Like most people, there are certain things over which I have precisely zero will power. Junk food, for example. If it’s anywhere in the house, I’ll sniff it out like a Mangalitsa pig rooting truffles. Nearly three-quarters of a century ago some very wise lawmakers realized that America had a something of junk food problem of its own: the fact that people tend to believe that the opinions they already hold are correct and will not go far out of their way to subject them to scrutiny. It’s only human nature.
To deal with it, just after WWII in 1949, our nation implemented a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule called the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine stated that all holders of broadcast licenses would be required to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was, in the FCC’s language, “honest, equitable, and balanced.” Older readers may remember watching local news broadcasts in which editorial segments were immediately followed by a spokesperson presenting an “opposing viewpoint” — almost unthinkable in today’s largely all-junk-news-all-the-time buffet.
They did it, but they sure didn’t like it and in 1987 pressured the FCC to eliminate it. It didn’t take the ad boys and girls in TV and radio land to realize that its repeal could provide a massive revenue windfall. And those are pretty much the only two dots you need to connect to create the picture we’ve got today: 1) repeal the Fairness Doctrine 2) start capitalizing on people’s basest instincts. Don’t believe me? Here are just a few of the terms I pulled off of supposedly balanced political websites TODAY: smack-down, eviscerates, destroys, annihilates, slaughters, pulverizes, murders, and on and on… I only get a thousand words here.
In the three decades since its repeal, there have been many attempts to reinstate the doctrine, so far without success. And, not coincidentally, over pretty much that exact period the severe ideological polarization in which America currently finds itself has increased dramatically. A recent Gallup poll revealed that, “Polarization in presidential approval ratings began to expand under Reagan and has accelerated with each president since Clinton.” It has vaulted from a record 70 point gap under Barack Obama to 77 points under Donald Trump. News as sport. Opinion unfettered by correction. And dump trucks of bucks from a viewership kept too het up to risk turning away from the screen — a legislatively determinative number of people which has cocooned itself within a false reality so deep, so convincing, so perfectly — if cynically — crafted that they are unable to see what they believe to be a perfect window into the world is, in fact, a mirror.
Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, or something much like it, would again require that opposing views be presented at the key moment viewers are being asked to make a decision. Keep your biases if you want, but only after someone with a different way of looking at the issue has had a shot at making their best pitch to you. Sort of like the nutrition label on that candy bar. You don’t have to read it, but it’s there. No wonder the food industry is always trying to get them removed.
Reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine would deliver a 9.9 shock directly to the tender bits of the news-as-sport industry and go a long ways to returning us to the days of Murrow, Cronkite, Sevareid, and the like — a world almost everyone purports to miss but hasn’t the slightest idea how to get back to. A world where the word “news” would no longer be what it has become in many quarters today — a four-letter-word.
It would be fair to ask, if the Fairness Doctrine couldn’t survive way back in 1987 when the nation was far less polarized than it is now, what are the odds that it could ever be reimplemented in the hyper-partisan environment in which we currently find ourselves? Not great, I’ll concede. But perhaps we can at least begin the conversation. Perhaps, as our nation continues toward 100% polarization, conversation will turn to action. Perhaps.
In the meantime, there’s a lot we can do individually to create our own personal Fairness Doctrines of a sort. Modern online news aggregators have developed the uncanny ability to tailor web results to our exact tastes and opinions. We can show their smart-alecky AI we’re not so easy to peg by going out of our way to visit a wider range of news and opinion sites than we have in the past. Before long, their algorithms will begin to a more diverse range of choices. And let’s face(book) it, the way social networks have been shown time and time again to value profit over the welfare of their users, these sites are not our friends. Refusing to click on faux news stories, political ads, and divisive news stories will quickly make the pages unprofitable for the scammers who own them. Better yet, we can flag them as offensive, just as we would porn. In key ways, they are.
When it comes to our junk news addiction, America needs an intervention. Let’s return to the Fairness Doctrine and a true diversity of opinion. It will be like tasting something divinely fresh food after a long diet of nothing but junk food.
That’s all he wrote — for this year. See you in 2019. Got to go now; I think I figured out where my wife hid that Christmas box of Harry and David chocolate truffles!
-Multiple award-winning author Charles Carr writes and edits for many well-known publications. He most recently won a San Diego Press Club award in the category of Opinion Column on a Serious Subject for the Southpaw column. Contact him at charlescarr.com.