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Analysis: Why CNN can – and did – refuse to air Trump’s new ad targeting ‘fake news’

Donald Trump, left, jokes with Ted Cruz during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Donald Trump, left, jokes with Ted Cruz during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)

In a self-congratulatory ad marking his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump labels major television networks “fake news.” So CNN is refusing to sell the president airtime to show the commercial.

“CNN requested that the advertiser remove the false graphic that the mainstream media is ‘fake news,’” the cable channel said in a statement. “The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.”

The “fake news” graphic CNN referenced appears over a split-screen showing NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CBS’s Scott Pelley.

The ad was produced by Trump’s campaign committee, which remains active; the president already has filed to seek reelection in 2020. The Trump campaign said Monday that it planned to spend $1.5 million to place the commercial on TV and online.

“It is absolutely shameful to see the media blocking the positive message that President Trump is trying to share with the country,” Michael Glassner, the Trump campaign’s executive director, said in a statement. “It’s clear that CNN is trying to silence our voice and censor our free speech because it doesn’t fit their narrative.”

By the dictionary definition of “fake,” CNN is correct to say that “the ad is false.” With few exceptions (Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair), mainstream news outlets do not fabricate stories. They might display shades of bias or publish errors requiring corrections, but that does not make them fake.

Trump, however, has tried (largely successfully) to turn “fake news” into a catchall slur for reporting he doesn’t like.

Observe: In an email about the ad, his campaign said it is “calling out the mainstream media for peddling fake news and not reporting on the fact that President Trump is making America great again.”

By Trump’s standard, news is fake if it does not promote the subjective view that he is “making America great again.”

Trump has aimed the “fake news” pejorative at CNN more often than at any other outlet. Meanwhile, CNN President Jeff Zucker has warned that “the perception of Donald Trump in capitals around the world is shaped, in many ways, by CNN. Continuing to have an adversarial relationship with that network is a mistake.”

It is easy to understand why CNN would ban Trump’s insulting ad from its airwaves. How is a bit more complex. Here is the relevant Federal Communications Commission rule:

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No cable television system is required to permit the use of its facilities by any legally qualified candidate for public office, but if any system shall permit any such candidate to use its facilities, it shall afford equal opportunities to all other candidates for that office to use such facilities. Such system shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast by any such candidate.

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The rules governing candidates and outside groups are different. A network is free to accept or reject super PAC ads, as it sees fit, but has “no power of censorship” over candidates.

The only way to get out of airing an ad like Trump’s is to refuse to air any candidate’s ad. Remember: We’re talking about candidates for president in 2020. Trump doesn’t have opponents yet – not any serious ones, anyway, and certainly none buying ad time.

If, for example, Martin O’Malley were already in the race and if CNN had been airing his commercials, the network would have had no choice but to show Trump’s, too. For now, however, CNN can turn down Trump because it has not said yes to any other 2020 presidential candidate.

If Trump takes his “fake news” message into his reelection bid, he can probably compel CNN and other networks to air it – unless they are willing to give up ad revenue from all candidates.


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