On Thursday’s Morning Joe, the panel appeared genuinely disturbed by President Trump’s recent tweets and other public comments calling for revoking TV licenses from news companies that report “fake news” or investigating newspapers that print it. However, in the past month, Morning Joe has repeatedly called for censorship (including government-led efforts) of news outlets that politically lean right with precisely the same rationale.
Scarborough and company began the show by casually talking about sports, but quickly got around to lambasting Trump for his latest tweets, as they normally do. The liberal media roundtable was especially unhappy with the President’s newest commentary:
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: President Trump reacted to yesterday's NBC News exclusive report about what happened during a meeting at the Pentagon last July by attacking the press.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: [sarcastic/fake surprised tone] Oh, okay.
BRZEZINSKI: The seemingly [sic] freedom of the press. He tweeted yesterday morning, quote: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for” the “country!” And again last night: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” To be clear, the networks themselves do not hold federal licenses, their individual television stations do. The President said more in a rally-style interview with Fox News held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and also earlier in the day in the Oval Office.
[cuts to clip of Hannity interview]
PRESIDENT TRUMP: If I was just watching television, you don't know whether or not, because, you know, you’re just watching a report. But when you’re the one being written about, you know if it's good or bad and it’s always, they try and make it negative. So, the media has turned out, I call it fake media, it’s fake, so much fake news, and we have to understand-
SEAN HANNITY [FOX NEWS, HOST]: [interrupting] Do you agree with that, fake news?
[Applause from crowd]
[cuts to Oval Office meeting]
TRUMP: It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it. [...]
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think there should be limits on what the press should write?
TRUMP: No, the press should speak more honestly. I mean, I’ve seen tremendously dishonest press. It's not even a question of distortion, like the question that was just asked before about ten times the nuclear capability. I know the capability that we have, believe me. And it is awesome. It is massive. And so when they make up stories like that, that's just made up. And the generals will tell you that. And then they have their sources that don't exist, in my opinion, they don't exist. They make up the sources, there are no sources.
[back to Morning Joe]
BRZEZINSKI: The NBC report is sourced, three-
SCARBOROUGH: [hold up three fingers] Three.
BRZEZINSKI: -unidentified officials who were in the room at the Pentagon when the President reportedly made his comments and now at least one member of the President's party is taking exception with Trump's rhetoric against the press. Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska put out this statement last night. Quote: “Mr. President: Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting of the oath” that “you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?”
SCARBOROUGH: Mark, of all the things, the shocking things, the President has said, and he's said so many, you know, channeling Chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin by calling the media enemy of the people. Saying that First Amendment rights, saying the ability of newspapers to write what they want to write is quote “disgusting” and someone should look into it may be the most frightening of all and the most disgusting and again, we are starting to hear people talking more and more about the 25th Amendment. Steve Bannon, warning the President, that's what will remove him from office, if anything removes him from office. Tom Barrack, his long-time friend, just saying he’s shocked and stunned by what he's seeing from Donald Trump, that this is, and Bob Corker saying, we could add all of this up. And now you have a president who is actually dismissing the most sacred right Americans have had since 1787, the right of free speech.
MARK HALPERIN [MSNBC, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST]: It's an attack on the media to be sure, but more profoundly, it's an attack on the First Amendment. The President should be aware, perhaps he is, that we've reached a new phase amongst people around him that the whispers that you used to hear only on the left about the notion he should be removed or that there’s a presidency is in crisis, that is now said by people who are friends of the President, who are advisers to the president. Their concern about his state of mind and his ability to do the job is higher than it has been since he got sworn in. And comments like he made yesterday only feed that.
Without any context, one could be forgiven for believing that Joe, Mark, and Mika were all making cogent good-faith arguments against government interference with Americans’ rights to free speech and a free press. However, a quick look at Morning Joe over the past few weeks reveals the show’s hosts and frequent guests appeared to be quite recent converts to the church of the First Amendment.
A month ago, political analyst Steve Schmidt appeared on the MSNBC morning show and called for putting “right-wing media” “out of business” and “break[ing] their backs.” Although Schmidt did not call for government censorship directly, neither did Trump in his statement that “It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it.” Given Trump’s position as president, it’s not completely unreasonable to interpret his comments as a call for government censorship, but he did tell a reporter that he didn’t support limits on what the press could write. Regardless, the President’s lack of precision here is a problem for any surety in interpreting him.
Only two weeks ago, in a far more revealing and disturbing segment–albeit one without either Joe or Mika present–Morning Joe’s panel almost universally advocated for government censorship of social media and internet news content on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Halperin, who today seemed so upset about Trump’s “attack on the First Amendment,” was the most straightforwardly pro-censorship when talking about internet media:
[T]here’s some interesting intellectual debates to be had around all this stuff to be sure. But these companies are American companies making a lot of money, dominating our lives, hiding behind a lot of intellectual arguments. And, as the Congressional members of both parties are saying publicly and privately, they are using lobbyists and PR executives and their own platforms to try to limit the disclosure that they make to be accountable. American democracy is under siege and they are hiding behind intellectual arguments. [...] [T]he government shouldn't be the recourse at first [for regulating internet media], it should be the boards of these companies.
