The Fairness Doctrine Alternative
CeaseSPIN advocates using Consumer Protection labeling to guide public awareness of journalism product quality. The Fox "News Distortion" case creates wide ranging news product quality that underscores the importance of News Quality labeling. News Quality product labeling that describes journalism ethics quality and compliance can help consumers understand how the news media produced the content. Fore example, did they follow spj.org ethical journalism practices or just create a news story that follows a preconceived narrative? Each newsmaker can use a third party News Quality Rating system to self assess their quality ranking and make this information available at the time the news is presented.
A News Quality Rating System and Content Labeling approach, follows a tradition of consumer protection product labeling, that is very familiar to Americans. The News Quality Ratings Systems will be designed to be a newsmaker self assessed system, non-government managed, constitutional and anti-censorship.
Free Speech & Free Press
Sure, we get it.
The constitution guarantees a free press and free speech. Excellent, we like it. We’re American and we love our Constitutional freedoms. Today we have profit driven Corporate News media that no longer serves the public interest. They've been captured and run over by Capitalism and they operate as an unregulated industry that will report anything, including pure fiction for profit. They now serve their shareholders and fat cat salaries. The founding fathers of this great nation didn't provide for the press to have Constitutional freedoms written into law for this reason. Those freedoms were provided so that the press could keep a watchful eye over the government and other influential powers that might harm democracy. What happens when the press turns into the influential power that might harm democracy? Okay, the genie is out of the bottle. Large media conglomerates are increasingly hiding behind their constitutional freedoms for their own profit and not to represent the watchful eye of the people.
The public airwaves, of broadcast radio and television utility, are a public asset. They belong to the American citizens. These public assets are licensed to large media conglomerates who in turn are able to make a profit for their shareholders.
Quid pro Quo
In exchange for the free use of the public airwaves, the licensees are required to follow rules and also service a public interest obligation. It is the latter that we fail to consistently acknowledge, to the detriment of fair compensation. In consideration for the use of these public assets, they must serve the public interest. This is non-negotiable. The public rightfully has the expectation that it will be compensated for the use of its property.
So let’s tie a few things together here. On one side of the equation we have a business enterprise that chooses to use the publics broadcast spectrum to distribute entertainment and news programming for profit. They are entitled not only to free speech, but also, in the case of news programming, the rights afforded to a free press. However, on the other side of the equation are the US citizens who would like fair compensation for use of their public asset. The airwaves belong to the citizens and responsible use of the airwaves is the non-negotiablel deal! The assessment so far by many watchdog groups and citizens, is that the media conglomerates are not holding up their end of the bargain.
In exchange for using what the Supreme Court defined as a limited resource; the airwaves that belong to US citizens, the licensees will have to provide a “public interest” service. And today we don’t see an equitable level of public interest service applied to news reporting. Instead we see increasingly news programs that distort facts.
Without going super historical, the two most important Federal Communication Commission (FCC) promulgated rules protecting the public interest, the “Mayflower” and “Fairness” Doctrines, have died under relentless legal bombardment, leaving a huge deregulation crater. This has watered down the “public interest” obligation of the media owners, so there is an imbalance in the equation. Bottom line, though, is that the public is not getting adequate value for use of its assets. This obviously translates into unfair profit gains for the media conglomerates at the public’s expense.
We’d like the public to be fairly compensated as was originally intended. We want the news media to return to serving the public by adhering to the spirit of the Mayflower and Fairness Doctrines.
So, how do we get there from here?
The Carrot vs the Stick
As the public records indicate, the media and others struck down the Mayflower and Fairness Doctrines, in the 1980s. They viewed the regulations as obstructive or generally unpleasant for their business. So let’s call those rules "the stick".
Lawmakers are continually talking about bringing back, at least, the “Fairness Doctrine” (the stick). It’s been attempted unsuccessfully several times since it its fall back in ’85 or ’87 if you count the Appeals court decision.
However, we believe that if reinstated, even with the force of congress this time, the new “Fairness Doctrine”, apart from the fact that it will be contested on and on into eternity, provides a wedge that divides our country along ideological lines. Talk radio is currently abuzz with the fear and loathing of the Fairness Doctrine returning. The pendulum of righteousness will swing back and forth forevermore.
The position we take on the “Fairness Doctrine” is that some regulation to restore and enforce the public interest obligation is better than none. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. In other words, just because the Fairness Doctrine isn't perfect, doesn't mean that it should be removed entirely, with nothing else put in its place. We would like to see legislation that secures the public interest service obligation. It is interesting at this time, that the media conglomerates are not even offering alternatives to meeting their public interest obligations. They're emboldened by a passive public and a complicit FCC.
