Can American Democracy Survive the "Fake News" Crisis
So, how should America deal with media that purports to be “news” but, in fact, is offering a healthy serving of spin, misdirection, and outright lies? if you have any additional ideas, what are they?
Can a nation survive as a democratic republic without an honest and trusted news ecosystem? Is it an actual fact that truthful and reliable news — combined with the kind of cultural trust people have in both government and each other as the result of a shared reality — are both historic and necessary preconditions for a democracy to work at all?
Thomas Jefferson once famously said that if he was given the ultimatum of choosing to live in a functioning nation without newspapers or a place with newspapers but no national government, he’d surely choose the latter.
It was a statement of his generation’s love of newspapers, literature, and free speech far more than the anti-government spin that rightwingers try for when quoting the author of the Declaration of Independence. No republic in the history of the world had ever survived without an informed, participating electorate, and this nation’s Founders knew it.
This truth was echoed two generations later when the young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, spent half a year traveling America and wrote one of the entire century’s best-selling books, Democracy in America, published in 1833.
Astonished, he repeatedly mentions in the book how blown away he is that the dirt-poorest farmer or remote-hollow hillbilly is as literate and enthusiastic about discussing current world events and politics as an upper-class resident of Paris.
Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that our vibrant, free, trusted press was the one thing that set America apart so democracy could work here; it was so critical, he believed, that he was openly skeptical there were enough literate people or a free enough press in France to be able to safely give up the monarchy and imitate America.
Now, it seems, consolidation and the pouring of billions of dollars by conservative billionaires into our media infrastructure has produced a crisis in America’s democracy.
It’s frightening people, and they’re looking for solutions.
The Pew Research Center published a surprising new study this week showing that fully 48 percent of Americans “say the government should take steps to restrict false information, even if it means losing some freedom to access and publish content…” This is up almost 10 percent from just four years ago.
Similarly, the percentage of Americans, Pew notes, “who say freedom of information should be protected — even if it means some misinformation is published online — has decreased from 58% to 50%.”
Depending on the outlet, news is often skewed (either by omission of stories or simply presenting partial information) even on so-called “mainstream media”; naked lies told by politicians are only rarely called out; and political advertising today is more often deceptive than straightforward.
And Americans know it, and are sick of it.
A Pew study from last November found that roughly two-thirds of Americans believe they’ve seen news media slant stories to favor or disadvantage one political party or point of view. Three-out-of-five people said this was causing a “great deal” of confusion about issues related, for example, to the last presidential election.
The problem is particularly bad on the conservative side of media, in part because there’s only a very limited progressive media ecosystem, and in part because (in my opinion) conservative positions are often so unpopular that lies are necessary to bring voters along.
Who in their right mind, after all, is enthusiastic about voting for politicians whose platform includes defunding the FBI, denying toxin-exposed veterans healthcare, forcing 10-year-olds to carry a rapists’ baby to term, keeping insulin prices almost 10 times higher than in most other nations, and ending Social Security and Medicare?
No wonder so many rightwing radio, podcast, and cable-TV personalities focus instead on trans girls in sports, refugees from Guatemala, and crimes committed by Black and Brown people.
I have colleagues and acquaintances in conservative media who, in moments of braggadocio or drunken candor, have told me straight-up that they know some of the stories they cover are either lies or spun in ways that distort their actual meaning. Their justification is Socrates’ “noble lie” doctrine: that a small lie serving a greater good is not really a sin.
One was both shocked and skeptical when I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, I’d never promulgated a lie on the air and, when I do occasionally get things wrong, I always try to correct them on-air as soon as possible.
The nonprofit group Media Matters for America has built a solid following and reputation by almost daily identifying naked lies and half-truths being promulgated on Fox “News” and other rightwing media. Fox hosts’ and guests’ most recent spin, for example, is that the FBI spent Tuesday of this week “planting evidence” at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Brian Maloney used to run a site called the “Radio Equalizer” designed to hold lefties to account when they lie on the air and used to occasionally skewer me. He hasn’t posted on his blog since 2012, however, and his YouTube channel seems moribund. His latest project, Media Equalizer, seems not so much to hold liberal media to account as to complain about liberal politicians and progressive policies.
Either leftie shows like mine and those on MSNBC are generally truthful, or we’re so small compared to the multi-billion-dollar conservative empires that populate the American media landscape that we’re not worth covering.
So, how should America deal with media that purports to be “news” but, in fact, is offering a grotesque serving of spin, misdirection, and outright lies in addition to the factual news that gains them credibility and underpins their coverage?
This is a really, genuinely tough one. Truth in media laws are a legal and political minefield, particularly when it comes to public policy.
For example, is Medicare Advantage a sneaky way to privatize and thus destroy real Medicare, or an innovation allowing competition in the senior healthcare market?
My opinion is solidly in the former camp, but there are some seniors who simply can’t afford the premiums for Medicare and a Medigap plan so, for them, the “free” Advantage programs are barely but definitely better than nothing at all. My opinion, in other words, isn’t necessarily a fact and there are arguable shades of gray around conclusions that can be drawn from the facts themselves.
That said, there are objectively definable lies that are regularly told by so-called conservative media and propaganda outlets run by foreign governments. Not to mention the striking reality that 45 percent of Americans get much or most of their news from Facebook.
And this is serious stuff. Propaganda and “fake news” represent an existential threat to liberal democracies. When there’s no consensus about shared reality, governance — even highly compromised governance — becomes nearly impossible.
Today in America (and, increasingly, around the world) advocates of dictatorship and oligarchy are using this device to divide and tear apart liberal democracies, from the Americas to Europe to Australia.
