From day 1 of America’s founding, its constitutions’ 1stamendment has given any citizen or institution the right to print and distribute their opinion, or what they claimed are facts regardless of how true or distorted those so-called facts are. The only restriction is free speech that will harm life, such as yelling fire in a crowded theater. This free speech fake news right has been used since the days of the founding fathers’, right up through the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who both at times conveyed total lies to an unknowing American public. Fortunately, a then-new technology emerged that forced a reality check to fake news relegating it to the scandal sheets found in grocery stores, unfortunately, both a creation and a catastrophe combined to strip the technology of its ability to force the reality check, giving new life to an American reinvigorated fake news now found everywhere.
Prior to 1920, the only way to report news to the general public was through publishing written text, this medium provided both an endless supply of tools to produce it and free access to everyone who wanted to use it. By 1920 the new technology of broadcasting radio transmissions of speech and music had been discovered, this meant that purveyors of news using the broadcast medium would be able to reach thousands to millions of more people, but the broadcasting medium, unlike the publishing medium, is impossible for everyone to use because broadcasting licenses are limited to the finite number of available broadcast frequencies.
In other words, there are millions of American citizens, thousands of corporations and institutions but only hundreds of broadcast frequencies available to enable a person, corporation or institution to reach thousands to millions of people. This negated the free speech environment where anyone had access to publish their news real or fake, it created an environment where the American public was exposed to only what a broadcaster deemed appropriate.
In 1949 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to address this inequity by creating the Fairness Doctrine which was meant to ensure that a variety of views, beyond those of the broadcast licensees and those they favored, were heard on the airwaves. It established two forms of regulation on broadcasters: 1) to provide adequate coverage of public issues, and 2) to ensure that coverage fairly represented opposing views. In order to adhere to the first regulation, they had the latitude to provide contrasting views through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials. The second rule required broadcasters to provide reply time to issue-oriented citizens.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine, which by then also applied to TV broadcasters as well, in its Red Lion vs FCC 1969 ruling stating: It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the government itself or a private licensee. It is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, aesthetic, moral and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here. That right may not constitutionally be abridged either by Congress or by the FCC.
The Fairness Doctrine was used by citizen groups as a tool to expand speech and debate because it prevented broadcasters from allowing only one side to be heard. When an individual or citizens group complained to a broadcaster about imbalance, the broadcaster would set aside time for an on-air response for the omitted perspective. If either the broadcaster or individual disagreed with the complaint or resolution to the complaint and felt that an adequate range of views had or had not already been presented, the decision would be appealed to the FCC for a judgment.
This provision alone was a game changer because it kept everyone and everything honest. When a broadcaster knew anyone had the ability to provoke a process which potentially could end up with an FCC judgment against them, all broadcasters took 3 steps to assure observance of the fair broadcasting rules.
Step 1 whatever is broadcast must be FACTUAL, be it Republican, Democrat, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, old or young it must be factual.
Step 2 use the most credible source to broadcast whatever the subject matter is.
Step 3, whenever a non-fact opinion based subject is broadcast, a balanced opposing factual view from a credible source must also be presented.
These 3 steps were embedded in the daily operating procedures of all broadcasters to make sure that if and when the time came, that any citizen or institution exercised their then Fair Doctrine right to lodge a complaint to the FCC against them, broadcasters would be in the best position to avoid a negative FCC judgment.
Because public TV and radio were the only wide people reaching mediums available during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, their operating Fair Doctrine procedures dominated and set the standard for the entire media landscape. All self-proclaiming fact-based news-print publications adhered to the same Fair Doctrine standard, even though they were not regulated by the FCC and not required to do so. Those that did not like the National Enquirer were relegated to grocery store stands and were never considered a credible source for news.
This standard held fostering a fact-based news environment until the 1980’s when a creation and a catastrophe combined to create the fake news environment we live in today.
The creation of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle
In 1980 CNN was founded by Ted Turner as a 24-hour cable news channel. It was the first television channel to provide 24-hour news coverage and was the first all-news television channel in the United States. Since CNN was not broadcast over public airwaves but through privately owned satellite and cable networks it was not subject to the Fairness Doctrine, but because of the personal integrity of then-owner Ted Turner CNN voluntarily adhered to the Fairness Doctrine. Turner and CNN were creators of the 24-hour news cycle industry, but unfortunately the current dominant player in the 24-hour news industry that followed CNN into the business it created, the Fox News Channel, only followed CNN into the business but didn’t follow CNN’s lead by adhering to the Fairness Doctrine.
The catastrophe of Revocation of the Fairness Doctrine
In August 1987, under then-FCC Chairman Dennis R. Patrick, a catastrophe occurred when the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by a 4–0 vote, after the 4–0 vote Chairman 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”.
