Donald Trump is running for president on a stated mission of deploying the powers of government to exact “retribution” against his enemies. He is openly threatening to turn the Justice Department’s investigatory and prosecutorial powers on his political opponents and to purge the federal bureaucracy of officials who are not personally loyal to him.
But over the past eight years, no perceived Trump foe has faced more sustained vitriol from the former president than the U.S. press. His denouncements of journalists who produced critical reporting on his presidency were so overheated that critics warned he was encouraging dictators to repress troublesome news outlets in their own countries. Harsh words alone will not suffice if Trump is returned to the White House in 2024. On Tuesday, he suggested that he plans to use federal power to punish news outlets that provide unfavorable coverage.
In a post to his Truth Social platform, he claimed that MSNBC’s critical coverage of himself and the Republican Party constituted “the world’s biggest political contribution to the Radical Left Democrats who, by the way, are destroying our Country,” and thrust the blame for that coverage on Brian Roberts, the CEO and president of MSNBC parent company Comcast. He concluded: “Our so-called ‘government’ should come down hard on them and make them pay for their illegal political activity. Much more to come, watch!”
Trump’s attempt to reframe reporting about himself that he dislikes as “illegal political activity” should be anathema to anyone who cherishes the First Amendment’s protections of free speech. But his threat to use the government to “come down hard” on MSNBC and “make them pay” is in line with his attempts to leverage government authority in order to bend media outlets to his will, and foreshadows a second-term effort targeting not just MSNBC, but the wide array of newspapers, digital outlets, and cable and broadcast networks he’s denounced for years.
Trump’s administration regularly wielded legitimate regulatory tools against corporate owners of news outlets that displeased him. Trump’s public attacks on coverage from the Washington Post, Google, and CNN were each followed by federal action: Amazon, which like the Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, lost out on a massive Defense Department contract and faced a Postal Service effort to raise shipping costs for the company, while his Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google and tried to block the purchase of CNN’s then-parent company Time Warner by AT&T.
On Wednesday night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes discussed Trump’s threat against his network as well as the former president’s past efforts to punish media outlets with Brian Stelter, a media reporter who formerly hosted CNN’s Reliable Sources. They highlighted that the corporate owners of the Post, CNN, and MSNBC had each held firm and refused to buckle to Trump’s pressure. But they also noted that foreign authoritarians have carried out strategies like the one Trump is threatening.
“We are seeing this with other media companies, and as you said, in other countries — in Hungary, in Turkey — when the state comes in and takes regulatory action, takes legal action, uses an IRS, uses a branch of the government to punish a media company, and sometimes to take that media company off the playing field. It is a very real thing,” Stelter said.
That clip stands out in part because, in keeping with their pattern of muted responses to the former president’s unhinged and dangerous recent rhetoric, coverage of Trump’s authoritarian attack on MSNBC has received relatively light coverage from other major news outlets. That’s a mistake, given the threat Trump poses to the American free press.
Many of the nation’s most influential news outlets are relatively small subsidiaries of massive publicly-traded companies that offer a broad range of products and services besides journalism. MSNBC and NBC News are ultimately controlled by the broadband and mobile services giant Comcast, while CNN, ABC News, and CBS News are owned by the entertainment conglomerates Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, and Paramount, respectively. Other news outlets are owned by wealthy individuals who make their money from other business interests, like Bezos with the Post and biotech investor Patrick Soon-Shiong with the Los Angeles Times.
Trump is keenly focused on how those other business interests present vulnerabilities for the owners of news outlets. His public comments frequently connect reporting he doesn’t like with the outlet’s corporate owner while his retaliatory regulatory actions target the parent for the perceived sins of the subsidiary. Tuesday’s remark is a case study in this pattern, as he placed ultimate blame for MSNBC’s critical coverage on Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, “a slimeball who has been able to get away with these constant attacks for years,” before his declaration that the government should “come down hard” in response.
Such threats create a very bad decision calculus for the owners of news outlets, as Stelter and Hayes explained. During Trump’s presidency, they broadly did the right thing, accepting regulatory pain as the cost of managing critical media outlets and standing up to Trump in spite of negative impacts on the company’s bottom line and shareholders.
The question, however, is whether that resistance would hold firm if Trump is more effective in tightening the screws on parent companies and their executives in a second term.
Two potential alternatives that media outlet owners could try instead would each effectively defang their outlets. They can try to give Trump what he wants and crack down on the negative reporting at their outlets, firing people Trump identifies as overly critical and encouraging journalists to soft-peddle coverage of his administration. This might prove futile, however, as Trump tends to treat any news coverage as an illegitimate attack if it isn’t a hagiography in the vein of the North Korean propaganda-style broadcasts of Lou Dobbs. So instead, they might try to eliminate the problem by selling off their news operations — perhaps to a wealthy right-winger interested in doing Trump a favor by taking over one of his critics and turning it into a lapdog.
We nearly saw a version of the latter maneuver in 2017. With the AT&T-Time Warner merger bogged down by the Trump Justice Department’s suit, AT&T’s CEO reportedly received an unsolicited pitch from Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch. Referring to the stalled merger, Murdoch offered to buy CNN, which he suggested could help “get the deal done.”
At the time, AT&T’s CEO did not give in to Murdoch's entreaties. But how much more pressure could Trump apply in a second term, shorn of resistance from the federal bureaucracy and laser-focused on destroying his foes?