The "passive public" comment deserves a little explanation. There are hundreds of thousands of citizens who are involved in media reform on behalf of the public at large. They do great work and often succeed on several issues. What we don't have is a fervent public outcry, a real "off with their heads" kind of outrage, over large corporations taking advantage of a largely distracted public. We are busy with our daily lives, the financial crisis and so many other important issues of the moment. In the mean time, the media have been and continue "stealing" the use of our property. They would like to instill in the public, the notion that they are entitled to it. They've largely succeeded. A large number of citizens are unaware the the public owns the airwaves and corporations license their use from us.
So, it has become abundantly clear, through their actions, that they intend to get away with everything that they can, everything that we allow them to get away with. They have become so powerful and influential that the only force on earth large enough to change their ways, is you: the collective American You. If we don't pull together, we will be pulled apart.
The CeaseSPIN “News Quality Rating System” proposal provides a carrot approach. A “News Quality Rating System” is more carrot than stick because the rules don’t “chill speech”, invite the condition known as "prior restraint", nor invite Constitutional challenge. The rules affect the structure of news reporting and not the content. The rules are also developed with the participation of the news media, government and the public. This follows the model of the Motion Picture Association of America's, the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) and other consumer oriented advisory labeling programs. By and large the standards of ethical journalism, currently reside in the halls of academia and in, so called "Ivory Towers" familiar to scholars and media professionals as guidelines. It seems that no sooner than our newly accredited professional journalist are graduated from the august institutions to embark on their noble careers, large conglomerates strip away these ethics with the promise of a lucrative future. The profession is relying on the honor system, personal integrity, nobleness, compassion, public service and things like patriotism to carry these ethics into the market place. What we're witnessing is horrible, however, in that money and greed appear to trump these virtues.
CeaseSPIN advocates the introduction of ethics labeling and standards for the market place to be used as a tool for consumers to determine journalism quality. It's clear that these standards will need to be adjusted for practical application in the fast moving world of news production. But, the process of crafting a practical standard should begin immediately. The situation couldn't be more dire and it seems to worsen by the day. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ.org) is quick to point out that the journalism ethics code, "... is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable" and we couldn't agree more. But what we are developing is non-government consumer advisory labeling that tells us when and to what degree newsmakers are adhering to these professional ethical guidelines for each news story. We don't advocate rules that force the news media to follow the guidelines, that's unconstitutional, just tell us when and how much they do and don't. We've already been successfully down this road with ratings for music, TV shows and movies; forms of speech that are also constitutionally protected. So we already have legal precedent and know that consumer protection labeling can be implemented as constitutionally compliant.
A 'News Quality Rating System" is inherently a market based reward system for newsmakers that produce news content that meets the highest code of ethical journalism. The rating system also provides a means for the newsmakers to service their public interest obligation. It basically encourages newsmakers to disclose to the public, through their editorial process ( self assessment , whether they followed well established professional journalism practices. If they follow good ethical journalism practices in producing a news story, that news story should carry an on screen label or seal that tells the viewer to what degree it excels. If they want to produce biased, untruthful, misleading and unfair news stories that don't apply good ethical journalism practices, the news story should carry a label during its broadcast that indicates a lower level of journalism ethical compliance.
The labels communicate: Excellent, good, fair or poor or an easy to understand numerical rating (5=excellent - 0=poor). In this way newsmakers can make use of a quality target that the industry has agreed to and the consumer understands. A "News Quality Rating System" will not result in free speech and free press court battles year after year. Instead, a process for adjusting the gradients or parameters for categorization will be in place. Imagine a solution that doesn’t provide a wedge that divides our country. Finally, imagine a solution that not only benefits the field of journalism but also nourishes our democratic dialogue.
A News Quality Rating System benefits consumers and provides a constructive pathway for news media to serve the public interest.
The Public Interest Obligation
Many are unaware that broadcast media are required to service a "public interest" obligation for free use of the public airwaves. One way that they can service this obligation is to rate their news products based on established journalism ethics standards. Once the self assessment and ratings have been assigned by the newsmaker, not some external authority, they can share this information with the public by publishing the rating information during the news segment broadcast. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ - spj.org) is quick to point out that the journalism ethics code, "... is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable" and we couldn't agree more. But what we'd like to see is consumer advisory labeling that tells us the degree to which they are adhering to the SPJ professional ethical guidelines, for each news story. We don't advocate rules that force news media to follow the guidelines, that's unconstitutional. Look, we've already been successfully down this road with ratings for music, TV ratings and movies; forms of speech that are also constitutionally protected. It works.
A great public benefit can be derived from turning journalism's professional ethics code into a consumer news quality content labeling program that newsmakers can use to self assess their news programming.
The CeaseSPIN “News Quality Rating System” proposal is viewed by many as an alternative to the Fairness Doctrine.
State of the Media 2008 - Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
Juxtaposition of Media Bias Miscellany
How the Liberal Media Myth is created
A Measure of Media Bias (research shows) Drudge/Fox centrist NYT far liberal