December 2002
Does US broadcasting need a "fairness doctrine"?

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 upon.

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 justifiable, provocative.

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 offence.

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" commences.

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.

Suitable penalties

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.

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