News media legally permitted to lie?
Most you know that I’m not in the US, but what goes on there has a habit of spilling over into the rest of the world. This is particularly true of politics, culture and media…
It appears that the US news media is legally permitted to lie to and has no legal onus to tell the truth to the public, according to that government’s law courts and communications regulatory authority, the FCC. For many people this has been an accepted, if unwritten and cynical, fact for decades, but I wonder how many know that it’s actual fact?
I realise this sounds straight out of one of the Internet’s countless conspiracy theory websites, but this is one of those situations where it’s completely accurate. It started with an article called Fox News gets okay to misinform public, court ruling on CeaseSPIN, a website that states its mission is to seek a return to “more objective, truthful, fair, balanced, relevant and representative news reporting.” (Though the cynic in me wonders if such an animal has ever existed).
The most notable portion of the article says:
On February 14 , a Florida Appeals court ruled there is absolutely nothing illegal about lying, concealing or distorting information by a major press organization… The ruling basically declares it is technically not against any law, rule, or regulation to deliberately lie or distort the news on a television broadcast.
People like Noam Chomsky have been saying this for years, in books such as his Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, but — if I’m brutally honest — although he’s clearly a brilliant and intelligent man, I’ve often wondered if maybe he was one step away from the puzzle house. However, that opinion was based on the assumption that there was a legal requirement for there to be at least an attempt to tell the truth in the news media. We can all think of examples where the news has got it so wrong as to be laughable, though we normally put such things down to over-eager reporters or not having all the facts. But what if that’s wrong?
Thinking that this article must be incorrect or sensationalised, I looked a little deeper into the facts behind the story. According to a number of online resources, it appears that two former employees of a Fox News-owned TV station in Florida, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, refused to knowingly include false information in a report about an artificial hormone developed by a multi-national biotech company and they were subsequently fired. Presumably believing that they were wrongfully dismissed and that the station had knowingly broken the law, the couple sued them under Florida’s whistle-blower’s law (among other things).
The pair won their case and, as often seems to be the case with big business, it went to appeal. Amazingly, and although the reasons for the original case seem not to have been contended, the appellant corporation successfully argued that while the FCC had a News Distortion policy, it was only a policy.
Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeals Case 2D01-529 (PDF) concludes with the following statement:
Because the FCC’s news distortion policy is not a “law, rule, or regulation” under section 448.102, Akre has failed to state a claim under the whistle-blower’s statute. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment in her favor and remand for entry of a judgment in favor of [the appellant].
The original ruling was overturned on the basis that the news media outlet had broken no laws, and it didn’t matter whether they were conveying facts or lying through their teeth. In short, this means that there is at least one piece of case law in the US that states that news media has no legal requirement to report anything resembling reality.
The FCC’s Consumer Facts: Complaints About Broadcast Journalism page states:
The FCC is caught in a tug-of-war between two consumer factions: on one side, consumers have urged the FCC to set guidelines to prevent bias or distortion by networks and station licensees or to supervise the gathering, editing, and airing of news and comments; on the other side, consumers fear possible government intimidation or censorship of broadcast news operations.
Is this a classic example of a policy intended to prevent something from occurring actually facilitating it? What if the network or station isn’t one of the good guys?
For anyone who’s watched news networks in the US, UK or Australia (and most likely other countries) — particularly those with 24×7 news coverage — will be familiar with the concept of biased, unfair and unbalanced reporting being a matter of course, particularly when they become politically-aligned. I’ve been cheekily referring to “the news” as “infotainment” for years, but cases such as this make me wonder if I’ve been right all along.
None of this is likely to be news to anyone possessing basic critical thinking skills, but to see it enshrined in law is hideous. I wonder how many other pieces of case law around the world contain such rulings?
If you have examples, please provide citations in the comments.