Monitoring the Media for the Public Good?


A group named Reporters Without Borders recently ranked the United States all the way down at 46th out of 180 countries in a ranking of press freedom. Doesn’t this seem a little odd to you? Wasn’t there something in the Constitution about freedom of the press? No wait, that was in the Bill of Rights! In fact, the first amendment goes something like this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If you just stop to think about it, there is a lot in those 44 words. I want to focus here on an even smaller portion of those 44 words related to “freedom of speech, or of the press”. It should be noted that the “press” referenced here no longer represents just newspapers or books, but has come to encompass many other types of media including more recently the Internet and blogs. But what does freedom of the press really mean? Does it mean you can say anything you want? Does it limit the opinions you can print or just guarantee the right to publish totally unbiased facts of the daily news?

A little over a third of a century ago in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miami Herald Publishing Co v. Tornillo that the government may not force newspapers to publish that which they do not desire to publish. While it does not specifically state anything about preventing them from publishing anything that they want to (coming from the opposite direction), it might seem like a logical extension to most.

On the other hand, the government already regulates some of the content of the media through the FCC, specifically in relation to radio and television broadcasting to restrict what it deems to be “indecent” material. What is “indecent” I guess they want us to believe that they will know it when they see it. But again, some may say that the definition of “indecent” has certainly changed over the last century with content being aired today that would never have been allowed just a few decades ago.

On a more personal level, the Ninth Circuit Court has recently ruled (2014) that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to protections under the First Amendment. So where is this going and why should it be the topic of this week’s rant?

Last year the FCC quietly announced that it will be monitoring newsrooms under the guise of determining how stories are selected, how stations set priorities, and the percent of news dedicated to different topics. Now I don’t know about you, but my management training says that you cannot control something unless you can measure it. So does the ability to measure something mean that you have the intent to control it? Now to be clear, nothing was said about the FCC ‘adjusting’ the content on the media they control or what those adjustments might be. Maybe they just want to measure things for the sake of measurement. After all, everyone knows that some media outlets tend to be more right wing while others tend to more left wing in the news they present and often the way that news is presented. The fact that we can identify them by their extremes merely says to me that the system is working. It allows for multiple points of view and lets the listener make up their own mind which to believe or even how much of each point of view they want to believe. Isn’t that what we want?

If instead, we let the FCC or other government agency begin to control the media so as to force a ‘more balanced approach’, would we lose the ability to explore all points of view? Who will define this balanced approach? And even if it does start out being totally 100% balanced, can we guarantee that it will stay that way over time? If all the news you hear begins to slant to one side or the other, would our media, through government control and oversight, be guilty of guiding the thoughts of its citizens to a singular point of view? No wait! Isn’t that what we accused the press of the Soviet Union during the cold war (and maybe even a little bit today) of doing to their own people? If a person does not know what else is going on outside of the media news they are given, how would they develop a basis to decide whether their situation was good or bad? If media control was bad during the communist era why would we think that media control in any country today would be any different?

Does allowing even a little control open the door to additional controls being added later? Consider that a war on a political system does not necessarily require a shooting war if one can win over the minds of people a little at a time by shifting what they think or how they think. In fact, the changes can be so slow and subtle over time that most people are not even aware of them until it is too late. In the meantime, the changes disguise their real intent behind such grad sounding themes like ‘This new recommendation to the media will protect you and your children from hearing any news that may be offensive or might upset them.’ After all, who is going to argue against providing greater safety and protections to our children. Well, it is something to think about.

C’ya next time, …. Maybe.

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