Why Trump Questioning NBC’s Fitness To Hold Broadcast License After Lack Of Harvey Weinstein Coverage Is Wrong

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioners have largely, and remarkably, remained silent in the days after President Donald Trump floated the idea that NBC’s broadcast licenses could be revoked.

Democrats, who have often championed FCC regulation of news bias, are now condemning Trump for suggesting the same approach.

Prominent reporters and hosts criticized NBC throughout the week for apparently trying to bury the explosive Harvey Weinstein story, while Trump took sharp aim at the network’s “partisan, distorted and fake” coverage in a series of Oct. 11 tweets.

Despite all the attention, the FCC’s three Republican and two Democratic commissioners have been mostly mum.

In an Oct. 11 tweet responding to Trump, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said simply, that’s “not how it works.” She then linked to a 2008 document titled, “The Public and Broadcasting: How to Get the Most Service from your Local Station.” (RELATED: Trump Erroneously Cites FCC Rule In Tweet About ‘Unfunny’ Late Night Comedy Hosts)

The document attempts to explain the FCC’s regulatory authority, but leaves important questions. For example, the FCC can revoke a broadcast license if the agency deems that a broadcaster is deliberately engaging in news “rigging or slanting,” according to the document linked by Rosenworcel and the agency’s website. The FCC notes in the document that it often receives complaints about bias and one-sided coverage, but “generally will not intervene in such cases because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own.”

But what constitutes impermissible news “rigging or slanting,” and what amounts to casual bias protected by the First Amendment? The FCC document says only that the evidence of rigging or slanting must be “compelling,” and that the news must not be “intentionally” distorted or falsified.

As the pressure on NBC mounted, The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out to all of the FCC commissioners to see if any action could conceivably be taken against NBC. All declined to formally comment.

The office of Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic commissioner, did point TheDCNF to an extensive list of FCC guidelines from 2008 — before Clyburn was a commissioner — and highlighted the “News Distortion” section, apparently suggesting that NBC’s conduct didn’t warrant licensing revocation.

Trump sparked debate over the news distortion rule when he used one of his favorite means of communication to voice his frustrations at NBC’s coverage.

It’s not clear whether Trump was directly referring in any way to the apparent lack of news coverage for the various rape and sexual harassment accusations levied against Weinstein, because he didn’t directly mention the contentious producer. And Trump’s message appeared to suggest that NBC has one license that can be summarily revoked, when its local stations each have broadcast licenses.

While Trump may not be right that NBC’s broadcast licenses are in jeopardy, his message underscored the frustration of several observers concerning apparent liberal bias on the issue:

Brent Skorup, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center, cited a 1969 Supreme Court case in which the justices unanimously ruled in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC policy established in 1949 that requires broadcasters to present all perspectives of an issue deemed publicly significant. The rule — which did not mandate equal time for opposing views, but just that each standpoint is presented at least once — was effectively eliminated in 1987, and formally removed in 2011. Nevertheless, Skorup asserts, it has been vigorously supported by some on the Left.

He provided concrete examples of how liberals’ arguments of the past are contradicting themselves today.

Although Skorup highlighted apparent Democratic hypocrisy, he said he believes the FCC’s news distortion protocol inherently contradicts First Amendment principles.

“‘Slanted’ and distorted news can be found in (unregulated) cable news, newspapers, Twitter, and YouTube,” Skorup wrote in an op-ed with colleague Melody Calkins. “The news distortion rule should be repealed and broadcasters should have regulatory parity (and their full First Amendment rights) restored.”

Raising similar First Amendment concerns, Democratic lawmakers are circling the wagons. Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania called for a Congressional hearing Thursday with top officials at the FCC to publicly reject President Donald Trump’s media criticisms.

“Over the past few days the President has repeatedly attacked news outlets and their FCC licenses. This threat alone may already be chilling free-speech across the country,” Pallone and Doyle said in a statement. “That is why we and others have called on the FCC Chairman to immediately condemn this intimidation and promise to the American public that he will not follow through on the directions he has received from the President.”

Nevertheless, several key media players and organizations have criticized NBC for its refusal to publish contributor Ronan Farrow’s story, which included testimony from alleged victims of Weinstein’s behavior. NBC suffered further criticism for its apparent failure to fully report on the Weinstein story once it exploded.

In fact, a Huffington Post report titled “Top NBC Executives Quashed The Bombshell Harvey Weinstein Story” detailed accounts of NBC’s unwillingness to probe the matter.

If such accusations, which are supported by Farrow and other sources, are ultimately true, they raise the question of whether NBC violated FCC policy.

Along with the news distortion rule, an official 2008 FCC report on guidelines for broadcasters details how “in exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity.'”

Weinstein, one of America’s most prominent figures in Hollywood, is certainly of public interest. He is also a big-time Democratic donor, often rubbing elbows with elites of the political party, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But NBC, nonetheless, reportedly suppressed the story.

Farrow secured an interview with a woman who said Weinstein raped her, according to the Huffington Post. He gradually collected more and more damning material and corroboration, including an audio recording in which Weinstein apparently admits to groping an Italian model, as well as a woman ready to go on camera with her own rape accusations.

NBC News, though, allegedly said Farrow didn’t have enough evidence to go on television and report the incriminating details. Rather then telling him to dig deeper into the story — even though he seemed to already have more than sufficient evidence — several unnamed sources told the Huffington Post that Farrow was ordered by network executives to stop reporting on it entirely.

Farrow has a personal stake in the issue of sexual harassment. Famous filmmaker and actor Woody Allen is his estranged father and also his brother-in-law, because the movie director later married his own adopted daughter. Allen allegedly sexually abused his sister Dylan when she was as young as 7. (RELATED: It’s Not Just Weinstein — Entertainment Industry Filled With Accused Sex Abusers)

Despite NBC’s reluctance, Farrow soldiered on, even paying for a camera crew with his own money. He eventually took the bombshell story to the New Yorker, which was published Tuesday and included vivid details describing Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.

Tucker Carlson, Fox News Host and The Daily Caller co-founder, asked, “Why did a purported news organization kill a blockbuster news story?”

He surmised that perhaps the story was killed because NBC News President Noah Oppenheim “is a screenwriter with deep ties to the movie business and the Democratic Party establishment.”

It is not a far-fetched possibility at all, and yet as of today, Oppenheim refused to say,” Carlson said Thursday on his show. “Oppenheim ought to resign immediately, and if he doesn’t, he ought to be fired immediately by NBC’s parent company, Comcast.”

Oppenheim disputed HuffPo’s account.

“The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive to all of us,” he said at a recent public appearance, according to Variety. “Like pretty much every newspaper and magazine in L.A. and New York, the New York Times up until last week, New York Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, you name it, we were on that long list of places that chased this thing, tried to nail it, but weren’t ultimately the ones who broke it.”

Trump has long criticized the larger media industry for its apparent liberal bias, but has vamped up the condemnation in recent days.

The president has recently attempted to cite other, similar FCC policies as well. He took to Twitter to say: “Late Night host are dealing with the Democrats for their very ‘unfunny’ & repetitive material, always anti-Trump! Should we get Equal Time?”

Since Trump capitalized “Equal Time,” he was probably attempting to cite one of two official FCC rules. But those rules either don’t apply or aren’t currently in effect. It is also possible he was merely arguing that the media should cover him more fairly without the force of law or public policy.

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