The definition of propaganda is “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” Propaganda is not news. It is spin. Propaganda is what viewers of cable’s Fox News ordinarily receive. Fox News is a propaganda outlet for the simple reason that it is very selective in what issues it covers and how it chooses to cover those issues almost entirely focused doing so in a manner that places its own political cause or point of view in a positive light without any regard to the other side’s argument or position.
To say that Fox News is the personal political media outlet of one Donald J. Trump is an understatement. Michelle Obama going sleeveless: inappropriate. Melania going clothes-less: no big deal. President Obama playing golf: why isn’t he doing his job? Trump weekly golf outings: he needs his time off.
All this said, the fact of the matter is people in this country have the right to listen to Fox News as much as they want. Their choice. When they tune into Sean Hannity they have every right to buy his hypocrisy and inconsistency and absurd spin to whatever extent they choose. This is the relatively new world of cable news. However, this is NOT supposed to be the way it is with regard to local network news over the airwaves.
The Sinclair Broadcast Group is the country’s largest operator of local television stations. They are currently in negotiations for purchasing the Tribune Media for some $4 billion. Sinclair and its affiliates have a rather long history of airing extremely conservative reporting and commentary. In addition Sinclair executives are major donors to Republican causes and Republican candidates, including one Donald J. Trump who was covered quite favorably during his presidential campaign. Sinclair has since hired one of Trump’s former campaign surrogates as an analyst. Who is that Trump surrogate? None other than Boris Epshteyn.
Boris, Boris. I was wondering what happened to you. I remember quite vividly coming out of a White House press briefing early in the administration (I say early because these last six months have seemed like an eternity) and noticing Boris standing on the steps of the White House gazing into the horizon. My thought was this guy at the same White House that housed FDR, Ike, Abe, Teddy, JFK and so on. I knew at that point in time exactly how Mr. Drysdale felt when Jed Clampett and his clan moved to Beverly Hills.
Boris’ political pro-Trump commentary is now required by Sinclair to be included in the local newscasts by the Sinclair affiliates spread all across the nation. The other day Boris was espousing support for Trump’s trumped-up voter fraud commission. My problem with this has less to do with my opposition to the particular political position and more to do, a great deal more to do, with the absence of what has commonly come to be called “equal time”.
When an individual chooses to tune into Fox News or CNN or MSNBC on cable, that individual is making a choice as to the particular type of political coverage he or she chooses to receive. Let’s call it “brainwashing by choice”. When an individual chooses to tune into local news, that individual is ordinarily interested in hearing about what is going on in his or her particular area whether it be school closings, traffic congestion, local murders, weather, new construction and the like. That individual is not necessarily looking to be politically brainwashed but the potential for that is a real possibility.
The “equal time” provision of the FCC’s Communications Act requires radio and television stations and cable systems which originate their own programming to treat legally qualified political candidates equally when it comes to selling or giving away air time. This provision is why, when a president gives an address to the public, the other political party is provided an opportunity to respond. Who can ever forget Marco Rubio’s bottled water fiasco during his Republican response to one of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses?
The equal time rule was created because the FCC thought the stations could easily manipulate the outcome of elections by presenting just one point of view by excluding other candidates. The question we now face is the distinction between a candidate and that candidate’s surrogate such as Boris. Clearly, the spin generated by surrogates can have just as much influence on the thinking of the American electorate as the candidate him or herself.
That brings us to the Fairness Doctrine. Formally adopted as an FCC rule in 1949, the doctrine can be traced back to the early days of broadcast regulation. In 1959 Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to enshrine the Fairness Doctrine into law. Chapter 315(a) of the Act reads: “A broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance.” Since the rule specifically deals with licensees, it clearly would have applied to local stations if it weren’t for the fact that the rule was repealed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan’s pro-broadcaster FCC.
What has not changed since 1987, however, is that over-the-airwaves broadcasting (not to be confused with cable) remains the most powerful force affecting public opinion especially on local issues. As public trustees, broadcasters have a responsibility to insure that they inform the public on all sides of an issue or candidate and not use their platform to just brainwash them.
Maybe now, more than ever, we need to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine and balance the political spin of the Boris Epshteyn’s of the world on either side of the political debate. As stated by the Supreme Court in its ruling in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC in 1969, “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the government itself or a private licensee. It is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, aesthetic, moral and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here. That right may not constitutionally be abridged either by Congress or by the FCC.
As the Supreme Court in this ruling served to uphold the doctrine’s constitutionality, the Fairness Doctrine continued to serve as the FCC’s guiding principle calling it “the single most important requirement of operation in the public interest” until such time that it was repealed. In the current political environment, reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine is likely more important now than ever before.