The creation of the 24-hour news cycle, the catastrophe of revocation of the Fairness Doctrine, and 2 people Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes all came together to create our current nightmare of fake news. After the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine, Murdoch and Ailes joined forces to create the Fox News Channel which debuted in October of 1996. The revocation created the perfect environment for Ailes, who had developed a plan in the 1970’s to air fake political TV stories while he worked as a political consultant for President Richard Nixon. By the time Fox aired its first newscast, there was no longer a Fairness Doctrine in existence to adhere too as CNN had done voluntarily.
Fox News proceeded to establish a new low standard of reporting stories that were politically biased and did not offer an opposing view, their stories only reported facts that supported a politically conservative point of view while ignoring facts that did not, and they reported conservative political ideologies and conservative opinions as facts. Just as CNN created the 24-hour news industry, Fox News has created the fake news industry.
What Fox started as biased news reporting and omitting facts that didn’t support their politics has now morphed into full-blown fake, false fact and alternative lie/fact news created by new fake news purveyors found all over the internet. The new fake news purveyors have followed the Fox News standard of making their fake stories appear legitimate by using false fact charts and photo-shopped images to resemble fact-based reporting. The fake news cancer is no longer limited to the cable network platform, its spread to the internet and now has figured a way to covertly infect the public FCC regulated TV broadcast medium.
The recent and continuing acquisitions of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, owner of the most television stations in the country reaching 2 out of every 5 American homes, should raise questions in the current deregulated environment. Because as Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a senior attorney at Georgetown’s Communications and Technology Law Clinic states “The most important force shaping public opinion continues to be local, over-the-air television,” “That’s the underlying premise of the FCC continuing to regulate broadcast ownership.”
Unfortunately, no true regulation exist for Sinclair. Since the Fairness Doctrine no longer exists, there is nothing to stop Sinclair from ordering local news anchors at all its stations nationwide, as it did last week, to read a politically biased editorial handed down from the parent corporation. So, in theory, they are free to broadcast only their beliefs, political opinions and the only information they deem appropriate.
Combine that with the fact that it’s believed that the FCC will approve Sinclair’s announced $3.9 billion deal to acquire Tribune Media’s 42 TV stations, adding to the 193 they already own and giving Sinclair access to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the nation’s three largest media markets, even though critics on the left and right argue the deal will give Sinclair far more reach into American households than the law allows. If the merger is approved, Sinclair’s broadcasts will reach 72 percent of all households. This would essentially create a second Fox News-like conservative network free to spread its politically one-sided propaganda to 72% of unsuspecting households.
As huge as the potential reach of the Sinclair/Tribune merger could be it pales when compared to the reach and impact of fake news spread on the internet, where little to no regulation exist to prohibit the spread of fake news.
In the interest of maintaining and proliferating American democracy, an expanded and retooled Fairness Doctrine must be resurrected and passed into law! It must be all-encompassing. Regulating anything or anyone claiming to be news presented on or through any medium. Print news, radio news, TV news, cable news, mobile cell news, internet news and wherever else news claiming to be news can be consumed, will be regulated to be truthful, regulated to maintain a strict dividing line between opinion and facts and regulated to ensure that opposing views to expressed opinions are presented. Under the resurrected Fairness Doctrine everyone will still be free as an individual or non-news organization to communicate whatever and however they wish, but anyone or any organization presenting themselves as purveyors of news will have a regulated standard they must maintain by law.
The new Fairness Doctrine law would also prevent media monopolies. Regulating what is true news but allowing someone or some entity to monopolize the transmission of it, defeats the goal of diverse voices communicating the same fact-based news while offering varied opinions about that same fact-based news. Preventing Sinclair from ordering all its stations from broadcasting the same one-sided propaganda but allowing them to own 70% of America’s TV stations creates the same problem in another form.
Last but not least we have to have a resurrected Fairness Doctrine law because of our collective human frailties. For example, humans are attracted more to information about conflict than peace, attracted more to information about someone in trouble than someone praised for a good deed and definitely more attracted to fake news than real news. Combine this with the human collective weakness to money and influence power, we have to have legal regulation to stop the current self-serving trend of fake news. As long as people are making money off the fake news and people are able to affect the outcomes of elections through the use of fake news, democracy, as we know it in America, can never be safe! America needs a Fairness Doctrine law now for the future sanctity of our elections, the proper education of our kids, the soundness of our economy and the continuation of a properly informed citizen-run democracy.
Isaac Newton Farris Jr. is the nephew of Martin Luther King, Jr. and serves as Senior Fellow at the King Center. Growing up in one of the most socially and politically active families has given him a unique perspective on current events. Drop by his website for straight talk free of one-sided political spin.
Originally published at isaacnewtonfarris.com on April 12, 2018.