Late Venezuelan populist demagogue Hugo Chavez must have cheered in his grave when President Donald Trump made a veiled threat to pull NBC off the air for spreading news he dislikes. That’s exactly what Chavez did, and what most Third World dictators do.
Trump’s Oct. 11 statement on Twitter raised the possibility of not renewing NBC’s license, much like Chavez did when he shut down Venezuela’s RCTV network in 2007, claiming that it was airing fake news.
“With all the fake news coming out of NBC and the networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their license?” Trump asked. Later that day, Trump escalated his attack, writing that “network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.”
These may be empty threats dropped by Trump – networks don’t hold licenses but individual stations do – to divert public attention from the fact that he’s increasingly perceived as an incompetent president. His approval rating is 38 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll.
He has not been able to pass any of his major bills in Congress, he has strained relations with key U.S. allies, and his late response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has drawn widespread criticism. Twenty-two days after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, 84 percent of the island’s residents still didn’t have access to electricity.
But Trump’s tirades against the media are doing great harm to this country, and to the world.
His suggestion to look into the license of NBC, much like his Feb. 17 contention that several U.S. news organizations are “the enemy of the American people,” will help legitimize attacks against the media by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and other dictators.
If the so-called leader of the free world threatens to shut down NBC, why can’t I do the same with critical TV networks in my country, they’ll ask.
“The United States is losing its moral authority to defend basic human rights such as freedom of expression around the world,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group. “It will be hard for the United States to defend these rights in international fora such as the U.N. Human Rights Council, when the very president of the United States is permanently eroding the foundations of democracy.”
What’s worse, Trump’s tirades against “fake news” have proven to be false most of the time. Of course the media sometimes make mistakes, but – as politifact.com and other fact-checking organizations have shown – Trump is a compulsive serial liar.
If it weren’t for a free and scrutinizing media, Trump would have gotten away with his false claims that most Mexican undocumented Mexican immigrants are “criminals” and “rapists,” that the crowd at his inauguration ceremony was “the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches,” or that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 elections.
More importantly, if it weren’t for an independent press, most Americans would have believed the Trump White House’s repeated assurances that the Trump campaign had “never” had any contacts with the Russians.
Thanks to The New York Times, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., felt compelled to release emails showing that Trump’s top campaign officials attended a meeting with Russians who had offered dirty information about then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The meeting took place June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower.
And thanks to The Washington Post, we now know that Trump lied to our faces when he tweeted that “I have nothing to do with Russia – no deals, no loans, no nothing!” In fact, Trump had, among other things, made more than $12 million from the 2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow, and afterward had signed a letter of intent with Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov to build a Trump tower in the Russian capital.
No, Trump’s veiled threat to NBC shouldn’t be seen as another trivial remark by a president who suffers from verbal incontinence. It was a written statement that goes against core U.S. values, and that will greatly diminish America’s authority to defend democracy and freedom of speech around the world.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.