Amy Roberts: In all fairness
I’m pretty sure even the most hardcore fans of 2020 didn’t appreciate last week’s bonus content. Like most Americans, I watched the news on TV as I simultaneously hit the “refresh” button on my laptop and scanned social media sites on my phone. The only time I could remember feeling anything similar was during the 9/11 attacks. Though the feeling I registered in my gut last Wednesday was different, something I couldn’t quite place. Later I realized it wasn’t quite the same because this time, it was an inside job.
In the aftermath of it all there have been calls for unity and questions about how, exactly, that might be achieved. Big Tech took a big step by banning Trump and a few of his disciples from their platforms. But it’s doubtful this muzzle will do much to bridge the divide. Almost immediately after the ban, right-wing media and lawmakers screamed “censorship” and declared that there was a war on the First Amendment. You’d think such self-proclaimed lovers of the Constitution would know freedom of speech is only guaranteed as it applies to the government, not private industry. Conservatives made sure of that when they took the case of the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple to the Supreme Court. In the end, the high court ruled a private business can decline service on the grounds of free speech and free exercise. I guess you can’t bake your cake and eat it too.
Despite this, there are people actually upset social media channels are banning white supremacists and domestic terrorists from their platforms. Even though all users agree to terms and conditions specifically stating they will not “threaten violence against an individual or a group of people,” or “threaten or promote terrorism or violent extremism,” or “engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so,” or use the platform “for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.”
Unity and healing aren’t going to be easy. Most of us aren’t able to envision having a kumbaya moment with guys who proudly wear 6MWE (six million wasn’t enough) and Camp Auschwitz t-shirts. Yes, there are extremists on both sides, people who don’t give either party a good name. But only one side has Nazis.
The proliferation of these extremist views is debatable. It could be the internet and social media, it could be Trump, it could be a lack of mental health care, or the collapse of standards in American education, particularly in reading comprehension and critical thinking. It could also very well be the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, a Federal Communications Commission policy that required American television and radio broadcasters to present all sides of any political or social issue until the rule was eliminated in 1987 under President Reagan.
The Fairness Doctrine required the holders of a public broadcast license to present the news in a way that was honest, equitable and balanced. Broadcasters were obliged to air contrasting views regarding controversial issues of public interest and give individuals who were the subject of personal attacks an opportunity to respond. The main agenda for the doctrine was to ensure that viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. It came with the added benefit of empathy and compromise, because understanding someone’s perspective is generally considered a path to cooperation.
Too much has changed in the media landscape over the last three decades to simply bring back the Fairness Doctrine. And there are reasonable arguments on both sides regarding its effectiveness. But it’s impossible to ignore the correlation between the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of one-sided propaganda disguised as news and the extreme polarization that now exists.
Perhaps, the Fairness Doctrine could be updated so instead of receiving a broadcast license, outlets would have to apply for a news license. In order to receive it and call yourself a news organization, you’d have to agree to implement certain standards for fairness and accuracy. Those that don’t agree could only use the label “entertainment.”
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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