Seeing the Round Corners

June 17, 2019


Until the 2016 presidential election, the term “fake news” was new to the world of journalism. 

Freedom of the press has long been enjoyed by American journalists, but there are those who would opine that present-day journalists take advantage of the idea. If Americans are not aware of or have forgotten, freedom of the press is guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution.

The constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press imposes a number of responsibilities on the media, both on-air and print, and with the advent of technology, the internet.

The following paragraphs are a heads up to the column for next week on the dangers of fake news and what has evolved from it – deepfake video evidence which can be produced by “advanced video manipulation techniques.” “A deepfake is a video or audio that has been altered or manipulated with artificial intelligence technology – it’s like Photoshop image manipulation on steriods.”

Such technology can even stitch one person’s eyes, nose and mouth over another person’s face, making it seem as though they’re doing things that never happened. Next week’s column will be an in-depth explanation of deepfake, and why it has the journalism world very, very worried, if not downright scared.

In the meantime, the following from this writer’s archives (October 2007) on the fairness doctrine and the media. The column presents a foundation for just how far the media has come, and asks “. . . was the First Amendment ever meant to protect someone’s right to spread false information with the intent to influence a vote in Congress? Were there lobbyists when the First Amendment was written as part of the Constitution?”  

October 12, 2007 – FAIRNESS AND THE MEDIA

Abandoning the fairness doctrine in the 1980’s could be described as a really bad idea masquerading as a good one, or vice versa, depending on your perspective. The fairness doctrine was passed in 1949, subsequent to the Communications Act of 1934 – an act that called for (among other provisions) stations to offer “equal opportunity to all legally qualified political candidates running for office.” As a point of historical information, the Communications Act of 1934 was passed at a time when there were very few frequencies available over the airways – no computers, no internet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also applied a policy at the time that prevented stations from editorializing, but by 1940, the ban was softened and out of that developed the policy to allow editorializing “only if other points of view were also aired to balance those of the station.”

With adoption of the fairness doctrine in 1949, station licensees became “public trustees” with the “responsibility of addressing controversial issues of public importance,” and thus the requirement evolved for providing the “opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on these issues.”

The fairness doctrine was expanded in 1967 and broadened the responsibility imposed in 1949 on two points: “The political editorial rule requiring that if a station editorialized either for or against a candidate for public office, the stations had to notify the disfavored candidate within 24 hours and allow him to reply to the editorial.” If a personal attack was made, the rule stated “When a person or group’s character or integrity is impugned during the discussion of a controversial issue, the station must notify the person within one week, and offer a reasonable time for response.”

By 1980, there were many more stations in existence, and of course, there were vastly more reporters in all areas of the media (on air and print) than ever before.

Journalists joined forces in attempting to make the case that the fairness doctrine was unconstitutional, a violation of reporters’ rights of free speech under the First Amendment, and that reporters were entitled “to make their own decisions about balancing stories.” This led to reporters not covering controversial issues rather than comply with the requirement of presenting contrasting viewpoints.

In 1969, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine in the Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC case, 395 U.S. 367 (1969). The ruling said: “A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others and to conduct himself as a proxy or fiduciary with obligations to present those views and voices which are representative of his community and which would otherwise, by necessity, be barred from the airwaves. The Court also stated, “The First Amendment is relevant to public broadcasting, but it is the right of the viewing and listening public, and not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.”

For several years, reporters’ theory of free speech infringement was “quieted.” Throughout the entire history of the FCC, the fairness doctrine was enforced until 1987.

The Reagan administration was known for its deregulation philosophy in the zeal for smaller/less government, and that policy swept across the broadcasting industry like wildfire. By 1985, technology had brought about such changes as multiple channels on cable television that broadcasting was no longer seen as a limited resource.

Then, in 1987, the courts decided that since the fairness doctrine was not mandated by Congress, enforcement was not required and suspended all of the fair doctrine except for the two provisions relating to the endorsement of a candidate requiring equal time for the opponent and the personal attack rule allowing time for rebuttal when discussing controversial issues.

Congress then attempted to codify the doctrine into federal law by passing the Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987. It was vetoed by President Reagan and Congress lacked sufficient votes to override the veto, or at least that was the published story at the time. More on that next week.

Representative Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York’s 28th District, has battled for the fairness doctrine and against media consolidation since her election to Congress in 1986. Her battle is based on the simple premise that the “airwaves belong to the people.” Slaughter adamantly maintains that “information coming to us is controlled, and at least half the people in the United States have no voice because they’re not allowed in on talk radio.”

Slaughter has attempted over the years to reinstate the fairness doctrine and blames the 1993 defeat to reinstate the fairness doctrine on Rush Limbaugh and the rise of AM Radio. Tagged as the “Hush Rush Law,” Slaughter attributed the defeat on Limbaugh’s massive organizing of support and brands him an entertainer, saying Limbaugh “doesn’t make any pretense of being a news person or even telling you the truth – he says he’s an entertainer.”

Limbaugh maintains it’s all in the exercise of his free speech rights under the First Amendment. The problem arises, was the First Amendment ever meant to protect someone’s right to spread false information with the intent to influence a vote in Congress. Were there lobbyists when the First Amendment was written as part of the Constitution? Hum . . .

More next week on the media influence over our lives and Congress.

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