I’m old enough to remember the days when the news was simply the news and the various networks and other outlets didn’t differ much or at all in what they reported, only slightly in style. Reporters were mostly emotionally detached and broadcasted the events of the day without much partisan opinion or editorializing. When they did, an opposing viewpoint would always be presented. Sure, mainstream news back then could be boring and dry. Opinion is based on emotion, and an emotional, sensationalized delivery of the news is more enticing and sells better than the reciting of facts. Old-school reporters and anchors were well respected even though they never were considered celebrities.
Until the 1980s, American mainstream news was for the most part “fair and balanced,” with only actual facts delivered or both sides given airtime when an issue was politically controversial. Sure, there were always tabloids that were more sensationalized or opinionated, but they weren’t taken very seriously by most people and even they didn’t usually descend into telling outright lies. Highly partisan journalism was relegated to op-ed pieces, guest spots, and letters sections. Opinions were clearly stated as such. There was good investigative journalism like 60 Minutes or Hard Copy if you liked a little more intrigue and excitement in your news, but it was still based on facts, not opinion and pure emotion.
Today, it’s very hard to find an American mainstream news outlet that isn’t partisan. To do so, you almost have to rely on foreign news outlets like the BBC or public radio (which Trump has marked for elimination in his budget). On the left, the most famous examples are MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (the last being somewhat more centrist and less politically partisan than the others); on the right, there is Fox News, Breitbart News (which has become almost mainstream due to its enormous popularity) and many of the tabloid daily papers, both on- and offline. Now we have Trump TV, an actual propaganda channel owned by the far-right Sinclair Broadcasting that veers dangerously close to state TV like they have in Russia or North Korea.
News outlets are not required to let you know if what they are reporting are facts or opinion, and it’s been this way for thirty years. The problem has gotten so bad that Fox News can report outright lies — such as the Seth Rich story and denial of climate change — as facts. On the left, the problem hasn’t gotten quite that bad (yet), but I have noticed the loaded and leading questions posed to right-wing politicians and guests, and a lot of liberal editorializing and opinions without opposing opinions providing a leavening agent.
Newscasters are now celebrities. Market share and popularity has eclipsed factual, ethical reporting and responsible journalism. Opinionated pundits (much like our president) rely on the force of their personalities over honesty and public service. In so doing, they have won rabid followers and have influenced politics itself, regardless of facts. I’m not trying to be biased, but it seems this problem is especially prevalent on right-wing radio and on Fox News, where reactionary pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly need not stick with facts at all. They can tell outright lies and spend the rest of their time building loyalty and vilifying “the other side” using name-calling and demonizing those with different views (that’s how “liberal” got to be a dirty word and “feminazi” Hillary Clinton got to be so vilified by conservatives), emotional rhetoric, and outright propaganda. The problem exists on the left too, but not to the same degree as on the right. In general, the mainstream news in 2017 is more entertainment than anything else, and yet people on both sides of the political spectrum take it more to heart than ever.
The problem seems to have started in 1987, with Reagan’s elimination of a little-known FCC policy called The Fairness Doctrine. According to Wikipedia, The Fairness Doctrine, which was made into law in 1947, did the following:
It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered by some to be a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.
The Fairness Doctrine was the reason why the news prior to 1987 seemed less compelling and more “boring” than it does today. Sticking with facts or giving both sides equal time just didn’t sell as well, and networks wanted to make as much money as they could. The easiest way to do that was to turn the news into entertainment (“infotainment”) and appeal to pure emotion and their own greed instead of education and public service. Removing the Fairness Doctrine allowed them to market the news the same way a new product or sitcom could be marketed, and not have to bother with presenting opposing viewpoints. After all, a Ford commercial didn’t have to also present the advantages of buying a Chevrolet, so why should the news have give both sides a voice?
At first, the law’s removal seemed innocuous enough, even harmless. No one really gave much thought to the way it could lead to democracy itself becoming endangered. No one seriously considered how such a little thing could lead to the dumbing-down of the population so they would no longer know how to think critically or consider any point of view outside their comfort zone. Wasn’t it a good thing for everyone if the news could be made more exciting and entertaining to its consumers, while at the same time making the owners and sponsors more profitable? It was a win-win, right?
Not by a long shot. The dangers of removing the Fairness Doctrine were insidious. Over time, the lines between facts and opinions (and later, outright lies and facts) became increasingly blurred, so that by 2017, most people no longer trust the mainstream media or can tell for certain what are facts and what’s fake news. Such a distinction — where people know what’s real and what isn’t — is vital to retain a democratic system where an unethical or even dangerous “cult of personality” cannot arise easily or at all. Another major problem was the way it led to the political polarization we see today. Being required to present opposing opinions in reporting kept people from drifting to either the very far left or the very far right. It may seem like a small thing, but it was the Reagan-era removal of this little FCC law that started us down the slippery slope to fake news and political propaganda reported as fact, which in turn led to the political extremism and hatred that divides our nation.
The removal of the Fairness Doctrine is only one example of how dangerously out of control deregulation has become. It’s time for the FCC to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. It might be the most important way the divisions between us can be bridged and our democracy be saved.