Billionaire oligarch Rupert Murdoch began his rightwing propaganda operation in Australia, throwing that nation’s political system so deeply into crisis that former Prime Minister Keven Rudd was moved to write an op-ed for the nation’s largest independent newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, in which he chronicles how “Australian politics has become vicious, toxic and unstable.”
Rudd then asks, “The core question is why?” and answers his own question unambiguously:
“But on top of all the above, while manipulating each of them, has been Rupert Murdoch — the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy.
“Murdoch is not just a news organisation. Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.”
From Australia, Murdoch moved to the UK where he took over numerous newspapers and media outlets, cheerleading for grifter and Trump wannabee Boris Johnson and his Brexit. He then became an American citizen, which let his company legally own US television networks and stations and now lords over Fox “News,” arguably the second most toxic source of anti-American and white-supremacist propaganda.
In the social media arena, Facebook’s owner and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, oversees what is the largest purveyor of news in the world today, including here in the US.
Zuckerberg, the country’s richest millennial, had a secret dinner with Donald Trump during the Trump presidency, and held multiple meetings with rightwing politicians, reporters, op-ed writers and influencers, according to Politico. I can find no record of him having similar private dinners with either Obama or Biden, nor with any groups of progressive journalists, writers, or influencers.
Numerous sources identify Facebook as one of the major hubs of organizing for rightwing events including January 6th, the rise of Qanon, and the contemporary militia and white supremacist Nazi movements.
His company continues to keep a tightly held secret the algorithm which decides which pages and posts get pushed to readers and which don’t, thus secretly deciding what types of news and opinion are most heavily spread across America.
Arguably, their dominance of news dissemination makes Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg two of the most powerful men in America. Another morbidly rich billionaire, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, although apparently hasn’t personally influenced or interfered with that publication’s reporting. But the potential is certainly there: he who has the gold makes the rules, as the old saying goes.
To compound the confusion about who to trust in the news business, about two decades ago two reporters for a Fox station in Florida were explicitly told by station management to alter a story about Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone to make it friendlier to Monsanto. They complied multiple times until the alterations reached the point where they believed the story was filled with blatant lies and refused to air it.
The Fox station fired them and they sued for wrongful termination. Fox fought the case, arguing that, as their employer, it could tell them what to say and they had to do it to keep their jobs.
A jury awarded them about a half million dollars, but when Fox appealed the case it was reversed (and Fox then went after the reporters for attorneys’ fees, threatening to bankrupt them). The court explicitly ruled that news organizations can direct their on-air personalities to lie to viewers.
So, what do we do about this?
Al Franken had a novel idea a few years back, suggesting a way to deal with lying politicians like Trump:
“Anyone can call the FCC and lodge a complaint. The FCC then presents the complaint to an adjudicative body comprised of three judges appointed by Republicans and three judges appointed by Democrats. If a majority determines that the statement is untrue, the FCC can warn the president. And if he tweets or tells the same lie again on TV or radio or to a newspaper, he can be fined up to $10,000, or 15 percent of his net worth.”
The problem, of course, is the old James Madison quote about our not needing laws if men were angels, and its corollary, that those who administer and adjudicate our laws are as potentially corruptible as anybody else.
For example, what if President DeSantis were to hand-pick the six members? As we learned with the board that overseas the Postal Service, there are more than a few people with a D after their names who are just as corrupt as many Rs: would you trust the outcome?
The FCC already has a policy opposing fake or misleading news. As they note on their website:
“The FCC is prohibited by law from engaging in censorship or infringing on First Amendment rights of the press. It is, however, illegal for broadcasters to intentionally distort the news, and the FCC may act on complaints if there is documented evidence of such behavior from persons with direct personal knowledge.”
That said, the FCC doesn’t regulate the content of cable or internet-based programs; content-wise, their authority is pretty much limited to over-the-air broadcast media like radio and TV.
Libel lawsuits are another remedy for the victims of fake news, but they’re extraordinarily difficult to win in the US given our First Amendment protections and the doctrine that public figures generally can’t sue for libel at all.
Canada explicitly outlaws fake news, although that hasn’t stopped Fox “News” from popping up on outlets across that country. Their Broadcasting Act explicitly says:
“Prohibited Programming Content:
8 (1) No licensee shall distribute a programming service that the licensee originates and that contains
(a) anything that contravenes any law;
(b) any abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability;
(c) any obscene or profane language or pictorial representation; or
(d) any false or misleading news.”
It’s nonetheless difficult to enforce on cable or Internet outlets in Canada, and a similar approach here would run afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibitions on regulation of “freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Finland has taken an unique approach to the problem of fake news, particularly on social media, by incorporating news and media training into required elementary and secondary school classes. America could consider the same, although, like the snit we just saw about teaching American history or sex education, it would almost certainly provoke squeals of outrage from rightwingers.
But screw them. America is in a crisis right now caused, in large part, by dishonest actors across the rightwing spectrum of our media and social media.
Forty percent of Americans don’t believe the results of the 2020 election, and nearly half of Republicans think Democrats engage in ritual drinking of children’s blood and worse. There is no corollary or even similar misunderstanding of reality or bizarre set of beliefs among the left or those in the center.
For the moment, media literacy training in schools across America and requiring transparency from social media — both things Congress would have to undertake to succeed — seem like the best approaches we can take to both protect free speech and diminish the impact of lies and propaganda on American political and social life.
If the Biden administration were to enforce the nation’s antitrust laws and break up the media conglomerates, or Congress were to bring back the media ownership limits as they were before being gutted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, either or both would go a long way toward increasing the social and political diversity of voices across our media public squares.
These will all be hard, but they’re important if we value our democratic republic and want it to survive. And they’re just the start: if you have any additional ideas, I’d love to hear them.