Saturday, August 04, 2012

Media as Misinformation

August 4, 2012, 3:55 p.m.
From Ronald Reagan to Rush Limbaugh

The preceding blog entry addressed the impact on a functioning democracy of "what we know that ain't so." "Snopes and 'What We Know That Ain't So," August 2, 2012.

Today's deals with the role of the media in perpetuating misinformation.


Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan was a Hawkeye.

After graduating from the small, Illinois, Eureka College in 1932, Reagan was a UI employee, hired to broadcast home football games at $10 a game.

Having launched his broadcast career in Iowa City, he went from there to Davenport (WOC-AM) and Des Moines (WHO-AM) -- for which he announced Chicago Cubs games, creating fictional accounts of the action on the basis of spare details of the game delivered by telegraph.

He served as California's governor during the late '60s and early '70s [January 2, 1967 – January 6, 1975], following which he returned to, among other things, radio commentary.

Between 1975 and 1979 Reagan wrote (most) and delivered (all) of some 1,000 commentaries dealing with a range of public policy issues. (Sources for preceding paragraphs: "Ronald Reagan,", and Reagan in His Own Voice.)

These were years during which I was traveling the country doing, among other things, an active public lecture business. Listening to local radio as I traveled, Reagan's presence on stations all across the country seemed a matter of some potential political significance.

As it happened, however, none of the stations in the Washington, D.C., area (so far as I was then aware) carried his commentaries. So my warnings to fellow Democrats that this was serious, and cause for a major application of the Fairness Doctrine's opportunity to respond to his comments, fell on deaf ears. Nothing was done. The daily drumbeat of the world according to Reagan was implanted in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, left unaware of alternative perspectives. By November of 1980 he was President of the United States.

Media Matters

After yesterday's blog entry ("Snopes and 'What We Know That Ain't So," August 2, 2012), I found a comment placed there by Trish Nelson. Trish is bright, media attentive, informed, as energized as any media reformer I know, and effective. She is, among a great many other things, the Editor of "Blog for Iowa: The Online Information Resource for Iowa's Progressive Community".

Here is her comment:

Thanks for reminding us about this terrible problem and the negative effects on Democracy. Let's not forget about conservative talk radio. Iowa has 14 stations in every corner of the state that broadcast multiple hours daily of conservative talk. One Iowa station, KILR, broadcasts conservative talk 23 1/2 hours a day leaving a half hour for local news and sports. WHO Radio broadcasts 12 hours a day of conservative talk. Stations in Burlington, Sioux City and other communities broadcast 14-16 hours a day of the same stuff that goes around on the internet. Our publicly owned broadcast airwaves are saturated in Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage's opinions. It's no wonder people believe this stuff.

For sources, more detail and discussion, see Trish Nelson, "Iowa’s Talk Radio Landscape," Blog for Iowa, January 13, 2011.

FCC: From Regulation, to Fairness Doctrine, to Non-Regulation

Although clearly no longer the law, it is interesting to note that stations carrying many of those radio hosts Ms. Nelson mentions could have lost their licenses as the law stood in 1932. Trinity Methodist Church, South v. Federal Radio Com'n, 62 F.2d 850 (D.C. Cir. 1932): "Congress, may . . . refuse a renewal of license to one who has abused it to broadcast defamatory and untrue matter," the court then wrote, upholding the then-Federal Radio Commission's denial a license renewal for Los Angeles station KGEF-AM. 62 F.2nd at 851.

It continued,

[H]e [Dr. Shuler] charged particular judges with sundry immoral acts. He made defamatory statements against the board of health. He charged that the labor temple in Los Angeles was a boot-legging and gambling joint. In none of these matters, when called on to explain or justify his statements, was he able to do more than declare that the statements expressed his own sentiments. On one occasion he announced over the radio that he had certain damaging information against a prominent unnamed man which, unless a contribution (presumably to the church) of a hundred dollars was forthcoming, he would disclose. As a result, he received contributions from several persons. He freely spoke of "pimps" and prostitutes. He alluded slightingly to the Jews as a race, and made frequent and bitter attacks on the Roman Catholic religion and its relations to government. . . .

If it be considered that one . . . may . . . use these [broadcasting] facilities . . . to obstruct the administration of justice, offend the religious susceptibilities of thousands, inspire political distrust and civic discord . . . then this great science, instead of a boon, will become a scourge, and the nation a theater for the display of individual passions and the collision of personal interests. . . . Appellant [Dr. Shuler] may continue to indulge his strictures upon the characters of men in public office. He may just as freely as ever criticize religious practices of which he does not approve. He may even indulge private malice or personal slander — subject, of course, to be required to answer for the abuse thereof — but he may not, as we think, demand, of right, the continued use of an instrumentality of commerce for such purposes, or any other, except in subordination to all reasonable rules and regulations Congress, acting through the Commission, may prescribe. 62 F.2d at 852-53.

The Fairness Doctrine

As I've noted, above, this is no longer the law. What was substituted for it is generally referred to as the "Fairness Doctrine." Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, 13 F.C.C. 1246 (1949). (And see the earlier, Great Lakes Broadcasting Company, 3 F.R.C. 32 (1929), rev'd on other grounds, 37 F.2d 993 (D.C. Cir. 1930), cert. denied, 281 U.S. 706 (1930), in which the Federal Radio Commission denied a request for license modification because of a station's consistently failing to present a range of points of view.)

