There is always opposition to everything. No matter the issue there will be someone who is against it. There will always be people who are “anti” no matter what the issue. They are the devil’s advocate type of people. The issue to think about for this post is whether it is appropriate to give equal time to every and any opposition group that speaks nonsense or purposely misstates facts and information. Are they deserving of news coverage? Is this news coverage due to a “Fairness Doctrine”? Should the Fairness Doctrine of days past be reinstated? Could a fairness doctrine work today like it has in the past?
First some background.
The Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness doctrine was a policy that helped inform the public about controversial issues. It implied a “fairness’ that helped the general public weigh both sides of any issue and allowed them to make decisions based on most of the facts.
The Fairness Doctrine as defined by Wikipedia:
The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission’s view, honest, equitable and balanced. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987, and in August 2011 the FCC formally removed the language that implemented the Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: 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 main agenda for the doctrine was to ensure that viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. In 1969 the United States Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s general right to enforce the Fairness Doctrine where channels were limited. But the courts did not rule that the FCC was obliged to do so. The courts reasoned that the scarcity of the broadcast spectrum, which limited the opportunity for access to the airwaves, created a need for the Doctrine. However, the proliferation of cable television, multiple channels within cable, public-access channels, and the Internet have eroded this argument, since there are plenty of places for ordinary individuals to make public comments on controversial issues at low or no cost at all.
The Fairness Doctrine should not be confused with the Equal Time rule. The Fairness Doctrine deals with discussion of controversial issues, while the Equal Time rule deals only with political candidates.
The fairness doctrine was established in the early days of television so that the 3 major networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) would not be allowed to push their viewpoints on to the public. Dan Fletcher at Time magazine¹ states it like this:
The act is rooted in the media world of 1949, when lawmakers became concerned that by virtue of their near-stranglehold on nationwide TV broadcasting, the three main television networks — NBC, ABC and CBS — could misuse their broadcast licenses to set a biased public agenda. The Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that broadcast networks devote time to contrasting views on issues of public importance, was meant to level the playing field. Congress backed the policy in 1954, and by the 1970s the FCC called the doctrine the “single most important requirement of operation in the public interest — the sine qua non for grant of a renewal of license.”
Conservatives did not like the Fairness Doctrine because they believed that it curved free speech. The supreme court has gone back and forth on the issue over the years resulting in the FCC abolishing the doctrine in 1987.
Pluto on Firedoglake² describes it this way:
In the spring of 1987, both houses of Congress voted to put the fairness doctrine into law. It would become a statutory fairness doctrine that the FCC would be required to enforce. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation and Congress was unable to overturn the veto.
Since then, the radio stations have been allowed to form monopolies and promote specific political agendas to increase their power in government affairs. The civic intelligence of the public — and the ability to think critically about the issues facing the nation — have degraded into nonsense. The public is now largely unable to ascertain the long, medium, or short-term consequences of any given legislative action; nor does the public at large have knowledge of the actual facts surrounding those issues. This is a profound change from the America that existed prior to 1980.
Today we have many broadcast networks, some of which never allow opposing viewpoints, while others that do, are drowned out by the vitriol of the one-sided networks. Many in the general public (young and old) believe that the fairness doctrine still exists. They believe that if something is not true then it would not be ALLOWED to be aired or printed in the newspaper. I actually know people who think that the press is there to stop the misinformation, so therefore if it makes it on air or in the press then there is truth behind it.
With all that said, newspapers were never required to give equal time to opposing viewpoints. The Fairness doctrine was only required when a radio or television station needed to be licensed.
Personally, I think the Fairness Doctrine is good in theory. It worked great in the past, but we were a different society back then. Back in the day, integrity was good. Convincing people of your view and your side in a logical and factual manner was honorable. Now in today’s society, some politicos (mostly the Teapublicans and conservatives IMO) tend to think that lying is a means to an end. They will do and say anything to get others to believe them. And when caught in a lie, they yell and scream and declare that their first amendment rights were violated.
