What Happened to the American Press?
When James Madison drafted the First Amendment, his reference to “the press” referred to the newspapers of our nation, such as the Pennsylvania Gazette owned by Benjamin Franklin, the most popular paper in the 13 colonies.
Things rocked along swimmingly for about 200 years, then one day we walked outside to get the newspaper, sat down to read it, and realized it was yesterday’s news.
Welcome to the 21st Century, where your telephone is also your newspaper, TV, encyclopedia, magazine, restaurant menu, instruction manual, shopping mall, worldwide map, and phone book.
The computer chip gave us the internet, an unregulated realm where irresponsible people are free to spray false reports, fabricated data, and doctored photos across our society like a flamethrower washing over a field of dry grass.
Presto, the world is on fire.
I believe that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.
When I was a younger man, radio and television newscasts were trustworthy places to gather reliable facts, even when the presentation of those facts was slanted by the opinion of the reporter.
News directors took their guardianship of journalistic integrity seriously, as did most of the rank-and-file reporters. But their collective consciences and good intentions were not what kept us safe.
The people of the United States own the airwaves of our nation.
Regulating the access to those airwaves began with the Radio Act of 1912, later to be replaced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934.
For most of the 20th century, America had safeguards that made radio and television news reliable, but in the 9 years between 1987, the 7th year of the Reagan presidency, and 1996, the 4th year of the Clinton presidency, those safeguards were quietly dismantled.
Let’s take a look at the most important ones:
- The Fairness Doctrine: Introduced in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. If you failed to serve the public in this way, you could lose your license to broadcast.
Broadcasters hated the Fairness Doctrine, of course, because it was a pain in the ass.
In 1987, Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, argued that “broadcasters believe in fairness” and that the Fairness Doctrine was “unconstitutional and an infringement on free speech. It is an intrusion into broadcasters’ journalistic judgment.” President Reagan agreed and issued an executive order.
Poof. No more fairness doctrine. TV and radio stations were now free to slant the news as aggressively as they wanted.
- Ownership Limits: In 1927, we began to worry about what might happen if too few people controlled the news. Consequently, no one was allowed to own more than three TV stations nationwide. That number was increased to five stations in 1944, then the 7-7-7 rule of 1953 said no one could own more than 7 TV stations, 7 FM radio stations and 7 AM radio stations. In 1985 7-7-7 became 12-12-12.
Then in 1996, the FCC eliminated all limits on radio stations and said you could own as many TV stations as you wanted as long as those TV stations were collectively reaching no more than 35% of the national audience. As a result, truckloads of investor dollars were gathered and broadcast “consolidation” began.
Then in 2002, the 5-member FCC voted 3-2 along party lines (3 Republicans, 2 Democrats) to throw out the national audience limit.
Bingo. If you could put together enough money, you could now control the news. American newscasters were no longer required to serve the public interest, or to present both sides of an issue, or even to tell the truth.
So for the past 18 years we’ve been surrounded by flamethrowers on every side.
I’m sure glad it hasn’t resulted in a polarized population.
Roy H. Williams