Trump Echoes Nixon in Targeting Twitter

WSJ – By Preston Padden………….

May 31, 2020 03:39 p.m. EDT

Pres­i­dent Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der Thurs­day that would have the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion judge de­ci­sions made by Twit­ter, Face­book and oth­ers to mod­er­ate speech. Un­der Mr. Trump’s or­der, the FCC could re­voke li­a­bil­ity pro­tec­tion if a so­cial-me­dia plat­form hasn’t acted “in good faith.” The or­der amounts to a con­tent re­view and is rem­i­nis­cent of past re­stric­tions on broad­cast net­works.

The Fair­ness Doc­trine, in­tro­duced in 1949, re­quired broad­cast­ers to air op­pos­ing views on is­sues of pub­lic in­ter­est. The FCC de­ter­mined whether broad­cast speech was fair to both po­lit­i­cal par­ties. In the 1980s, con­ser­v­a­tive FCC Chair­men Mark Fowler and Den­nis Patrick worked to re­peal the doc­trine, over­com-ing op­po­si­tion in both par­ties, and suc­ceeded in 1987.

White House staff, Mr. Fowler re­called in 2009, ar­gued to Pres­i­dent Rea­gan that “the only thing that re­ally pro­tects you from the sav­age-ness of the three net-works . . . is the Fair­ness Doc­trine, and Fowler is propos­ing to re­peal it.” But Messrs. Fowler and Patrick stood for prin­ci­ple, not pol­i-tics. In 1987 Mr. Patrick said, “We seek to ex­tend to the elec­tronic press the same First Amend­ment guar­an­tees that the print me­dia have en­joyed since our coun­try’s in­cep­tion.”

Pres­i­dent Nixon was ob­sessed with the net­works’ bias. In a 1972 White House memo, Nixon aide Pat Buchanan wrote: “Shall we ac­qui­esce for­ever in left-wing con­trol of com­mu­ni­ca­tions me­dia from which 50 per­cent to 70 per­cent of the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­rive their in­for­ma-tion and ideas about their na­tional gov­ern­ment? The in­ter­ests of this coun­try and the fur­ther­ance of the poli­cies and ideas in which we be­lieve de­mand that this mo­nopoly, this ide­o­log­i­cal car­tel, be bro­ken up.”

Nixon re­tal­i­ated against the net­works by sup­port­ing FCC rules to re­strict their air­time and own­er­ship of pro­gram­ming. He di­rected the Jus­tice De­part­ment to mir­ror the FCC rules, cre­at­ing a dou­ble layer of re­stric­tions.

Be­cause Nixon taped his White House con­ver­sa­tions, we don’t need to spec­u­late about his mo­tives. “Our gain is more im­por­tant than the eco­nomic gain,” he said in 1971, brush­ing aside the le­git­i­mate com­plaints of pro­gram pro­duc­ers. “Our game here is solely po­lit­i­cal. . . . As far as screw­ing [the net­works] is con­cerned, I’m very glad to do it.”

tIn Nixon’s rail­ing against the lib­eral bias of the net-works, one can al­most hear Mr. Trump rail­ing against so­cial-me­dia com­pa­nies. And the new ex­ec­u­tive or­der reads like the Buchanan memo. But what Nixon & Co. said be­hind closed doors, Mr. Trump says in pub­lic.

The bias was and is real. But the ques­tion is whether the First Amend­ment per­mits gov­ern­ment lead­ers to judge pri­vate speech that ir­ri­tates them. Mr. Trump’s de­fend­ers ar­gue that he is only con­di­tion-ing on­line plat­forms’ “unique” pro­tec­tions. But most me­dia en­joy some unique pro­tec­tion: copy­right li­censes for ca­ble sys­tems, “must carry” rights for broad­cast sta­tions. Con­di-tion­ing key pro­tec­tions on com­pli­ance with a gov­ern­ment con­tent re­view would be cen­sor­ship by a dif­fer­ent name.

Mr. Pad­den is a com­mu­ni­ca-tions con­sul­tant who held ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions at the Fox and ABC broad­cast net­works.    

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