The difference between “spinning” and “lying”
I believe that much of the common day misrepresentation of facts is based on many people not understanding the difference between “spinning” and “lying”.
I define these terms this way :
Spinning: a public relations method to convince the public that your view/issue/statement is good, better or correct. There is no lying…just a twist of words that makes the listener believe in your view/issue/statement. No inclusion of false facts or statements, just a use of words that convinces the listener of your view.
Lying: purposely making a false statement. A blatant disregard for the truth. Stating something that is irrelevant in order to scare the listener in to thinking that there are hidden issues when there is no basis.
There is a difference between being lied to and being convinced or even manipulated into thinking something. Politics has always been full of ‘spin’, but in today’s society, it is full of lies…..blatant lies. Politicos now think it is acceptable to lie under any circumstance.
Tin foil hat crowd
Should all viewpoints-no matter how crazy-be reported to the public without fact checking? If a politician or political expert on an issue states “the earth is flat” type of facts regarding an issue, then should those statements just be accepted as free speech. Should the statement be aired as legitimate when everyone who is knowledgeable on the subject knows it is out and out false?
I can’t stand when a political pundit or politician starts spouting off “the earth is flat” type of facts in support of their position without any pushback from the moderator or journalist. The opposing side usually rebuts with reasons why the”earth is NOT flat”, but without pushback from the journalist or moderator it just looks like a fair disagreement between opposing sides of an issue. In reality it is just a ploy by some to re-frame an argument so that a real discussion cannot happen on real facts. One side is so busy trying to prove that the earth is round that they are not able to get across the real facts that shows why their viewpoint is the better viewpoint. Why should they have to prove the earth is round over and over again?
Back in the Fairness Doctrine Days, the journalists used to hold the politicos in check. They did not accept every claim to be legitimate. They did not allow the tin foil hat crowd to take over discussions with misinformation, lying, and conspiracy theories. The “tin foil hat” crowd was not even allowed into the discussions most of the time. After all they were the “tin foil hat” crowd. Yes, there was discussion about issues, but it was fair and honest discussion not conspiracy laced accusations being used to ruin people’s careers and lives. And yes I do know that there has always been some lying and misinformation throughout history, but not to the extent that there is today. Repeating the “earth is flat” in every discussion on a daily basis would not have been acceptable.
There are conservative and liberal tin foil hat crowds; it is not just on one side of the political spectrum. These groups have always been around and they do serve a purpose in a way…..to keep things in check…to make people think…but they belong on the outskirts of the discussion until more proof is had. These conspiracies do not need to be injected in to real journalism, where real voters need to obtain facts in order to make actual decisions.
I blame Fox News for the demise of reputable public discourse. Fox news is the champion of presenting “the earth is flat” type of programming where the hosts of the news programs are quite hostile to any correction of the facts. And quite frankly it works. If you watch Foxnews enough and you hear the same rhetoric repeatedly, you too may believe that the earth is flat, that Iraq caused 911, that President Obama was not born in Hawaii and that the Republicans want what’s in the best interest of the middle class.
However, now it appears that the “Tin foil hat” crowd have some sort of Star Trek invisibility cloaking device disguising their tin foil hats. Now it is harder to detect the crazy conspiratorial accusations when you can’t see their hat so readily. Today we have disrespect and claims of conspiracy with absolute no proof or sound reasoning interjected into main stream discussions. Sadly, the public beleives that these must be true because after all it is on the evening news or printed in the paper!
So how does this relate to local issues? As you know we have a millage coming up for a vote on May 6, 2014. The ballot language says this:
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IMPROVEMENT MILLAGE
To improve public bus, van, and paratransit services—including expanded service hours, routes, destinations, and services for seniors and people who have disabilities—shall the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority levy a new annual tax of 0.7 mills ($0.70 per $1000 of taxable value) on all taxable property within the City of Ann Arbor, the City of Ypsilanti, and the Charter Township of Ypsilanti for the years 2014-2018 inclusive? The estimate of revenue if this millage is approved is $ 4,368,847.00 for 2014. This revenue will be disbursed to the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and, as required by law, a portion may be subject to capture by the downtown development authorities of the Cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and the local development finance authority of the Charter Township of Ypsilanti.
