Sunday, March 27, 2011

Policy of Truth Is Very Much Needed In The U.S.

Lane Wallace, a contributor to The Atlantic, had a recent piece on lying in the media.  The article starts off with the revelation that the Canadian law books has a provision that "A Licensee (media outlet) shall not broadcast ... d) false or misleading news".  There was a recent effort to revise that provision when a Far Right tabloid sought to begin a new news channel "to challenge the mainstream media" which around here sounds like they were trying to start their own Fox-Not-News channel up there.

Wallace's article then considers the impact of if the United States could or would consider such a law here (some snippage):

But the question remains ... why don't we have a similar requirement here in the U.S.? Traditionally, both broadcast radio and television and cable television stations have been subject to regulation, including content regulation, by the FCC. Although that regulation originated from the fact that airwaves were extremely limited, and not accessible to everyone, the regulation continued even after the birth and expansion of cable television, because courts recognized that television and radio are "uniquely pervasive" in people's lives, in a way print media are not... why can't we have a restriction on broadcasting (or cablecasting) false or misleading news?
One reason is probably the same reason the Fairness Doctrine no longer exists. It's laughable now, with the explosion of narrow-interest fringe websites and narrow-audience, right-wing and left-wing cable shows on Fox News and MSNBC, but in the deregulation atmosphere of the 1980s, the FCC's rationale for getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine was twofold: first, that the Fairness Doctrine inhibited the broadcasters' right to free speech, and second, that the free market was a better regulator of news content on television than the government. Specifically, the FCC said that individual media outlets would compete with each other for viewers, and that competition would necessarily involve establishing the accuracy, credibility, reliability and thoroughness of each story ... and that over time, the public would weed out new providers that proved to be inaccurate, unreliable, one-sided, or incredible.

One wonders, really, if the FCC had ever studied human behavior or the desire of people to have their individual points of view validated. Far from "weeding out" providers of one-sided, or even incredible information, we now revel in... a selection of news outlets that never ever challenge our particular points of view.

Contrary to the FCC's theory, our particular public seems to reward, rather than punish, outrageous or one-sided news providers. And while that may make each of us feel nice and righteous as we pick and choose our news broadcasters and commentators, one would be hard-pressed to argue that it enhances the quality of our public--or even our personal--discourse.  Especially given the questionable "truth" of many of the statements or inferences made on those highly targeted outlets. In theory, we could all fact-check everything we hear on the TV or radio, of course. But few people have the time to do that, even if they had the contacts or resources...

...Think about it. We prohibit people from lying in court, because the consequences of those lies are serious. That's a form of censorship of free speech, but one we accept quite willingly. And while the consequences of what we hear on television and radio are not as instantly severe as in a court case, one could argue that the damage widely-disseminated false information does to the goal of a well-informed public and a working, thriving democracy is significant, as well. What's more, if we really thought everyone had the right to say whatever they wanted, regardless of truth or consequences, we wouldn't prohibit anyone from yelling "fire" in a crowded theater that wasn't actually on fire. We wouldn't have slander or libel laws. We wouldn't have laws about hate speech. And we'd allow broadcasters and cablecasters to air all words and all images, no matter how indecent, at all times. 

Ah. But what if a broadcaster or cablecaster didn't know the information was false? I suppose you could prohibit only knowingly airing false or misleading information. But on the other hand, if a station were at risk for sanction or a license revocation for getting it wrong (even if the FCC rarely enforced the measure), it might motivate reporters and anchors to do a bit more fact checking--and even, perhaps, a bit more research into alternative viewpoints--before seizing on and running with a hot or juicy scoop or angle. 

It's odd, really, that the idea of requiring news broadcasters to be fundamentally honest about the information they project across the nation and into our homes sounds radical. Surely we wouldn't argue that we want to be lied to and misled, would we...?

This is what I wrote in a comment field to Wallace's article.

We make Holocaust denial a criminal offense because it is fraud: historical fraud as well as financial fraud (how much money do those guys make from their followers buying up their books and t-shirts?). We're not making the deniers martyrs: we're identifying them as the criminals they are.

Hate speech is also made up of "false and misleading news." And Hate speech has a tendency to lead into violent action. So we regulate and criminalize Hate speech as well.

Just look at the "debate" over health care. There have been lies aplenty by those opposed to the recent reform act ("Death panels" above all). Check the link to PolitiFact:

Because of the "false and misleading news" about the Health Care Reform efforts, a majority of Americans are mis-informed about the program, don't know that some of the benefits are available now for use, and a sizable number already believe (WRONGLY) that the Health Care bill signed by Obama is already gone. This the damage lying does through the media and through our elected leaders. What the First Amendment defends - the open marketplace of ideas - cannot operate properly when that marketplace of ideas is swamped by falsehoods and frauds.

Holding our media and our elected officials accountable to the truth - Truth Based On Facts, Not Opinion, And Certainly Not On Lies - should go a long way towards cleaning up the mess we are in now.

I've been arguing on this blog for some time that we need a revision of the law - even in the Constitution itself - to spell out once and for all that Lying (or any other form of falsehood) Is Not Protected Speech.  You may get argument about censorship, about the "thought police", stuff like that.  But lies have no place in a nation that's supposed to be based on Truth Justice and the American Way.

Breitbart Delendus Est.

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