Earning Our Democracy
In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, there has been plenty of teeth gnashing and hand wringing among the media and members of the press.
Following four years being discounted, discredited and disrespected by the highest office in the land, and battling dubious hyper-partisan media outlets doggedly peddling disinformation, many in the mainstream press are wondering if it’s possible to put the genie back in the bottle.
Some media observers contend that journalism will never be the same. Others believe that the norms and traditions that have established the free press as a foundational element of our democratic system of government can be restored.
One long time JPR listener and supporter recently wrote to me to ask: “Are there ANY federal regulations that oversee the content of broadcasting to ensure that conspiracy theories, erroneous misinformation and a plethora of lies are not put out to the public? We are now at a point where half of the country does not believe in the media nor in the truth anymore and lives in a completely alternative universe. Why are they (the media) not being held accountable for the damage they are doing to our society and to our democracy?”
About the closest thing we’ve ever had in the U.S. to a federal regulation designed to ensure a fair press was aptly named The Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, not a law, that was adopted in 1949.
Many in the mainstream press are wondering if it’s possible to put the genie back in the bottle.
The policy required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a fair and balanced manner that provided the expression of contrasting viewpoints. The policy did not prescribe how broadcasters should do this but gave them wide latitude to use news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials.
The Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 as cable television gained popularity and as cable news outlets started to emerge. One of the rationales for the doctrine was that the scarcity of over-the-air broadcast licenses warranted the regulation so that citizens would have access to a diverse range of perspectives. In addition, since the FCC awarded the licenses, which enabled license holders of commercial stations to make money, the policy was viewed as a quid pro quo. But, when cable television built its own infrastructure to reach people without the need for any FCC licenses, using private capital, the rationale for the Fairness Doctrine diminished. And, when the legion of cable "news" channels multiplied, the argument of scarcity also became weaker. Then, as more households connected to cable, it seemed unfair to hold over-the-air broadcasters to one standard and cable broadcasters to another. In a 1993 report arguing against the proposed reinstatement of the doctrine, the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote: “With the wide diversity of views available today in the expanding broadcast system, there is a simple solution for any family seeking an alternative viewpoint or for any lawmaker irritated by a pugnacious talk-show host. Turn the dial.”
And, that’s exactly what many Americans do today -- turn the channel to one that confirms their own view of the world. In the current media ecosystem, that channel may very well come with its own set of self-fulfilling “facts.” Theoretically, there are enough "channels" of news and perspective for citizens to get a multitude of viewpoints and know how their government operates. In reality, however, that’s not what's happening, as evidenced by numerous polls that reveal the extent to which Americans are woefully uninformed.
A recent piece by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan prescribes several things fact-based journalists must do to combat America’s disinformation system. Among Sullivan’s propositions is the idea of being bolder and more direct than ever in telling the truth, avoiding false equivalences which give equal weight to truth and lies in the name of fairness. Sullivan also maintains that journalists and news organizations need to get much more involved in media literacy -- “working with educators and advocates to teach people of all ages, but especially students, to distinguish lies from truth, propaganda from factual reporting.”
Of the many things the 2020 election has taught us, it has made clear that the vitality of American democracy is only as durable as the will of everyday citizens to actively engage in the democratic process. Today, that work starts with becoming a discerning and savvy consumer of information, capable of distinguishing credible sources from specious ones and reality from conspiracy theories, so that we can intentionally use what we watch, hear and read to think critically about the world in which we live.