There is an opposition group that has formed against this millage. They call themselves “Better Transit Now” but are against this new millage proposal.
(For more insight in to what I think about this group, please read my post “The disingenuous irony of the ‘Better Transit Now’ group”.)
What irks me about this group is not their views on taxes…they don’t want to pay increased taxes for better services. They think that cutting costs alone can achieve better services for the transit system. I don’t even mind so much the nonsensical discussion by others related to how the transit system should be solely funded by transit users only (but I need to point out that this could only happen in a libertarian utopia of an Ayn Rand flat world).
What I do mind is the out and out accusations of “potential” illegal behavior that is legitimized by the press and other political groups. These types of accusations are not justified by any sort of idealized ‘fairness doctrine’. Airing these ridiculous statements is not fair or just in any way. Just because there is an opposition group for an issue, that does not mean every single assertion should get equal time out in the press. They should not be able to make anything up and get equal time.
Remember how I said back in the day it was honorable to win the discussion based on sound logic and facts? Now, many people don’t care about honor and only care about winning. There are people in our town who will stand up and cry conspiracy and accuse others of crimes without any proof. They do it just because they can. And what is worse is that some in the general public believe them because they do it in their own name. After all, if one uses their real name they must be telling the truth?!? (yeah, right) They are not embarrassed or ashamed. They know it works. The end justifies the means.
The leaders of the “Better Transit Now” group (Kathy Griswold, Lou Glorie, Luanne Bullington, Libby Hunter, and Ted Annis) Have repeatedly stated completely false information, speculated about potential wrongdoing, and have accused AAATA employees of stealing their signs.
In newspaper articles in the Ann Arbor News as well as at the League of Women Voters debate on the Transit issue, the opposition group speculates about the millage funds potentially being spent on trains instead of buses, they speculate about money being spent inappropriately and illegally and claim to be the victims of unfair campaign tactics.3,4,5
Although the millage request does not say anything about trains, the “Better Transit Now” group repeatedly try to confuse voters with claims of potential misuse of funds going to trains. Michael Ford, CEO of AAATA, has rebutted their claims and was quoted saying this:
“…the AAATA intentionally left train services out of the ballot language.
The ballot language specifically states the funds will be used “to improve public bus, van, and paratransit services — including expanded service hours, routes, destinations, and services for seniors and people who have disabilities.”
But this is not good enough for Kathy Griswold. Griswold says that “she worries that money might still be used to fund train service”.4 Really…worries? A thought that crossed her mind is good enough for the Ann Arbor News to repeatedly report the false claim that can’t happen. Well I worry that the Teapublicans are going to ruin the City of Ann Arbor and destroy its character and vibrancy, but you don’t see the Ann Arbor News printing or quoting any of my blog.
Lou Glorie said “there are no guarantees that the AAATA actually will fund the services outlined in the five-year plan if the millage is approved”.3 Really…she speculates that the AAATA will steal your money and use it inappropriately with no facts or data to back it up. This is legitimate opposition? Or is it “tin foil hat” conspiracy delusion.
The main problem is the speculation about things that maybe, kinda, could happen. I meteor could fall from the sky and wipe out Ann Arbor. The Republicans in congress could announce that they like Obamacare and praise its virtues. There could be world peace. All those things are possible, just not probable.
So you ask, what is the difference between what I am doing and what they are doing? I am editorializing an opinion based on what is out in the public record. I am not NEWS. I am opinion, a blog, a column of sorts. Read it or don’t. I am trying to get people to think about things in a different way instead of being taken in by lies that are often presented as facts. In a sense, I am trying to ‘decloak’ their ‘tin foil hats’ and show you the truth as I see it. But it is opinion.
