“A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.” – Mark Twain
The fairness doctrine of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. The FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 and removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register in August 2011.
The above description from Wikipedia is a real head-scratcher. It makes perfect sense that broadcasters should be held to a high standard, as a democracy cannot survive if the voting populace is either uninformed or worse, intentionally misinformed. What doesn’t make sense is repealing the Fairness Doctrine, as the FCC did in 1987. It basically opened the door for what we have now – a society in which everyone has their own set of facts and there are “news” networks that will happily stoke and support these divergent paradigms.
I have a friend who believes the US Presidential election of 2020 was stolen; that Donald Trump actually won the election, but an entire litany of conspiracy theories came together to throw the election to Joe Biden. Now, this is clearly not the case. Every conspiracy theory has been debunked, votes were counted, recounted and then counted again in some cases, and in each case the results show that Biden won the election. He has, after all, been serving as President for several months. Nonetheless, there are “news” outlets that continue to feed the conspiracy craving for those who want to believe in their own alternate reality.
A recent study by Business Insider shows the impact of false information on the population, with Fox News watchers only managing to answer 1.02 our of five domestic affairs questions correctly. MSNBC and CNN weren’t much better, which is discouraging consider these are the primary places where most people get their “news.”
“Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience,” Political scientist and poll analyst Dan Cassino said in a press release. “This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them.”
If it seems like our country is running in circles instead of making real progress on important issues, this is a big part of why. I enjoy watching the TV series The West Wing, and it always strikes me that the problems President Bartlet and his staff were trying to solve some 20 years ago are exactly the same issues we’re grappling with today. When voters are ignorant, they tend to elect ignorant people to represent them and/or pressure their representatives to do things that are not in the best interest of the country. This makes it impossible to make progress.
We need to bring serious debate back to our political discourse. We need to have the best, most factual information possible and then put the smartest people in the room to tackle serious issues head-on. A first and very necessary step in that direction is reinstating The Fairness Doctrine, so that the information we get from sources claiming to be news makes us smarter and more unified, not dumber and more polarized by fictional narratives.