Opinion

Opinion | Steve Almond

Want to stop fake news? Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo, Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on April 10.

Senators spent last week excoriating Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for allowing his ubiquitous platform to spread disinformation during the 2016 election. Politicians and pundits correctly identified Facebook as a giant media outlet, and insisted the company should crack down on propaganda, especially the stuff generated by Russian trolls.

Given this consensus, let me offer a pretty obvious suggestion: Congress should regulate traditional media in the same way.

If lawmakers want Zuckerberg to curb the spread of lurid conspiracy theories and partisan hype, they should apply the same standard to talk radio hosts and TV anchors and websites that traffic in such garbage.

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Lawmakers could take a huge step toward doing so by reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, a federal regulation that prevailed for most of the 20th century.

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The Fairness Doctrine arose from a unique democratic crisis: the sudden appearance of mass media in the form of radio. The framers of the Constitution simply never envisioned that a free press would someday include a technology that could reach an audience of millions instantly.

“American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations, for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a republic,” Luther Johnson, a Texas legislator, argued in 1926. “And when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one person, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership or dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

Such concerns led Congress to pass a series of measures that culminated in the Fairness Doctrine of 1949, which called for fact-based programming that took on controversial topics and afforded “reasonable opportunity for opposing viewpoints.” The basic idea was pretty intuitive: the public airwaves should be used to serve the public good.

Opponents immediately painted the Fairness Doctrine as an assault on the First Amendment for allowing the government to exert editorial control. In practice, the Doctrine never required that programs be ideologically balanced, or offer equal time for opposing views. It simply forbid stations from airing a single perspective exclusively. Whether the subject was a national policy debate or a local referendum question, broadcasters had a duty to present viewpoints with which their listeners disagreed. This is why, over the years, groups as diverse as the ACLU and the National Rifle Association endorsed the Fairness Doctrine.

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To put this in modern terms, it sought to ensure that TV and radio stations didn’t become for-profit echo chambers.

When the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, under Ronald Reagan, the result was the meteoric rise of highly partisan radio shows (most of them conservative) along with Fox News.

But the Fairness Doctrine was never partisan. It sought to punish any and all broadcasters who spewed partisan propaganda.

Reinstating some form of the Fairness Doctrine today would create a media environment where broadcasters — of any ideological bent — are punished for spreading disinformation and baseless conspiracy theories.

This goal feels more urgent today than ever before in our national history, given the raft of politicians and pundits who have sought to malign our free press, and to diminish its worth as a pillar of democracy.

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One of our president’s favorite ploys at rallies, in fact, is to publicly mock the assembled journalists for the pleasure of his slavish followers.

But if we take the president at his word, he would appear to be the nation’s leading advocate for the Fairness Doctrine, which would help put an end to fake news once and for all, and restore public faith in our Fourth Estate.

Steve Almond is the author of the new book “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country.”