The Fairness Doctrine was never significantly intrusive on broadcasters, and was only modestly effective. It required no more than what a professional journalist would be doing anyway, the 60,000 complaints the FCC received each year (when I was there) were "investigated" by a staff of three that traveled in pairs, were first given to the stations to respond to, usually dismissed, and seldom if ever resulted in anything more than a notation in a station's file.

It only required two things. Stations must report on local "controversial issues of public importance," and in doing so refrain from functioning as an unrelieved, one-sided instrument of propaganda. Both were "requirements" of little more than what any professionally responsible -- and profitable -- journalist, or media owner, would do anyway. It did not require any particular subject to be addressed. It did not specify the format to be used. It did not require a presentation of all points of view. It did not require "equal time." It did not require that any specific person be given time on the station.

In 1969 the constitutionally of the Fairness Doctrine was unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court in the Red Lion decision. Indeed, when confronted with a claimed right to buy time on broadcast stations, the Court rejected the claim (upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals below, and advocated in my FCC dissent) on grounds that while a diversity of views was desirable, it was the Fairness Doctrine, rather than direct purchase, that provided this diversity. CBS v. Democratic National Comm., 412 U.S. 94 (1973).

The Deregulation

Notwithstanding this policy, and the Court's interpretations, the F.C.C. chose to repeal the Fairness Doctrine -- without, of course, providing for a legal right to buy time for those whose views had been excluded. See, e.g., In the Matter of the Handling of Public Issues Under the Fairness Doctrine and the Public Interest Standards of the Communications Act, 48 F.C.C.2d 1 (F.C.C. 1974); Syracuse Peace Council, 2 F.C.C.R. 5043, 5058 n.2 (1987).

Thus, we have today no check from either Congress, or the Commission, on stations that wish to propagandize, engage in behavior like that of Dr. Shuler in the 1930s, or to provide unrelieved political, even partisan, commentary and criticism from one point of view.

Truth or Consequences

Those who support this state of affairs argue that, what with the Internet, Facebook, blogs and tweets, satellite and cable distribution of "television" programs, newspapers, magazines, and over-the-air stations, Americans have more than enough access to a "diversity" of viewpoints and information.

For news junkies who have that much access, and have reason to use it, the argument has some validity. But for many Americans -- without computers (or the skills to use them); reasonably priced broadband connections (if any); access to public television, NPR and the BBC; home delivery, or library availability, of the New York Times or other major newspapers; or who have a habit, or preference, to listen to only one local radio station -- their steady diet of brain food consists of the intellectual equivalent of salted french fries, loaded with the fat of partisan ideology. It's all they know. As Trish Nelson wrote in her comment, "It's no wonder people believe this stuff."

For a list of what "this stuff" consists of, see "Snopes and 'What We Know That Ain't So," August 2, 2012 -- and the expanded Snopes list, along with Snopes evaluations of the assertions.

Rush Limbaugh

Finally, a brief word about Rush Limbaugh. He is a modest man, as this opening to his show on the EIB ("Excellence in Broadcasting") Network reveals:

Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain, this is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair because I have talent on loan from . . . God. Rush Limbaugh. A man. A legend. A way of life.
Richard Corliss and Daniel S. Levy, "A Man. A Legend. A What!?," Time, September 23, 1991.

For some evaluations of the truthfulness of Limbaugh's assertions, see "Rush Limbaugh,"; "The Way Things Aren't; Rush Limbaugh Debates Reality," Extra! [FAIR], July/August 1994; John K. Wilson, The Most Dangerous Man in America; Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason (New York: St. Martins Press, 2011); Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, and Other Observations (New York: Dell, 1996).

Why Media Matters

Do these misrepresentations, this media-distributed misinformation, matter? According to, "Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War," [The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, The American Public on International Issues] October 2, 2003, they do. With regard to the Iraq War, Americans were misinformed regarding Saddam Hussein's personal involvement in 9/11, Al Qaeda's presence in Iraq, the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, and the extent to which world public opinion supported the U.S. intervention.

Moreover, "The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience." Id., p. 12.

The percentage differences were stark. Some 80% of those who watched Fox had one or more misperceptions regarding "Evidence of al-Qaeda Links, WMD Found, or World Public Opinion." There were also PBS/NPR viewers and listeners who held misperceptions. Fans of the networks should take note of how many there were. But for our purposes at the moment, at 23% they compared well with Fox's 80%.

The fact is television, and to a lesser degree radio, do change our base of information, our opinions, and our beliefs. That's why corporations engaged in consumer marketing spend $200 billion on advertising. That's why political candidates' support decreases after a barrage of "negative" commercials. It works.

It also works to create a democratic nation of citizens who must struggle to overcome "what we know that ain't so."

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Big Grove Walker said...

Reagan went to Davenport, where WOC is located, not Dubuque.

Nick said...

Big Grove Walker: Thanks for catching that; I've been to WOC, knew the owner; don't know how that slipped through.