness, and so forth. Others in our editorial meeting said, Bob, we can’t just take the bait on every outlandish Trump tweet. Wait ‘til he actually does something. But if pull back to the bigger picture, you do see disturbing anti-First Amendment things actually happening around the country. Can you give me some examples?
DAVID SNYDER: The instance where the congressional candidate in Montana, now congressman, Greg Gianforte body slammed a reporter. That was shocking, on so many levels. For anyone to attack a reporter for simply doing his job is deeply disturbing but for an elected representative or, at that time, a candidate to do so was really breathtaking. Of course, Trump didn't order Greg Gianforte to do that but he has said things, time and again, that attempts to undermine the press's credibility and demean the very purpose of the press, which is to ascertain the truth.
Another example is the reporter who was arrested in the West Virginia capital for too aggressively questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. The reporter was aggressive; he asked questions in the way that reporters do when they're not getting an answer, and he was arrested for that. Well, you know, these things happen sometimes, but when you look at the backdrop of the highest elected official in the land constantly saber rattling and suggesting that the press is venal and dishonest and --
BOB GARFIELD: And an enemy of the people.
DAVID SNYDER: And it comes, I, I think, straight from the authoritarian playbook to depict your adversaries as enemies, indeed, of the people of the country.
BOB GARFIELD: You talked about the independent FCC. Well, yes and no. In May, a reporter covering one of the FCC meetings, a guy from Roll Call, had the temerity to try to ask a question of public officials and --
DAVID SNYDER: And was pushed up against a wall by a couple of security officers in the building and then roughly escorted out of the building. There were no charges brought against the reporter but this is yet another example, I think, of security officers and public officials following the lead of the President.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now free speech is not limited to a free press. There's a case that is set to go on trial, on retrial, I guess, in November, involving a woman who was arrested for laughing during the confirmation hearing for the Attorney General Jeff Sessions back in January. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama referred to Sessions’ record of, quote --
SENATOR RICHARD SHELBY: -- of treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well documented.
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BOB GARFIELD: I guess she found that amusing, considering Sessions’ actual record. Now, originally, the judge threw this out. What’s the status?
DAVID SNYDER: She was charged with two different counts. One was disorderly conduct, which I think stemmed from the snickering, and the other was something to the effect of engaging in protesting on the Capitol grounds or in the Capitol building, both of which are misdemeanors. The jury convicted her and a judge later overturned that conviction because the prosecution improperly told the jury that she could be convicted solely for laughing. He threw out the conviction.
Well, the prosecutors are bringing the case, again. The fact that it was brought at all, I think, is unusual. Just because there is a legal basis to bring charges doesn't mean that the charges should be brought because prosecutors are aware of the message that their prosecutions bring, and the message brought here is, be very, very careful about mocking or criticizing officials in this Executive Branch because we will not pull punches.
BOB GARFIELD: This Executive Branch. And there’s something that maybe concerns you most of all, and that was the August announcement from Sessions that the Justice Department is reviewing Obama-era guidelines for when journalists can be properly subpoenaed.
DAVID SNYDER: Obama was no prince in this realm, either. His administration had subpoenaed the phone records and some email records of as many as a hundred Associated Press reporters and were collecting that information for weeks before the Associated Press even became aware of it. There was a pretty big outcry and Holder sat down with media groups and reworked the Justice Department policies. So in Jeff Sessions’ statement in August, he not only suggested that those rules will be looked at, again, but that the Justice Department is going to be very aggressive about pursuing leakers.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Since January, the Department has more than triple the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last administration.
DAVID SNYDER: Those leak investigations, if they lead to reporters, may well result in the kind of subpoenas the Obama administration engaged in and it could lead to the divulgement of confidential sources, which is at the core of much, if not most, important investigative journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: On that question of Trump words versus Trump deeds, while sometimes his tweets are just empty threats, there is a direct line between, for example, his rhetoric about Muslim bans and one of his first acts as President, between his promise to take care of the coal industry and this week's very actions by the EPA, and a very long list of other promises that he has kept. So there’s that. Now, saying it now quietly. When I said it in the editorial meeting, spittle was flying from [LAUGHS] my mouth.
Is there anything you can say to calm me down?
DAVID SNYDER: For all of the examples where Trump has said things that ultimately led to action, I think you can find just as many examples where Trump has said something that didn't directly lead to any action. But the words of a president of the United States have a concrete effect in the world that the words of any other person do not. Does that mean that you focus on every single outrageous tweet? I think not. But when he makes a statement that suggests a direct course of action against the press, then it’s proper to be truly alarmed because you see these two wire ends connect. You see the rhetoric connecting with potential action.
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve been an articulate advocate for both sides of the panic question. [LAUGHS]
DAVID SNYDER: [LAUGHS] Well, I -- that’s because I go through that same conversation every day in my own head, because I think both of those sides are right, in a way, but both of those sides are wrong, too. [LAUGHS] I mean, Trump divides not just parts of the electorate but divides people between themselves. You know, sometimes you want to approach tweets that Trump puts out that are outrageous on their face as just Trump being Trump and nothing’s gonna come of it. You can find plenty of examples where that approach is justified.
But, then again, on the other side of the divide, you say, this can't be allowed to pass, this is something that just is beyond the pale and needs to be called out as such.
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BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you very much.
DAVID SNYDER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: David Snyder is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.