President Trump said last week that broadcast TV licenses “must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked” in response to “partisan, distorted and fake” news coverage. But few people seem to have taken him seriously, even though complaints against broadcasters are easy to file.
Publicly available data from the Federal Communications Commission show there wasn’t a significant bump in consumer complaints against TV stations after a pair of Trump tweets Thursday, despite the fact that complaints are made using a simple online form or phone call.
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
Trump’s remarks spawned massive news coverage and tens of thousands of retweets, but were widely interpreted as unserious posturing after NBC reported that he floated a tenfold increase in nuclear weapons, leading Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call him a “moron.”
“Anyone can file with the FCC a challenge to the renewal of a broadcast license,” Glen Robinson, a former FCC commissioner who now teaches at the University of Virginia, told the Washington Examiner. “[But] no one but a moron (Trump?) would bet on it with real money.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders never responded to a request for comment on whether Trump would file a complaint himself, and online data from the FCC’s Consumer Complaint Data Center, a sortable database describing complaints, suggest few Trump backers heeded his call.
Trump appears to have had, at best, a minimal effect on the volume of complaints targeting TV broadcasters.
On Oct. 9 and Oct. 10, the two days preceding Trump’s comments, there were 228 tickets created regarding TV complaints. Almost half, 107, dealt with billing issues and 33 dealt with loud commercials. Only 17 were labeled as concerning broadcast TV, rather than cable, satellite or other delivery method.
On Oct. 11 and Oct. 12, the day of Trump’s remarks and the day after, there were 267 tickets created regarding TV – 120 about billing issues and 11 about loud commercials. Only slightly more tickets, 28, were labeled as new complaints about broadcast TV.
“I can confirm that all data currently available in the Consumer Complaint Data Center is accurate and up-to-date,” FCC spokesman Mike Snyder told the Washington Examiner in a Wednesday email.
One outside expert with experience analyzing the database, Evan Greer, an organizer with the advocacy group Fight for the Future, said its information generally is accurate.
Greer’s group uses the public database to make sure pressure campaigns on issues such as net neutrality are accurately tabulated.
“Our sites, like BattleForTheNet.com, submit comments directly into the docket, rather than doing the FCC’s ‘bulk upload’ option, because then we are able to 100 percent verify that everything we collect gets submitted,” Greer said. “You should be able to see the individual entries, unless Trump was collecting data through some online form somewhere and plans to submit it to the FCC some other way, which I doubt.”
One notable difficulty for anyone seeking to file challenges at Trump’s urging is that the FCC’s online complaint submission form doesn’t list grievances such as disfavored political views or slanted news coverage on its drop-down menus.
A potential workaround would be filing a complaint for indecency. This would allow users to identify a specific station.
The number of indecency complaints did increase, from 16 in the two-day period preceding Trump’s remarks to 43 in the two-day period encompassing them, though just 13 addressed broadcast TV.
A Freedom of Information Act request for all complaints against TV broadcasters during the two-day period including Trump’s remarks was not immediately answered.
The FCC licenses broadcast TV stations, such as individual NBC affiliates, but does not require similar licenses for cable news channels like MSNBC or news websites like NBCNews.com, which reported Trump’s alleged nuclear weapon remark.
To be certain, filing a complaint against TV broadcasters was well-known to be a fool’s errand as experts weighing in following Trump’s tweets.
Duke Law School professor Stuart Benjamin, the FCC’s first distinguished scholar in residence, told the Examiner “there is precedent” for politically motivated licensing decisions, affecting radio stations in the 1920s. But the cases nowadays are “universally regarded as being a mistake,” he said.
Further pouring cold water on the idea, Trump-picked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said this week: “The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment. And under the law, the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”