We all have opinions. We all make opinions based on what we read and hear about an issue. Speculation is not opinion because it is not based on facts, but rather based on fears, and worries and craziness. This speculation should not be used as a basis for journalistic reporting facts and news. Speculating about maybe, kinda, could happen events for the future have no place in such discussions.
So why does the Ann Arbor News keep printing this false assertions? The journalists should not give credence to things that are speculation. We can’t keep the “tin foil hat” crowd, from spouting off any garbage they make up, but we don’t have to allow their lies and baseless accusations to cloud the discussion and interfere with democracy. The news coverage is legitimizing it, like it is going to happen…that it is likely to happen. Just because they are an opposition group does not mean every single one of their “tin foil hat” ideas needs to be announced and justified as probable.
A prime example of this, is the Ann Arbor News article that has Ted Annis whining about his campaign signs being stolen.5 Annis actually accuses AAATA employees of stealing his campaign signs and demands that Michael Ford, CEO of AAATA put out a directive for it to stop. Really? This is news? A baseless, childish accusation gets a full article? Obviously it was a made up accusation in order to get the opposition group’s name in the paper again for free publicity. If the article didn’t make the “Better Transit Now” group look so silly I would be more upset about it. But for once the “tin foil hat” Better Transit Now crowd actually appeared in the press how they really are….a little coo coo for cocoa puffs!
Ryan Stanton really disappointed me with legitimizing this crazy talk. Maybe he was trying to be fair and balanced , but allowing crazy talk is not fair or balanced in my mind. The public needs to know that the press is weeding out the craziness. In fact, I believe that most people typically believe that it is the press’s responsibility to do this. However, it is a different time and a different culture.
Take a look at all the coverage over Obamacare. The press repeatedly printed false facts about death panels and how Obamacare would destroy medicare. There were even stroies about chips being implanted underneath peoples’ skin for tracking purposes.These ideas were believed by the mainstream public because the press, fully knowing that these were out and out lies, does not see it as their job to correct misinformation. Even Chuck Todd, who I typically like, has said “It’s Not Media’s Job To Correct GOP’s Obamacare Falsehoods.” He says that the Republicans had better messaging. They only had better messaging because you, the press, gave them the vehicle to deliver the messaging. Sometimes the truth is not as sexy as the conspiratorial lies so they don’t play as well in a soundbite format. It is just not right to stand by and let this happen.
Even House Speaker John Boehner thinks it is not his job to correct people.
When the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asked Boehner whether he, as speaker of the House, had a responsibility to “stand up to that kind of ignorance,” (meaning the birther movement) Boehner told David Gregory: “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.”
Mr. Boehner you are not trying to tell the American people what to think, you would be showing leadership and standing up for the truth. You would be doing what your constituents elected you to do….to be honorable, truthful, wise and to do what is the best interest of the country.
So would a new type of “fairness doctrine” for TV and print journalism fix this problem of crazy talk in our political discussions? I don’t think so. It might make it worse. It would force all news venues to include every “tin foil hat” group to be included in discussions.
The only way it could work is if the press steps up and does their job. I like the idea of including both sides of an issue, but if one side has to constantly explain how the earth is round and can never get around to discussing the pertinent facts, then it is not beneficial. The press (TV and print journalism) need to step up and change their attitude about this. They are the ones who have the power to change this. They have the choice on what to report, whose quotes to use, and what issues are relevant. Crazy talk, misinformation, and lies are not ‘news’ and should not be treated as such.
A Brief History of the The Fairness Doctrine.” Time Magazine, February 20, 2009., “
²Pluto, “Just How Dumb Are Americans, Anyway? The Fairness Doctrine Revisited.” Firedoglake, February 17, 2010.
³Ryan Stanton, “Opposition group forms in response to AAATA proposal for expanded transit“. Ann Arbor News, February 22, 2014.
4Ryan Stanton, “AAATA CEO says opposition campaign is misleading public with myths“. Ann Arbor News, April 14, 2014.
5Ryan Stanton, “Transit millage opposition group leader accuses AAATA employees of stealing signs”. Ann Arbor News, April 15, 2014.