Delude Ourselves to Death by Al Sikes

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One of the more revealing occurrences at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was replying to complaints about news coverage. We received a lot of complaints and, as I recall, never more than during the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas.

The responses to virtually all the complaints were polite, but also a teaching moment. We stated that the First Amendment precluded the FCC’s opening up inquiries into the fairness of news coverage. The media was free to report. The audience was free to believe or disbelieve. This all happened when the only possible feedback was in the form of Letters to the Editor. How quaint.

At the time, I felt reasonably confident that the Fourth Estate would sort out the complaints and provide some balance in its coverage. If nothing else advertisers sometimes pushed back. I have my doubts today.

The Fourth Estate was first recognized by Irish Parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke, who said “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” Burke did not overstate its importance in a democracy.

The Fourth Estate, with a few exceptions, no longer enjoys a healthy business model. The classified advertising revenue stream was crucial for newspapers and significant audience share for broadcast networks is necessary if they are to maintain a strong journalistic staff. Newspapers have largely lost their classified advertising revenue base and TV news is spread among at least seven networks and has lost significant audience share to Internet based news, often Facebook and Google.

Facebook and Google claim that they are not news media, but simply distributors of what their users choose to post. Yet, Vox Media, a robust online news service, reports “the legitimate news stories outperformed the fake ones in the early months of the 2016 election campaign. But in the last three months, fake news sources saw their engagement surge.” Social media have become major sources of all news—real and fake.

Traditional media has weakened, social media has flourished. Most alarmingly, various online media have become the primary distributor of fake news. Paul Horner, a blogger and a source of fake news, is quoted in a Washington Post interview saying: “Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore…………” Horner claims to be a satirist and makes thousands of dollars monthly as the incurious and biased pass his stuff around.

Too many Americans allow their preferences to define their curiosity. Preferences should be contingent on asking questions, getting to the truth. I received by email forwards of fake news in the just concluded campaign. Most seemed to me implausible on their face. And when in doubt, there are web sites that specialize in sniffing out fraud, such as FactCheck.org.

It is also clear that with aggressive market expansion and platform dominance, plus significant cash flow, that Facebook and Google have responsibilities. In 2015 Facebook’s cash flow was $8.6 billion and Alphabet (Google’s owner) was $16.11 billion. They can afford to implement a credible news model since they, like it or not, have become news media.

It would also be encouraging to see TV networks live up to Fox’s clever branding: “fair, balanced and unafraid” while Fox News works on the “balanced” part. While it is hard to assess cause and effect, it seems certain that part of social media’s gain is because of the low opinion most have of legacy media.

My final thought: we live in complex and rapidly changing times. Curiosity, an essential trait for adapting, must be exercised daily to be a well-informed, prosperous citizen in a healthy Republic.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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Letters to Editor

  1. mark dellacqua says:

    After this last Presidential election it’s not surprising that the news media has been categorized as a profession with the likes
    of used car salesmen and lawyers. The process has been going on at least since 2008 with the Obama campaign and that train
    didn’t stop once for fuel or to ever ask Barak Obama one hardball question. President Obama surrendered his law license in 1993
    for some obvious infraction but nobody knows exactly why. In 8 years the question [ along with many more regarding Obama’s
    past ] was never asked.

    In a world where the media was obsessed with every facet of Donald Trump’s life they never asked the President once why he surrendered his law license over to the Bar in 1993. This example and countless others regarding Hillary Clinton and the numerous scandals that have followed her during the 2016 election are strong evidence that points to the mainstream media’s agenda of providing public relations and propaganda for the Democratic party.

    The editorials and news analysis which could always be found on page A24 has moved to page A1 which was reserved for the news [ facts concerning current events ] .

    The problem with the media is that they are accountable to no one, there is no board or commission that oversees the media in
    their day to day business of reporting the news [ facts concerning current events ] . Let’s face it, they are self-governing, they take care of their own and they do it well, probably better than anyone. Saying all of that, I think the good news is that the mainstream media has gone to the well too many times during this past election so that your average undiscerning or indifferent American could see the desperation of the media in their attempt to put Hillary in to the White House. They even provided us polls that guaranteed that Hillary couldn’t lose. Unfortunately, if your a snowflake, Hillary did lose and so did the media, which can be a good thing if it causes them to revaluate and change their agenda from propaganda machines and simply just report the news [ facts concerning current events ].

    Joe Friday was always right, “just the facts mam.” Time will tell.

    Mark DellAcqua
    Millersville, Maryland

    • Contrary to rumors circulated on the internet, Michelle and Barack Obama did not surrender their law licenses because of misconduct or ethics charges. According to FactCheck:

      “… the claim that the Obamas “surrendered” their licenses to avoid ethics charges has no basis in fact. Neither of the Obamas has any public record of discipline or pending proceedings against them, according to the online public registration records of the ARDC. We also confirmed that with Grogan, who said that the Obamas were “never the subject of any public disciplinary proceedings.”

      The Obamas haven’t said exactly what prompted them to change the status of their licenses. But Grogan said that it was fairly common for lawyers who didn’t intend to continue practicing law to go on inactive status. It was actually one of the reasons, he said, that the rule was changed so that lawyers wanting to switch to inactive status no longer had to petition the Illinois Supreme Court to do so. In 2011, more than 12 percent of the state’s 87,943 registered attorneys were on inactive status (see Chart 2), according to the ARDC’s annual report for that year.

      In addition, prior to June 5, 2012, the Obamas would have been required to pay an annual fee of $289 (now $342), and take classes to satisfy the state’s Minimum Continuing Legal Education requirement, in order to keep their licenses active. Lawyers on retirement status, however, don’t have to pay an annual fee or take classes. And lawyers on inactive status also don’t have to take classes, but they do have to pay an annual fee of $105.

      Perhaps one reason for these false claims is that the online registration record used to list Michelle Obama as being “on court ordered inactive status.” But that wasn’t because of any wrongdoing. As previously mentioned, before 1999, an Illinois Supreme Court rule required active lawyers who wanted to change their registration status to do so by petitioning the court.”

      Mr. DellAcua’s letter shows what Mr. Sikes describes, the “various social media” circulate fake news which is then passed along by others and people believe it.

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