Restoring the Conversation
Something I’ve said countless times over the years … to kids, partner, colleagues, superiors, subordinates, friends … oft-repeated because I truly believe it: as long as people are communicating with one another, anything is possible. When they stop communicating (or communicate non-meaningfully), anything is impossible.
It’s really the case. Conflict is a bar to unity, which is the precondition for anything meaningful to happen. Conflict arises from either genuine disagreement on the merits or from misunderstanding. If conflict is from misunderstanding, authentic communication is the key to dissolving it, which will expose whether a disagreement on the merits exists. If there is a disagreement on the merits, authentic communication is the only means of determining where common ground exists … where compromise can be found. Sometimes there will be no compromise or common ground, and people of principle will agree to disagree, and yet commit to moving forward together with differences acknowledged against a backdrop of mutual respect.
I thought about this principle recently when someone asked me a great question: “if you could pass one law, what would it be?”
The answer fell out of my mouth faster than I could think about it critically. It was as if I’d been longing subconsciously for this question, and here it was.
My response was that I would bring back the Fairness Doctrine, or something like it. The words of my answer flowed like a river as I branched and meandered through an impassioned argument for restoring our national conversation by putting responsible guidelines on the use of public airwaves.
The Fairness Doctrine has an interesting past dating to 1927, when Congress passed a law dictating that federal regulatory bodies should only issue broadcasting licenses to providers serving the public interest. This was an acknowledgement that the federal government, on behalf of the people, owned public airwaves and had a right and responsibility to calibrate what was delivered on them.
In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) interpreted the law to say that licensees must use the communications spectrum to cover matters of public interest, and that they should do so in a fair manner. Basically, holding a broadcasting license meant helping educate the public on important issues, to include giving a fair hearing to both sides of any controversy. FCC’s announcement of this interpretation might have been a nervous response to the rise of Communist propaganda, a grab for power by a strengthening federal government, or a genuine attempt to safeguard public discourse. In any case, enforcement actions were taken on its basis, triggering legal challenges.
The Doctrine managed to withstand such challenges for the next two decades before being tested on free speech grounds at the US Supreme Court in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC. In this case, the Court held that while broadcasters have First Amendment rights in their broadcasts, the government owns the airwaves (merely leasing them to licensees) and therefore has regulatory authority.
However, tracking in parallel with First Amendment jurisprudence more generally, the Fairness Doctrine became increasingly vulnerable to free speech challenge after Red Lion and, by the middle of the 1980s, was widely considered anachronistic by legal scholars. The Reagan Administration took up the issue formally after Congress passed a law directing a reassessment of the Doctrine, ultimately repealing the Doctrine in 1987.
A straight line can be drawn from this deregulatory decision and the explosion of partisan talk radio, particularly right-wing radio, in the early 1990s. Broadcasters were no longer required to present both sides of an issue, and therefore had no implied duty to disclaim their own biases. No one need be invited on air to challenge evidence or push context into a discussion.
What had been “news” or something like it, with both sides of an issue given coverage, devolved into pure opinion. Over time, this opinion became more partisan, more disingenuous, more manipulative. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine ushered in an era of disinformation passing itself off as refined knowledge and seeming to emanate from authoritative sources. People who sounded educated and had big microphones reaching millions of listeners.
Fast-forward to 2019 and cast a glance backward at what has become of our national conversation. The deterioration of our capacity for common ground tracks in perfect parallel with the rise in popularity of professional malcontents such as Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, Levin, and Savage (or pick your favorite left-wing analogues, be they far less popular).
These are some of the most immensely popular media personalities in the country. They present partisan argument masquerading as news, and the absence of a countervailing argument means there is no meaningful check against the confirmation of bias among their millions of listeners. Say seductively spiteful things to pissed off people and they become righteously indignant … often completely oblivious to the fact that thing they’re pissed off about is factually unsupported, unfairly exaggerated or distorted, or a purely manufactured nontroversy purpose-built to rile them up … so they vote accordingly, but more importantly so they continue tuning in and feeding ad revenues.
