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.