Ronald Reagan, another celebrity president, executed many acts that resulted in some of our current social issues. He cut taxes for the rich (believing in disproved trickle-down economics), closed mental hospitals (creating a homeless population needing more than simple housing assistance) and deactivated the Fairness Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine evolved during the early years of television under the Federal Communications Commission. The Commission believed in “free and fair competition of opposing views … to all discussion of issues of importance to the public.” It required television and radio broadcasters to present opposing views to ensure Americans understood the facts surrounding public or political issues.
Under Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine was deactivated, opening the door for the likes of Rush Limbaugh to focus on “alternative facts”. Under Trump, the FCC further loosened ownership restrictions on media stations opening the door for Sinclair Broadcast Group, now the owner of nearly 300 television stations across the U.S.
The lack of guiding principles holding broadcast news accountable and the monopoly of stations owned by conglomerates has resulted in a polarized media portraying one side of an issue while — legally — completely ignoring the full facts of the situation.
Experimentally and with hope of understanding our polarized political views, I began flipping between Fox and MSNBC during major news events. Based on their reporting, it’s hard to tell we live in the same country. Both cover news events differently and neither presents a full range of facts.
If you are interested in where your news outlet stands, Google ‘media bias charts’ and you will find research summaries that dissect media providers based on bias (“right” or “left” leaning views), and reliability (fact-based or opinion-based).
Unsurprisingly, the Weather Channel is centrist and fact-based, as is Reuters and the Associated Press. NPR and BBC are close behind. Equally unsurprisingly, MSNBC slides left and Fox falls further down on the chart for both bias and unreliability. (For the curious, the Enquirer has little basis in fact.)
William Bernbach, an American advertising executive, said “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level.”
After much vulgar brutalization, it’s time to reinvigorate the principles of the Fairness Doctrine and lift the news to a higher level. In 2019, a bill to restore the Fairness Doctrine was introduced and didn’t pass but should be reconsidered to hold news outlets accountable for providing reliable information.
The only opposition would be those who don’t want Americans to actually understand public or political issues to be able to develop fact-based opinions. First Amendment proponents might suggest this impairs free speech but does it? Our American right of free speech also comes with responsibility to ensure that what is printed and reported is true and factual. There may be many different opinions but there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”
According to Trump’s cybersecurity chief, the recent presidential election was fair and the most secure election in our history. There was no evidence of a “steal” and to continue to suggest this is fiction. A reinvigoration of the Fairness Doctrine would not allow such a lie to be perpetuated and inflame a segment of the population that believes it to be true because it is repeated in media outlets.
Ralph Nader once noted: “News judgment will increasingly reflect a business orientation…women’s rights, the health effects of smoking and the safety of nuclear power plants would have come to far less public prominence had the fairness doctrine not been in effect”.
The people who most benefit from the perpetuation of misinformation are the news stations and advertisers racking up profits by riling up viewers. It is certainly not serving people who want safe neighborhoods, the pandemic in the rearview mirror and a return to passionate but polite debate about the real issues affecting our community and nation.
This isn’t about an individual’s right to their own opinion. It’s about mechanisms to hold media companies legally accountable to report facts so that Americans form opinions founded in reality. It could dramatically change our actions and our discourse.
• Deborah Craig lives in Juneau.