The popularity of non-news means real news struggles to survive. This means the de facto absence of a sane public discussion, which means the airwaves (and now cyberspace) are polluted waters where we continue to swim and drink. The communications culture is all wrong. The provision of information labelled as news but really just bias-confirming partisan claptrap leads to entrenched views on both sides of the ideological aisle, and since extremists’ ideas are more jarring and attractive than those of the boring but responsible middle, we see extreme views dominating communications.
Under these conditions, a meeting of the minds is all but impossible. People believe they are disagreeing on the merits, but they’re not. They don’t even understand one another enough to know if they genuinely disagree, because what they’ve been presented as fact is just someone’s opinion, distortion, or ruse. This body of falsities becomes the subject of debate, rather than the merits or principles underneath.
But here’s the scary part. People believe what they hear in mass media because to do so is reasonable. The information comes from the public airwaves, from people who seem to know what they’re talking about, from supposedly regulated communication that is supposedly subject to some sort of government control. If you can’t believe the news, what is your source of authoritative information with which to make decisions in a pluralistic government?
We have created an environment where people believe lies because it’s more reasonable than disbelieving them under the circumstances, meaning we have manufactured a culture of disinformation and allowed airwaves owned by the public to be used to actively mislead them. Where there is no news … only veiled opinion presented in one-sided fashion in an information marketplace designed not to inform or educate, but to generate profit by instigating unrest. Not without irony, many Americans are profiting financially by investing in media corporations that are making them too miserable to enjoy their money.
You really notice this when you live and travel abroad. Our sister societies have retained Fairness Doctrine equivalents in their media governance, often with much tighter constraints than have ever existed in our system. Turn on a talk radio or television program in the UK, and you’ll sometimes get strong opinion … clearly disclaimed as such … from both/all sides of an issue. You’ll also get a load of fact, because British broadcasters aren’t permitted to pass along information packaged as fact unless it is, well, factual. In France and Germany, where mass media outlets have been historically co-opted by virulent extremists with catastrophic results, the bridles are laced even tighter.
This is not to devolve into an Alex Jones style infowar about whether one system is “better” than the other. And certainly not to go back and re-litigate how we got here … for as much as it was a Republican objective to deregulate telecommunications content, the Obama Administration put the final nail in the coffin of the Fairness Doctrine in 2011 by removing the FCC’s original rule interpretation. It’s only to say that objectively speaking, our public discussion is getting worse not better, and there is currently no mechanism to get it back on track.
After the Arizona shootings in 2011, a few prominent politicians called for a renewal of the Fairness Doctrine in response to peculiarly caustic and grotesque remarks by prominent radio personalities. Remarks which were insensitive to victims and coarse enough to sicken anyone with a basic sense of decency and respect for the dead. The backlash from mere mention of giving equal time to political opinion on public airwaves led to widespread adoptive victimization among media snowflakes, signaling sensitivity. But then the donors called in their chips and anyone facing re-election or in thrall to persons of power swiftly backpedaled and disowned any notion of regulating media content. One again, money shut down not just genuine information, but the search for it through debate.
And this is why my answer to the original question was ill-considered. There is no point introducing legislation on any particular issue, to include media regulation, until we first have removed money from the political process.
If I could pass one law, it would limit campaign contributions, outlaw professional lobbying, and remove any and all tax sheltering advantages from partisan think tanks. Partisans of all stripe should always be entitled to free speech as individuals and even as groups. But they should not be permitted to use money to buy political outcomes or to crowd out the voices of ordinary voters so that extremist ideas gain unfair traction.
But good luck getting an objective discussion on this subject in any public forum. The fact you can’t even discuss it without the prompt appearance of disinformation and faux hand-wringing about tyrannical limits on speech shows just how much the weeds have crowded out the grass in our public conversation.
We need it back so we can find ways to agree, and to disagree more constructively. Right now we’re just trading noise.
We’re not communicating. So anything is impossible.
Tony Carr is an American writer, manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and Air Force squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony is the founder of The Colosseum Blog and writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.