Saturday, January 3, 2009

American media culture and the Fairness Doctrine

According to Wikipedia, "The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was (in the Commission's view) honest, equitable, and balanced." It was abolished in 1987. There is occasionally some stir of interest in bringing it back, and on the flip side, there is interest in passing legislation forbidding the FCC to reinstate it.

I am disappointed to learn that Nancy Pelosi is interested in bringing it back. The Wikipedia entry on the Fairness Doctrine also quotes New Mexico's junior senator, Jeff Bingaman, describing the heyday of the doctrine as he recalls it: "I think the public discussion was at a higher level and more intelligent in those days than it has become since."

I am against the FD for a good reason, and not because the underlying principle is inherently bad (it isn't), rather because not only is there no need for the government to be sticking its nose in here, but it is inappropriate and harmful. Some institutions are better at regulating themselves than the government ever could be (clearly this is not generally true of our financial institutions). I do like the way scientists apply the scientific method and submit papers for peer review. But do you think the government should make laws establishing standards for these practices? Of course not. The science community is self-correcting.

And journalism has its own standards, of responsibility and objectivity. In addition to the fact that news networks have their reputation to uphold, and therefore, in general, can be trusted to adhere to these standards, there is also a surplus of available news sources anywhere in the country. It is undeniable that individual news sources have their own slant, but many people like the opportunity to see the day's events through the lens of someone with biases similar to theirs. Those who carry it too far pay a price in credibility with their peers and with the general public. No extra fine is necessary.

What of Senator Bingaman's comment wishing for the imagined glory days of the news in his youth? Does he really think that this authoritarian position is going to improve the quality of news reporting? Is there some explanation, aside from a universal wish for things to be the way they once were, for this perception that maybe the quality of our news reporting has degenerated a bit?

I think there is an explanation, but an unrelated one. It springs from corporations whose business is in reporting the news gaining increased understanding of how to maximize profits in that area. Cable news is now opinion-driven and edgy. The pundits report and comment simultaneously. Experts and public figures are called and have to give 30 second answers to tricky, but not necessarily substantive, questions.

I should be surprised to hear anyone disagree with me when I say that edginess is probably not an important attribute of quality news reporting. Nor do I expect anyone to disagree that the highest quality news you can get (without having to search for it yourself online, sifting through dozens of sources), along with the most thoughtful and insightful opinions you'll hear, is available from National Public Radio. There are no commercials, giving more time for substantive discussion of today's issues, and the reporting itself is driven not by profit, but by providing an essential public service.

But Americans like to watch TV. So, what I want to know is, why is there no dedicated public TV news station? Are the startup costs too high? Is it too challenging to maintain through membership drives, the way our arts-oriented public channels are? I think it would be worth it to find out what the obstacles are and to make a concerted effort to overcome them.

The benefits of news-driven public television are potentially enormous, and not just in better informing the general public. For example: I think our media culture heavily influences our political culture. (Duh, right?) I like to watch C-SPAN. And I'm frequently baffled by the hostile tone so often employed by our legislators when they question experts. The experts are there to give hard data, genuine insight, and qualified opinion. If you're going to argue with the expert, what's the point? I understand the value of asking probing questions to gain further insight, but these congressmen and senators are frequently treating these objective experts like hostile witnesses in court when they feel that the information being delivered doesn't jive with their preferred ideology.

If you agree that this must be at least partly due to the example set in the media, then it follows that we need to somehow improve the nature of the discourse that is wired into all our TV sets during prime time. How can we do that? With public television news and commentary. Imagine if, instead of the hysteria of the O'Reilly Factor and Hardball, we had someone like Charlie Rose having a simple, insightful conversation with, say, Barack Obama, and this was broadcast into homes at 8 PM instead of in the wee hours of the morning.

Not everyone wants to really hear the news. But some of us do. Making this alternative available would improve public understanding of issues and candidates, for those of us who would tune in.

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