So, when he sees news companies promoting something he thinks is false or a negative influence, then their protests against government censorship are just “hiding behind a lot of intellectual arguments,” but when Trump suggests the same standard for the rest of the media, Halperin clutches his pearls and hides behind the Constitution as a sacred text?
Even though Willie Geist was on the same panel two weeks ago, neither he nor anyone else called out Halperin on his inconsistency on Thursday's broadcast. Instead, the conversation just continued on in the same pro-First Amendment spirit:
SCARBOROUGH: And Katty, he said it several times. I mean, he talked about taking licenses away. He can't take away NBC’s license. It's not how it's done. But then saying that it was disgusting that newspapers could write what they wanted to write, ignores the fact that again, since 1787, the Supreme Court has recognized that political speech is the most protected, the most valuable, the most unassailable speech that Americans have. There is, there is no challenging political speech as free speech and the press's ability to report on it.
KATTY KAY [BBC WORLD NEWS, ANCHOR]: Yeah, I don't know if the President understands how news organizations work. But, obviously, NBC, the BBC, every news organization that we have worked for has strict protocols in place that mean that they cannot write whatever they want to write. You have to do your reporting. You know, BBC we have to have two sources. This story had three unidentified separate sources before it was reported. So, news organizations are very careful about what they put out there in the public domain as news. And I don't know if the President understands what those editorial protocols are in place, but somebody around him ought to inform him of them. For somebody who watches an awful lot of television, you think he might be more curious about the way news organizations actually gather their news.
SCARBOROUGH: And Willie, what’s so, what’s so, what again proves for his friends and advisers who say the President’s out of touch, and they're getting, growing more and more worried about the President, he doesn't even know that those sources are people who work for him.
WILLIE GEIST: Right.
SCARBOROUGH: And this has been, you know, he screams about leaks inside the White House all the time. Well, they're the sources. They're the people talking. And he looks completely clueless when he goes out and says things like that.
Trump’s actual statements make pretty clear in this instance that he was accusing NBC News of making up anonymous sources, not demonstrating that he doesn’t know that these alleged sources come from people in his administration.
The panel continued:
GEIST: This has been happening almost since the beginning of his administration. This kind of reporting that comes from inside the room. You had three people inside this meeting that allegedly led to Rex Tillerson calling the President of the United States a moron. But it’s because they're concerned. I mean, you could go, this is, this is Authoritarianism 101. You delegitimize the press, you delegitimize your opponents, and then you try to destroy them. Luckily in the United States, we have a constitution that stands in the way of the President doing that. But he’s saying to people who support him and to the American people: don't believe your eyes and your ears when it comes to things that criticize me, don't believe what you’re saying, fake news, fake news, fake news. There’s no license to be revoked. There’s nothing he’s gonna do or can do, thank goodness, because we have such a strong system. But you can go to History Textbook 101, any authoritarian in history has done this early and often: delegitimize the press and then try to destroy it.
BRZEZINSKI: It's to be dealt with.
SCARBOROUGH: [starts and stops talking quickly] And, yester-,-
BRZEZINSKI: I mean, anyone in there, if they think they don't have a responsibility at this point to deal with what is clearly an unraveling at the very least-
SCARBOROUGH: [interjecting] The great unraveling.
BRZEZINSKI: -of this man’s personality.
SCARBOROUGH: And, Mike, the um, these are words that you would expect from Turkey, out of Turkey. These are words that you would expect out of Russia. These are words you would expect out of the Philippines, where you say, we, he [loses train of thought]. The President of the United States actually, all day yesterday, not self correcting himself, ‘cause it's impossible for anyone to correct him, and he certainly can't correct himself, continuing to say that he wants to, he wants to trample first Amendment Rights.
SCARBOROUGH: People, Mika, need to stop. Senators need to stop. They need to listen and they need to understand that the President of the United States said that he was going to look into undermining and actually destroying the most sacred right, constitutional right, that Americans have had, again, since 1787. And the fact that he's talking that way in a way no other President has ever spoken in American history, showing complete ignorance of the Constitution, the law, 240 years of precedence, shows, again, that he is just, he's disconnected.
BRZEZINSKI Not fit. And I think we're at the point where the conversation has changed.
SCARBOROUGH: [talking under Brzezinski] Well he’s certainly easily not fit.
Contrary to what Joe said, Trump’s comments were not unprecedented in American history. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson all took actions that resulted in real laws or regulations coming into effect that were actively used to jail political dissidents and journalists.
Moreover, even today, most Western countries have some restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, including the United States, the U.K., France, and Germany. Will Geist and the rest of Morning Joe condemn these limits as authoritarian assaults on the freedom of the press or the First Amendment?
Somehow, I doubt it.