|Does US broadcasting
need a "fairness doctrine"?
Tom Daschle certainly has his doubts about the way things are now;
so does Al Gore. But they're both Democrats and are whining about
the fact that they lose out rather than for any other reason. Right?
Possibly so! Certainly for a politician faced with a serious imbalance,
there is likely to be a tendency to react in a partisan manner. And
in the US, there is certainly a serious imbalance in many areas of
broadcasting, if not a complete ostrich-act combined with delusion
in certain areas, particularly ones where some interests are seriously
involved, be they of so-called political correctness or relating to
some US allies.
However it should be a serious concern for all who have a belief in
democracy that a broadcaster, using public airwaves, can take the
same self-promotional road as News International's tabloid Sun newspaper
with its famous headline claiming responsibility for a British general
election victory. Unsurprisingly News Corporation also owns Fox News
whose Brit Hume recently claimed credit for the mid-term election,
telling Don Imus "It was because of our coverage that it happened."
If that were so, it raises the question of whether News Corporation
is a fit organization to hold any licences to broadcast over public
airwaves in view of the undoubted party bias in his output and also
highlights the difference in his SKy News operation in a climate when
such overt bias would lead to problems for it.
Regulation, it would seem, does have effects when there are commercial
consequences, point that also highlights the importance of money in
US politics, an issue that is also linked to fairness by broadcasters
since it gives the rich parties from any side of the spectrum a significant
advantage. This again is something that is limited in some countries
by prohibition of the broadcast of paid political advertisements allied
with a system to allow unpaid political broadcasts according to formulae
related to a party's support in some way; such systems still build
in advantages for the big players but do mitigate the power of wealth.
We do therefore
think the question of regulation of media ownership is brought up
by the current US political environment, particularly as consolidation
creates fewer ever larger media groups some of whom are not totally
adverse to allowing commercial interests of one or other part of the
group to influence editorial. Our thinking is similar as regards editorial
and comment areas but in radio its the comment and talk that we concentrate
Talk radio in this context.
Talk radio differs from news cover in that freedom
of speech does require giving voice to the opinions of even
unpleasant or dishonest people but we do not see that it should
allow the broadcasting of known falsehoods or some of the tactics
currently used by some of the hosts which have much the same
effect. The question is whether any cure would be as bad as
or worse than the disease?
Currently, for example, there is a massive preponderance
of pro-Republican talk outlets in the US and there seems to
be very little concern about the idea, which was public policy
for many years in the US and still is policy in most of the
Western world if not in dictatorships, that use of public airwaves
is licensed and brings with it a degree of responsibility to
play things fairly.
To us, at the moment, talk radio is certainly bad for democracy
as at present constituted in the US. There in the past a "fairness
doctrine" forced broadcasters to maintain some sort of
balance and ownership restrictions ensured limits on the influence
of big players; And if nothing else, many of today's radio talk
hosts would have to modify their ways or would have been off
the air under those rules.
Hence we ask if the best approach would be to consider some
restoration of such regulation or whether other approaches would
be preferable? We opt against bans but also believe that it
is no bar on the right to free speech if it is linked with a
degree of obligation to tell the truth when public airwaves
are being used.
The truth. Is too much imbalance
close in its effect to lying?
In considering, therefore, the question of what can reasonably be
required, we have to bear in mind not just the outright demonstrable
falsehood but the presentation of such a skewed view as to achieve
a similar effect without actually deliberately and knowingly stating
as true something that the speaker is completely certain is false
(a definition we put down because it seems to be one many politicians
from all sides of the spectrum apply (Were the definition one just
of knowingly trying to mislead, a reasonable definition from a moral
perspective, we'd appreciate a few names of prominent politicians
who would pass through the eye of the needle!).
We would argue that the effect of pandering to prejudice, slapping
down callers with an opposing viewpoint without giving it consideration,
and going for the entertaining at the expense of the informational,
is corrosive at best and truly misleading and corrupting at worst
- and that talk radio contains some elements approaching the worst.
Can anything be done?
So without making it bland, the ultimate
commercial sin, can we do something to make talk radio fairer
and more informative? Should we even try?
We would argue that we not only could
and should but also eventually will have to unless we are to face
a very bleak future for rational discussion and all the implications
that has for a vibrant democracy and an informed freedom of speech.
The question then is what? Here we think regulation should be
in a form that gives the companies and hosts involved a reason
to play things fairly without being any the less blunt and, where
And what suggestions do we have? We're a little unsure but do
think the idea of "enforced corrections" might be worth
a try. By this we mean thinking about and setting down a framework
that limits the degree to which bias and misinformation is allowed
to pass without sanction but then making the sanction fit the
In this case, we suggest that the appropriate way would be that
when a host goes beyond the defined boundaries (and we note that
regulators the world round have been able to define such boundaries,
so the question is one of what is agreed to be desirable not whether
a definition can be reached) a policy of "enforced correction"
The boundaries, we would suggest as appropriate, would be drawn
in terms of willful misrepresentation of the views of an organization
or individual as a precursor to an attack on them, making statements
that are known to be factually incorrect or failing to correct
a caller engaging in the above; we would not suggest drawing them
in terms of strong views by an individual on an issue where an
opposing view is presented fairly or ignored.
All of the above may be fine, but
what about a case where the broadcaster breaks the rules or, more
to the point, deliberately continues such practices and refuses
to willingly change his or her ways.
In such cases, we think that, if there are to be any rules as
with any law, ultimately penalties have to be applied and in this
case we would favour a stepped- approach. If the host and broadcaster
is operating fairly there's no problem anyway and if it's a question
of an occasional lapse, the cure would be worse than the disease.
Repeated and willful offences should however allow corrections
to be enforced and we would think that once a predefined boundary
is exceeded correction of factual errors should automatically
be required as a condition of licence of any and all broadcasters
carrying a programme. We would suggest that a host has to read
out such corrections on at least three days running at, say, up
to 30 seconds in duration, as dictated by the complainant with
such corrections limited to a factual correction. Such corrections
would apply not only to statements aired by a host but also to
in cases where particularly egregious statements by a called are
continually passed uncorrected by the host.
Should a host keep overdoing it, the programme will be so full
of corrections it will make the bias apparent to all listeners
and give a fairly strong motive to being fairer.
None of this would inhibit the freedom of speech of a host or
broadcaster but it would prohibit abuse of such freedoms and would,
we contend, make democracy healthier than it is now.
Any views? Please comment
on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside,
we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate
more feedback and dialogue.